Making the Most of it Maxims: Living & Working Abroad

Stacie Berdan at Hong Kong Baptist University

Women look to make the most of their experiences abroad, but it isn’t easy to operate in a new foreign environment right away. Making mistakes is natural, functioning at top speed can be overwhelming, and settling in to make things happen takes time. There won’t be enough hours in the day to resolve the numerous paradoxes or complex problems you’ll encounter while working abroad. But you’ll have to do so anyway. After you’re a few months into the groove – perhaps by the end of the first year – you’ll be wiser to the local ways. You’ll come to realize that many of the difficulties you encounter are due to who you are – not who your new compatriots are. But this new life is not what you’re used to, and it’s imperative to keep this point in mind. 

In fact, I recommend that you spend a small amount of time, right in the beginning, figuring out the best way for you to keep improving. Once you get into the groove, the pace runs at breakneck speed, so heres a list of practical tenets called Making the Most of It Maxims,” based on my research with hundreds of international women working around the world. It is critical that you understand them as you begin the journey and refer back to them often, even posting this list somewhere where you will read it every morning before you start your day. You can tape it to your bathroom mirror or turn it into a book mark to slip into the magazine, newspaper, or book you are currently reading. Becoming familiar with each maxim will make it easier for you to accept that you are who you are, while keeping front and center the importance of understanding your new environment as quickly and effectively as you can. You want to do more than just get by; you want to be as successful as you can be. 

“Making the Most of It” Maxims

Remember that you are the guest and therefore may need to modify your style.

Figure out what the cultural norms are in social and business environments.

Accept that paradoxes are part and parcel of the international adventure.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when you make mistakes.

Draw on your female management style.

Keep a positive attitude.

First, succeeding abroad usually depends on effectively adapting your behavior to coincide with local norms. Is there something in your style that you should tone down or amplify? What aspects of your character or traits will enable you to make every new impression a positive one? First impressions matter, and you will be creating lots of them. To make sure your substance shines through, every day ask yourself who you’ll be meeting, what they are like, and whether there is something you can and should do to enhance the interaction. 

Second, things are not always as they seem, look, or even sound. Be cautious, take note, and if something happens that seems strange or contradictory to you, ask one of your local guides. You must learn the written and unwritten rules, which may vary by industry, hierarchy, and culture. Pay attention, ask questions, and figure out how things are done in your new environment. Reading books on culture shock can advance your knowledge in this area. An ounce of preventive embarrassment could save you pounds of mortification.   

Third, cross-cultural life presents a bounty of situations in which you will find yourself facing apparently contradictory positions. These paradoxes can inhibit your ability to perform your job well if you cannot deal with them effectively. For example, you will probably arrive with some preconceived notions of your host culture. You will observe that all people do not share these “traits,” and you will overlook them for some people while still believing them for the greater population. These two “truths” will need to live side by side in your mind, and you will learn to accept them and many others. Accept that, at the very least, you will at times feel confused and, at the extreme, close to certifiable! The self-contradictory nature of the paradox can do this to you. But if you let it, it can also strengthen your mind. [Note: dealing with paradox is a critical skill those in leadership roles must have, so learning to master this is a great advantage.] 

Fourth, cultural mistakes and misunderstandings are inevitable. Learn from your blunders so you don’t make them again, and be just as understanding when others make mistakes, too. Don’t be afraid to publicly laugh at yourself; laughter can be a great equalizer and ice-breaker.

Fifth, the style and manner with which women seek solutions often gives us an advantage over our male counterparts in cross-cultural situations. For example, leverage your ability to build teams into a strong and powerful network across borders. Use your excellent communication skills to listen effectively and enable you to resolve tricky business situations in unfamiliar territory. Make the most of every single day. 

Finally, keep a positive attitude. Some days will be more difficult than others, and you will need additional fortification. Devise a system that keeps your tank full, as it were, whether it’s a daily workout routine, meditation in the morning, fresh flowers, the promise of regular travel, or contact with friends or family. Take care of yourself to ensure an upbeat and optimistic approach to the overall experience.

If you can follow these “Making the Most of it Maxims,” you will a great living-abroad experience that you can look back on in years to come.