Crossed borders, crossed wires

For those working internationally, it’s an obvious assumption that work life will be a different beast to at home. But the reality of working cross culturally can catch even the best-prepared employee off guard. Alicia Young should know. Over sixteen years she worked and lived in seven countries, spanning cultures as diverse as Russia, Chile and Indonesia.

In Russia, where Young held a news anchor role at an international news station, cultural adaptation was constant. Once, at work she was taken aside and told that knowing the names of all the cleaners was unnecessary.

‘‘They had had seventy years of Soviet rule [where] your contacts were your currency. They determined how far you got in life, so they were confused, thinking, ‘What is this woman doing? The cleaners can’t help you,’ ’’ she says.

At least, Young didn’t make a mistake with the flowers. In Russia, the boss’s birthday is a big deal, and presents are expected. For women, flowers are a good choice, most of the time.

‘‘You must give an odd number. Even numbers are only for funerals,’’ Young says.

Today, Young runs a consultancy service called The Expat Expert, putting her years of accumulated knowledge to practical use for the benefit of others.

It’s the kind of intel that Lauren Lee from Style Story would be able to relate to. The Australian founder of an online beauty store stocking only Korean beauty products has been based in Seoul for the past two years.

Lee’s life in Korea came about after a university exchange to Seoul opened her eyes to the fact that there are 13,000 companies in South Korea making beauty products. Every time she brought them home as gifts, friends wanted more. Eventually, she built a business around it.

Although the concept of saving face is one Lee’s had to navigate (get it wrong and staff and suppliers are reluctant to work with you), she believes learning the language has been key to her success in South Korea.

‘‘I think it’s one of the countries where you can’t penetrate the culture and be here long term without it,’’ Lee says.

In part, that’s due to the fact the language and culture are intertwined.

‘‘Hierarchy and deference is built into the language. [You have to learn] who you need to be deferential to and who you can drop the formalities with,’’ she says.

Young agrees, noting that in most cultures, regardless of the subtleties of the language, manners and respect will go a long way. So will sticking to full names for longer than we are used to in Australia’s informal workplaces. Still, she notes that in China, Japan and some other Asian-based cultures, things can change once you are in the inner circle.

‘‘You might be surprised to find that they drop pleases and thank yous.

Some clients find it rude [but it means] you are accepted,’’ Young says.

While Young is the first to admit every culture and company is different, she says there are some basics – like learning at least the basic greetings – that will help in almost anywhere.

‘‘You might stumble, but people appreciate the intent.’’

Before leaving for foreign soil, she recommends making use of any orientations or debriefings offered by your company; getting your compensation and conditions outlined clearly; and remaining acutely aware that in many situations, your financial package can be something to be discreet about.

‘‘Be very sensitive as an expat hire that you are likely to earn multiple times more than the local hires ... I wouldn’t be saying things like, 'I took a flight to London for the weekend’; that’s a recipe for resentment.," Young says.

For information on financial planning and advice for Australian expats, please visit the Whole Wealth Expatriate Page.

For more information on financial planning for professionals, please visit the Whole Wealth Professional Page.

This article was published and provided by the Sydney Morning Herald.


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