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Cultural Awareness when Living Abroad

Cultural awareness when living abroad is often a key factor in the success of any relocation, particularly if the culture you are moving to is very different to your own. Cultural awareness training is often included in many employee relocation programmes to ensure a smooth transition in the destination country and to help the employee feel at ease in their new surroundings. Cultural awareness training is often provided for the whole family also as it can greatly reduce the risk of culture shock for new arrivals.

Understanding Cultural Awareness when Living Abroad

Apart from possible language differences, living in a culture which is very different to your own can present its own challenges. Social cues, body language, unspoken and often unwritten rules of behaviour in a culture often take time to learn and understand. Taking a cultural awareness course specific to your destination country or researching it yourself can often help in this situation. This is particularly important in environments when knowing the right customs and norms can greatly help new business relationships.

Having cultural awareness when living abroad is often described as peeling an onion, there are many layers to a country’s culture and it is important to understand all the layers including what you are generally likely to see and hear when you arrive, the local laws and regulations and the core of a society including its key values. In some cases, it will be necessary to understand a country’s culture as a whole and also the sub-culture of a specific city where there may be subtle but important differences.

Cross-Cultural Communication

One theory of cultural awareness when living abroad is that there are three stages to good cross-cultural communication:

Awareness: understanding the concept of culture

Knowledge: information about a specific country’s culture in comparison to your native culture or current culture

Skill:  learning the skill of applying cultural knowledge to the appropriate circumstances and daily interactions.

Even cultures that you perceive to be similar to your own, may surprise you when you are actually living there. The general pace of life, relationships with time or dress codes may be different to what you imagined or experienced when visiting previously on holiday for example.

Cultural Dimensions

It is also worth reading about cultural dimensions such as those identified by the author Geert Hofstede such as power distance, individualism, long term orientation, indulgence and masculinity in a society. Cultures with a high rating of collectivism, such as Japan for example, mean people are generally concerned with the ‘we’ and tend to focus on group goals and efforts. Countries such as the USA for example, tend to have a focus on individualism and the attainment of individual goals. This can be important to understand when managing a team and understanding various motivations within a group.

Useful Links

It can be hard to find time to study cultural awareness when living abroad so it is a great idea to do as much research as possible before you depart.  Some useful websites to look at include the following:

Mind Tools: Cross Cultural Communication

Geert Hofstede

Internations: Cross-Cultural Communication

When You Arrive

When you arrive, it’s important also to immerse yourself in your new culture and learn as much as you can. What are the typical foods of the country? How do people spend their free time? What kind of music is popular? Why not try cooking a local dish yourself or going to a concert or dance show typical of the region. Meeting as many people from the new culture will of course also greatly help and increase your cultural competence and cultural awareness when living abroad.

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