Cultural Translations: HR and Life Lessons After 6 Months in the Mideast

Oct 7, 2013

The logic you have based your decisions on over your lifetime is not usable here.”

Everyone sitting around the office basically agreed. But then again, we were all expatriates. The conversation was centered on the processes and procedures that we had built our career on.

We were used to making snap decision and were also proud of the fact that we were decisive. We were used to digging for root cause and trying to fix things so that the problem would not happen again. We were used to analyzing process and determine where the bottlenecks were, and then fix them.

A great deal of the time, however, that does not translate across cultures.

Cultural translation does not always translate

Every country has their quirks and work habits. Saudi Arabia, where I currently work, has a large expat population with a lot of  Americans and quite a few Russians. We all packed up and moved here with certain expectations. Some larger companies have put together an immersion program to help their expats assimilate, however smaller companies do not always have that luxury.

With the age of technology (and specifically blogs) you can get a pretty good idea of any country and what it would be like to live there. The expat blogging community has achieved a level of importance that would have not been foreseen years ago.

What is your travel competency?

One of the criteria that I find important for anyone considering a move to another country is their travel experiences. If the only vacation you and your family have ever gone is to DisneyWorld, you will probably not be a good candidate for an expat assignment. We have interviewed people making the assumption that if they had a passport, they were good to go. But, that is not an assumption that you can make.

Are your vacations abroad all by guided tour, or do you prefer to go it alone and see what the day will bring? That latter person is an excellent candidate for a foreign assignment, everything else being equal.

We have hired people who came over on family status, which means that they brought their entire family with them. That kind of person is an excellent target for an extended stay. They have their family unit intact and won’t be coming home every night to an empty villa.

All of these factors have to be put into the equation when you are trying to find expat talent. Once they get moved, however, they will have to adapt to the business practices and etiquette of their host country.

Now comes the tough part

Assimilating into a culture has its challenges. Doing business in another country requires a new skill set for each country.

One of the situations that took me a while to get used to is the privacy of a conversation. Sometimes I am sitting in my office having a discussion with someone, and in walks another employee who walks right up to my desk and stands there.

This took a while for me to get used to because I thought it was rude to barrel in on a conversation and just stand and wait until it was over. In this culture I’m currently in though, people feel very comfortable in “invading” your space.

If I need a report or other documentation from someone, small talk is a prerequisite before asking for it.

Globalization and intercultural competencies

The need for intercultural competence has never been greater, with globalization being the buzzword today. Failure can be determined by cultural illiteracy and lack of people skills.

I had one of my older, grizzled managers — who was suspect about my arrival — tell me through an interpreter that of all the years he has worked for this company, I was the best HR person yet. He loved the way I interacted with people who often were total strangers. What he was unaware of is that I studied, observed, and focused on the dynamics of the situation starting months before my arrival.

Cultural differences will not be disappearing anytime soon even though globalization is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. When cultures merge with each other, some of it may fit like a glove, but other aspects may stick out like a sore thumb.

Experiences are bound by culture

All of our experiences are culture-bound. We are all shaped by our surroundings and experiences. What we may consider strange or out of the ordinary would not feel that way if we have been born into a culture. That means that what is considered common sense by one culture may not be common or make any sense whatsoever in another.

We have all experienced what we consider strange occurrences or behavior, and they were only strange to us because, within our environment, we did not do it that way.

Acquiring knowledge of foreign cultural systems is an essential component towards assimilating into a different culture. Having this awareness will smooth the transition. However, national culture is manifested through organizational and generational culture as well. Business is done based on the mores and customs of the country you are in, and not the other way around.

This is why it is so important to observe the dynamics going on around you. This type of observation, for the most part, would not be needed within your own culture because you were raised in it. Within your own cocoon you can basically run on auto-pilot.

Communication has to take place

Excellent communication is the ability to transmit a message from the sender to a receiver and have that message understood in the receiver’s mind.

Now try to replicate that theory through two people: one speaking English and the other speaking Arabic. I know a few words of Arabic, and they know a few words of English. After a few months however, we can both speak and understand each other.

I am taking Arabic lessons and he (and others) are taking English lessons. By the way, there is an app for that you can find on iTunes. It allows me to speak in English and it will convert to any language.

This is important in that it shows that I am trying. I have noticed during my worldly travels that we sometime never try and learn the language of the host country. We assume everyone speaks English, which is not the case.

Stating our message “loudly and talking slowly ” is in no way a guarantee that our intent will come across. As an expat, I am always cognizant that I’m a guest in another culture, and I am not wanting or expecting the culture to adjust to me.

So after six months in Saudi Arabia,  I have come to adjust to business, pleasure and just the ebb and flow of living in another country.

The driving madness, though, will take a lot longer to get straight.