Three things I learned from living abroad: Never assume, never judge, be prepared to laugh at yourself
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Three things I learned from living abroad

Moving abroad is one of the best development opportunities there is.

I’ve lived in the US and the UK, and both experiences have been enriching, challenging and above all a lot of fun. Living away from home has encouraged and sometimes brutally forced me to see things from different perspectives and so re-evaluate my frame of reference, my habits and my values. 

Here are the three most important things I have learnt over the years.
Never assume

Shortly after I arrived in London I was asked to present a proposal to a few senior managers. The response was somewhat lukewarm - which didn’t surprise me as the task at hand wasn’t particularly earth-shattering or exciting. But since there was no open disagreement I left the meeting convinced I had the green light to move ahead. It was only after I had set the wheels in motion and briefed our supplier that my boss stopped me. 

Coming from a culture where disagreements tend to be directly and openly expressed, I had interpreted the muted response from my British colleagues as agreement, oblivious to the fact that British silence often means the exact opposite.

Never judge

There are many different ways of getting things done. My way is only one of them. And judging others for having a different approach is pointless as it is just that: different.

Following my slightly painful experience, I spent far too much time trying to convince the people around me that the German straight down the line communication style was far better for business.  Surely, knowing where you stand at all times has to be good thing?

What I forgot was that for anyone familiar with the British way of working, the signals the management team had sent out were crystal clear. It was just me who wasn’t able to decode and understand them.

Be prepared to laugh at yourself

Navigating another culture and working in a second language is complicated, and putting your foot in it from time to time is unavoidable. 

From showing up for an important meeting on the wrong day (because "next Wednesday" often refers to the Wednesday after next, rather than next Wednesday) to attempting to use colloquial language or idioms without understanding their full meaning - the list of my more or less embarrassing mistakes is long. (BTW, never ask a German how long is a piece of string. They just might open up their desk drawer and take out a ruler.)

However, most of my culturally induced mishaps are actually pretty funny, so the ability to laugh at yourself definitely helps to get over the embarrassing moments.

The Culture Map

Whether you live abroad or work in a multicultural context, if you want to avoid the pitfalls that come with misunderstanding another culture, check out Erin Meyer’s culture map. It is made up of eight scales representing the management behaviours where cultural gaps are most common. By comparing the position of one nationality relative to another on each scale, you can decode how culture influences day-to-day collaboration.
Have you ever had Kabelsalat?

I’m guessing you have. It’s the German word used to describe a mess of very tangled up cables. And did you know that the Japanese have a word for gazing vacantly into the distance? Or that the Russians have one that describes the bittersweet feeling of falling out of love?  

Lost In Translation by Ella Frances Sanders is a delightful and beautifully illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world.

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