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Interculturalité et expatriation

Interculturalism: a key factor for expat’s integration

- Published on 21 Sep 2021 by G.Houeix

During their mission abroad, expats always face the intercultural challenge. Some people can be closer or not to this topic, however we all know that interculturalism is key for a successful integration of the employee and family in their new location. 
Whether or not the employee goes far from his origin country, the acquisition of intercultural skills is crucial to reduce the cultural shock once on site and the risk to fail.

The intercultural challenge is real and very clear: company need to enable their mobile workforce to interact with people from different cultures and background while respecting diversity and not feeling vulnerable. 
The expat new daily life will be establish on different values, local customs and ways of thinking.  
This intercultural change is very complex and not only involves human relations but also a behavioural adjustment to unknown and uncontrolled situations.

Intercultural challenges

To be interculturally competent means being able to communicate and interact with different cultures marked by a diversity of practices, customs or beliefs, respecting each of these differences.
However, it is not always easy to communicate and interact effectively in a new and different environment.

Intercultural relations can be full of ambiguities and people who are unaware of culturally accepted styles of communication and problem solving may feel unable to prevent embarrassing or frustrating incidents with host nationals whilst living and working abroad. 
Everyday situation can generate misunderstanding and tension. Here are some real examples:

  • Sense of humour: humour and business don’t always get along. Brits will sometimes use it to reduce tension during a negotiation, whereas Germans will not.
  • Interrupting the speaker: French people will easily take the floor in a meeting as well as interrupt the speaker if they do not agree with the idea shared. Interrupting the speaker is not necessarily considered rude in this case, however for other cultures, for example in Asia, this practice is generally disapproved. Asians will let their interlocutors speak first without interrupting.
  • The value of silence: in Japan as well as in the UK, silence is part of body language and plays a very important role in exchanges’ interpretation. In the US, on the other hand, verbal language is crucial to do business, while body language isn’t that important.
  • Behavioural codes: in the US, a polycultural country by nature, beliefs and positions must be respected and considered while interacting with people. In Italy, a polychronic culture, people can work on several tasks simultaneously, so it will not be strange or rude to have people taking calls during meetings.
  • Hierarchical relations vs. taking initiatives: in Denmark, decisions are taken as a team and employees are expected to take the initiative. In cultures with a strong hierarchy, such as Japan, the seniority will defines who takes decision.

Developing intercultural skills is not just a matter of understanding the local language, even if it still is essential. We know there are countries where the same languages is spoken but often cultural habits and practices are very different (for example France, Switzerland and Belgium).
Developing intercultural skills is not only important from a professional perspective, but it’s fundamental to facilitate local adjustment and integration exposure. This total immersion in the new culture is so deep that could , in the long run, completely change the expat own values.

After my experience in Singapore,  my work approach has totally changed 

Intercultural training, the right balance between theory and practice

Companies are offering more often intercultural training to their employees, putting greater attention than ever on improving the employee experience to guarantee success. This support has become an essential part of pre-departure training for expatriates. 
This is the case of Crédit Suisse, which has created, as part of its Business School, a tailored training course for its future expatriates. 
Even though it’s very much oriented towards management and cross-cultural issues, the training purpose is to go beyond the simple professional framework and to involve the whole family in order to educate them on the habits and customs of the destination country.

These trainings though, are not always perceived as effective by the employee. This is what has come to light from the testimonies of an exploratory research conducted among a sample of French-speaking expatriates on assignment in India, China or Europe.

Yes, I received training summarising all the cultural differences between China and France. It’s been useful but not very effective. I’ve learnt more and still learning  from the mistakes that I make in everyday life

The criterion that seems to stand out for a successful intercultural integration, is above all previous experience in the same host country*.
If this past experience was successful for the employee, this will positively affects  his/her future adaptation and his/her ability to develop a strong intercultural intelligence.

Beyond training, developing an intercultural intelligence requires a more personal journey of self-knowledge and knowledge of others, an openminded approach to other professional practices and other influences.  Sometimes differences are very little and they simply require doing things slightly different, being aware of them in advance and having assimilated them before leaving the home country. Adopting simple recommendations is key for the employee to have a positive attitude from the moment of arrival in the host country.

Interculturalism: a balance between common sense and good practice

When two people from different cultures meet, the first few seconds are crucial! You might as well be prepared and have already assimilated some good practices by appealing to your common sense!

  • First of all, putting aside your prejudices
    We must recognised that we all have biases and prejudices. These can be dangerous and it is important to put them aside in order to develop good relationships from the start. Prejudices and stereotypes will unconsciously reveal themselves through our body language.
  • Connecting with people
    You should be looking and listening carefully the person in front of you.
  • Stay humble
    Ask yourself if something you said or did may have offend the other person. It is sometimes very difficult to predict how a behaviour can be taken. If in doubt, it is better to acknowledge your mistake.
  • Avoid ambiguity
    Clarify, clarify, reformulate! Do not always take a “yes” for its common value. The value of a yes is not the same everywhere. Do not hesitate to ask questions to make sure that your contact has understood correctly.

The difficulty I encountered with my Chinese colleagues was not knowing when the other person had understood or not. They said yes to everything…

  • Respecting the norm, the practices without forgetting the human aspect
    You must take into account the social and political rules. The country’s history, education and religion influence the country’s value system. However, this doesn’t mean you should censor yourself, instead you want to privilege the relationship beyond cultural conventions in the first place.  

Agile Intercultural training

Although intercultural experience brings a lot of positive aspects to the expatriate, in particular through the development of soft skills that are now highly appreciated by companies (adaptability, emotional intelligence, benevolence, tolerance), this multicultural context requires good preparation. 

Companies nowadays have understood this and more systematically integrating intercultural training into their initial programme. It is very important to match the content and method of training with the type of experience the expatriate have, in order for it to be fully effective.

At MRS we are well aware of these issues. We have therefore selected cross-cultural training and digital learning providers capable of training employees and their families in less  and more effective time than traditional training.

For more information, please contact us.


*Jocelyne Robert, Adeline Goemans, Alicia Delagrange, Marie Moreau. Difficulties encountered by expatriates and search for solutions: for a contingent approach to expatriation and the relationship with subsidiaries. 2013. ffhal-00934720f

*According to Selmer’s study (2002)

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