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When I first landed on foreign soil, it soon became apparent that my specialized education and training at the hands of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations were not guarantees for success of the duties at hand. Rather, it was through my interaction with American expatriates, colloquially known as “expats” who were likewise voluntarily absent from home and country, that provided the most sage advice.
The sum and substance of their wise counsel boiled down to a few maxims they followed with superior results. “Act like you want to be here!” one old hand admonished. “Your colleagues will tell you ‘learn the language,’ and that’s great, but if the locals sense you’re merely willing to learn the language, it’s just as important as being able to speak glibly. Along with the language, make every attempt to learn and obey their customs, courtesies and mores while resisting the urge to foist yours upon them.”
“Don’t cloister yourself in an American enclave, or squander your time attempting to Americanize everyone you meet,” suggested another. “Get out on the local economy, wander the marketplace, ask questions, don’t try to pay for goods in American currency, be respectful of the locals. For many of these folks, the only impression they have of America is by observing the Americans in their midst.”
Finally, another suggested, “never stop learning, always keep an open mind, and have the courage to admit that you made a big mistake and leave before you set relations back to the last century!”
I will admit that growing up in multicultural Brooklyn helped alleviate the culture shock some people experience when they trek upon a new land. Because of a high comfort level with peoples of diverse races, colors and nationalities, it didn’t take me long to befriend the foreign nationals amongst whom I was living and working. In the process, I learned that, despite many cultural differences, my hosts talked and worried about the same things we did back in the states: their families, their goals, their futures, their frustrations at work, politics, etc. I suggest then, that those who were raised in more homogenous environments, may consider exposing themselves to as much multicultural training as possible.
Many Americans, upon arriving in countries that are dissimilar to our own, soon learn the hard way that their past behaviors do not translate well into the new culture. Their lack of exposure or training in multiculturalism and substitute behaviors often leads to frustration, confusion, anxiety, and an unsuccessful tour of duty. Prior training in multiculturalism may not ameliorate all of the culture shock, but it will soften the blow.
Omar Khan, a globally acknowledged leadership development innovator recently suggested, “Be open to being surprised, pack a sense of wonder and exploration with you, have the humility to ‘empty your cup’ as the Zen Buddhists would say. Be prepared for a different tempo of life, different intuitions on what is ‘normal’, the role of emotion and more.”
Despite the fact that America has distinctly regional cuisine, accents, etc., we usually conduct business in a fairly uniform manner. Not so in many foreign countries. Khan says, “More than one corporate giant has foundered in China for example, by not understanding the diverse demand and buying patterns that operate across regions.”The point being that the successful foreign service officers must often adjust if not leave behind those preconceived notions, practices, and skill sets that have served them so well in the past.
Expat Claudia Gonelle cautions Americans preparing to serve overseas not to “over romanticize” their upcoming experiences. “No country has a climate that is 100 percent perfect, no location is completely free of crime and no cuisine has the monopoly on good recipes.” Consequently, Gonelle advises Americans to “manage their expectations.”
Along with managing one’s expectations, it is also advisable to be cognizant of one’s level of “uncertainty avoidance,” a concept that Dickson, Den Hartog, and Mitchelson describe as the degree to which members in a society feel uncomfortable with ambiguous situations and as such, take steps to avoid them. Successful service overseas often requires one to confront rather than avoid uncertainty and discomfort and, at times, embrace it in order to overcome it.
This is not an exercise for the faint of heart as it requires one to sincerely look at their motivation for being where they are in the first place. Matthew Bolton observed that in job interviews for the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the world’s leading humanitarian agencies, applicants are often asked “What are you running away from?” He wisely observed, “one has to have pretty strong (and perhaps strange) motivations to want to leave one’s home, family, and friends and go live in war zones and situations of poverty.” This is a not so subtle reminder that not all postings are in Paris, Rome or Tokyo.
In summary, my experiences overseas were a crazy quilt of alternating senses of accomplishment, joy, fear, awe and wonder. If there is an old saw that applies in this situation, it’s “service overseas is what you make of it.” That, and a little help from an expat or two!
Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations with service overseas. He is a public sector attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the University of Tennessee, Department of Political Science. He is the 2013 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.