A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away . . .
I taught high school science.
Teaching You How To Prepare For The Expat Life
Yesterday a student, Raquel, from my first or second year of teaching contacted me asking for advice about preparing to live as an expat She is moving with her son to Japan. Raquel, by the way, wins mom of the year, as this is her son’s dream to move to Japan. She’s making the move to support him.
Given my teacherly background, I’m going to give Raquel and you a lesson on how to prepare to be an expat.
But don’t expect anything practical from this blog. This is not about what to pack or the best words to learn in a new language. It is about the key cultural differences which are the core of the expat experience.
Do expect to understand why a particular culture is the way it is. Know that understanding why will make it much easier to function in a foreign country, adapt, and enjoy living there.
This blog rapidly got out of hand so I’ve split it into three sections:
- Part I discusses
- The three stages of expat life
- The fallacy of comparing cultures
- The great divide in how cultures communicate
- The great divide in the perception of time
- Part II covers three of the six aspects of life that create culture.
- Part III covers the remaining three of the six aspects of life that create culture.
The 3 Stages Of Expat Life
Preparing to live as an expat is much like preparing for marriage. Expats and newlyweds go through stages starting with the honeymoon and ending either in love or divorce. So it will be with your new country.
The three stages of Expat life:
- The Honeymoon
- Love or divorce
The Honeymoon Stage
One reason expats become expats is that they want to experience something new, something different. When you are living in a foreign culture everything is different.
In the Honeymoon stage, the differences are what make the move fun. It’s the reason you move. Trying new foods, learning to communicate, deciphering poorly spoken English and well-spoken English with a thick accent, figuring out the money, how to get a taxi, where to buy food, how to get a haircut, the list is endless.
I love the Honeymoon stage. Everyone loves the Honeymoon stage. It’s why we travel.
The Irritation Stage
But, as all married couples and formerly married couples know, the honeymoon ends. One day you are desperately searching for a taco or potato chips that are not seafood flavored. You’ve stopped learning the language. You are irritated that the local shopkeeper does not speak perfect English. All the differences you loved during the honeymoon stage are now irritating and driving you mad.
The Love Or Divorce Stage
How you make it through the Irritation stage determines your future. For some it’s too much, they cannot adjust and divorce the new country. Others begin to accept all those things that were irritating them. Their mental state is changing and aligning with the new culture. It’s very much like a marriage. This group makes a home in the new country and many never leave.
Sadly, I’ve seen too many expats that should have left the country but did not. I know a few couples who should have left each other too. They are burned out and bitter. Thankfully the burnouts are few. However, they hate everything about the country pointing out every little thing that drives them crazy.
Not every culture is for everyone. If you are not feeling the love and enjoying the culture it’s time to move on and find a culture you do love.
Different Is Just Different
A mistake many novice expats make is comparing the new culture to their home culture. It’s natural to compare. We all do it. I’m not saying it is wrong but if you can experience the new culture through the lens of “new and different” rather than as a comparison your transition will be easier.
It is particularly important to always keep in mind:
- Different cultures are not good or bad. They are different.
- Different cultures are not better or worse. They are different.
- Different cultures are not right or wrong. They are different.
- Do not judge different cultures. Accept that they are different.
Two Ways To Communicate
Ignoring the actual language barrier, which is a hell of a barrier, there are two very different ways cultures communicate. Even if all the words are right and the meaning is correct in a foreign language you can still mess up the conversation and be misunderstood.
This insidious language trap is the difference between High- and Low-Context cultures. All cultures are a mix of High-Context and Low-Context elements.
In Low-Context communication:
- Words are the most important part of communicating
- What is said is what is being communicated
- Rules are written, well-defined, and explicit
- A great deal of talking is necessary because this is the way information is communicated
In High-Context cultures:
- Body language, non-verbal communication, tone, and situation are the most important part of communicating
- What is spoken is not always what is being communicated
- Rules are understood by those from the culture. Those outside the culture may not know the rules
- Fewer words are needed because much of the information is communicated by the context.
