Dealing with cultural differences

Experiencing cultural and social differences can be challenging but rewarding.

A globe with a magnifying glass highlighting Europe When working in a new country you need to be aware of local customs, traditions, behaviours, values, religions and laws. Each country and society will have different guidelines. Cultural sensitivity is considered a very useful personal and business skill and working in another country shows you can adapt to any situation and environment.

Research your new country

Researching the area before you go is essential. Ignorance is not an excuse and you can find yourself breaking the law unknowingly, so being aware of traditions is paramount. You may also want to investigate whether there is an IET Local Network in the country as a way to continue your membership and gain support and guidance.

You may need to dress more modestly than you would usually to avoid insulting the locals. Islamic countries especially appreciate females covering their hair and parts of their body. Dressing in a conservative way will reflect a cultural sensitivity, which may earn you respect.

Differences in business

Business cultural differences can vary significantly from country to country, and even within specific regions. Spain particularly has differences in its traditions and customs in different areas. Siestas are still incorporated into many businesses in Spain, traditionally between 2pm and 5pm. This allows Spaniards to work later into the evening.

Hierarchy is often more important in other countries, as well as the way you address colleagues. If you already have an office in the area, the staff may be able to provide you with information of what is appropriate. Alternatively, you may wish to research this prior to your visit.

Communication styles

Verbal communication style and body language can also differ a great deal from country to country. For example, in the UK it is the norm to make prolonged eye contact during conversation, both in business and every day life. If you do this in China or Mexico it is likely to cause offence. In Japan, writing on a business card in front of the person who gave it to you is considered rude. Ensuring you're aware of these differences when you go to a new country to work can help you avoid miscommunication and embarrassment.

Gestures and etiquette

Gestures and everyday etiquette can be specific to countries and can be specific to men or women. In some areas, such as the Middle East, it would be inappropriate for a woman to initiate a handshake. In China, at social functions and business meetings, offering cigarettes is considered a goodwill gesture and a conversation starter. Refusal can be considered bad manners, even if you are a non-smoker, as it may cause offence. Hierarchy is also important in many countries. In many Asian countries, lower graded colleagues may only converse with senior management through an intermediary.

Communication style can differ a great deal. In Europe, business conversations tend to get straight to the point, but in parts of Asia it is considered polite to make conversation about unrelated matters to get to know each other and then move on to other matters.

In other countries, the communication style can seem lacking in emotion or over emotive, but it is just their way of conversing, so be prepared for people having different ways of expressing themselves.

CV styles

CV style is of great importance when applying for roles abroad. Different countries usually have a particular format that they prefer CVs to be in, so ideally your CV would be tailored for that country’s preferences.

Résumé vs. CV

In the USA, a CV is usually only written by an academic or a researcher. A résumé is used to apply for jobs and is slightly different to a UK CV. A résumé will not generally list your date of birth or gender as American employers are legally obliged not to discriminate against applicants based on these factors. For this reason, you should not attach a photograph to your résumé. American-style résumé tend to be only one or two pages long, and tend to be accompanied by a cover letter.

In countries such as France, a handwritten cover letter is a necessity. In this country, graphology is highly respected and these letters are often analysed. In Germany, CVs are often accompanied by copies of references and certificates. A photograph should be attached.

Asian-style CVs require personal information and a photograph. Cover letters are not generally used. In the United Arab Emirates you could not even submit your CV unless you had been recommended via a placement agency, or a personal recommendation. Also, your CV and your photograph will even be used to determine your pay scale.

Placement agencies can be useful when submitting a CV for a job abroad as they can advise you on the correct style, and give you further advice should you get an interview. Also, if you are unsure of the correct style of CV for a particular country, you could use the services of a professional CV writer.