Here’s an example of how it works:
When I was teaching at Bangkok University I wore a pair of red Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The dean of the International Studies Department commented, “Your shoes are nice, my son in high school has a pair like them.” I thought this was quite nice of her to say. But what she really meant was something else – “Those shoes make you look like an unprofessional high school kid so don’t wear them to work.” Which I thought was not nice of her to say. I loved those shoes.
In High-Context cultures, the spoken words are not necessarily the meaning. In the example above, the fact that the conversation was between the dean and a professor taking place in the department office, and no mention of my attire had previously engendered a comment made the meaning ‘clear’ – clear at least to the dean if not to me.
- When someone from a Low-Context cultural encounters High-Context speech he or she can be easily confused or unsure of the meaning.
- When someone from a High-Context culture encounters Low-Context speech he or she may find it abrupt, shocking, or rude.
High-Context and Low-Context communication is a very important cultural issue and I will write more about it in a later blog.
Two Methods To Perceive Time
To really confuse the cultural situation I want you to know that time is not the same in every culture. No, this is not a summary of Relativity and yes, the world has agreed on a standard way to measure time.
10:00 AM is understood the same around the world. But don’t expect a meeting scheduled for 10:00 AM to be at 10:00 AM and in some cultures not within several hours of 10:00 AM.
This insidious time trap is the difference between Monochronic and Polychronic cultures.
In Monochronic cultures:
- Time is linear
- One task is completed at a time then the next task is started
- People are punctual
- Time regulates life
- Tasks are more important than relationships
In Polychronic cultures
- Time is fluid
- People work on many tasks before any given task is completed
- It is acceptable to be late
- Time isn’t used to regulate life and things are less organized
- Relationships are more important than tasks
Life In A”Timeless” Polychronic Culture
Life in Polychronic cultures is not centered around time or tasks.
Life is more like wading in a waist-deep pool. Tasks are worked on as they float by or you wade toward them. The water moves the tasks around so if you are wading toward one task and your movement pushes it away while drawing in another task, no worries, just work on that task until it floats off and a new task floats by.
People in Polychronic cultures will not complete tasks in order to keep a social engagement.
Life In The Time-Dependent Monochronic Culture
Life in Monochronic cultures is organized by time and tasks.
- Time has a starting point, for example, the morning.
- Time is organized and sectioned, and tasks are connected with time.
- The day starts with a list of tasks.
- One thing is worked on at a time.
- Each item is checked off when completed.
- Satisfaction comes from completing tasks.
- Dissatisfaction occurs when tasks are not completed.
- Feelings of frustration occur if tasks are partially completed.
- Tasks occur in a specific order.
- Respond to email first. File reports second.
- There is an allotted time for items to be completed.
- Forty minutes for email. Ten minutes to file reports.
If a coworker interrupts while checking email then the day is ‘behind schedule’ and has to be ‘caught up’ or rescheduled.
At some point time ‘ends’. The day is ‘over’ and one can relax. If the tasks are completed, the day has been productive and one feels satisfied.
People in a Monochronic culture will cancel a social engagement to complete tasks.
You can imagine there is much more stress in Monochronic life. In Monochronic cultures even free time and relaxation have to be scheduled.
A Lot To Digest
These cultural aspects are just the tip of the iceberg. In Part II I’ll discuss 6 more cultural differences.
It is amazing that different cultures understand each other, genuinely communicate, and even enjoy each other’s company.
The key to success is to be flexible and patient while understanding there will be a lot of misunderstanding.
In the many cultures I’ve traveled and lived in, and all of the people in all of these cultures I’ve met, I’ve come to a conclusion:
We are all just people who enjoy a smile, a helping hand, a bit of empathy, and an invitation to join in a coffee, tea, or yak milk even if we cannot understand a word spoken nor fathom what is taking place.