My first “expat job interview” took place when I was still fairly new to the country — it was terrifying, confusing AND a good learning experience. Even though I had been fortunate enough to get prepped by local friends, the whole thing ended up being a bit of a disaster. As great as it is to get the locals’ point of view (it really is) it turned out to be a bit much for me at the time: all the dos and don’ts made me very nervous. As I was heading out for the interview, I tried desperately to remember the most important points and instead fell completely blank. Walking into the office, I was less than confident and completely overwhelmed.

Actually, I was so afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, while at the same time remembering to ask the right questions, that I mostly mumbled and stuttered my way through the interview. Needless to say, I didn’t get asked back and I certainly didn’t get the job. It took many more interviews for me to start feeling at least a little bit comfortable and confident. It took a whole many more before I landed a job.

Part of what makes it so hard to interview in a foreign country is that pretty much everything is uncharted territory, starting with the fact that you are trying to show off your best self in a foreign language. Even if you are fluent, there are the more subtle nuances of tone, jargon, and familiarity — how formal should you be, is it ok to joke? How far can you take the idle chitchat, what kinds of questions are ok to ask? Should you talk about money, time off? On top of that, you have to figure out dress code, which for me, to this day, continues to be tricky. I feel like I am always just a little off, either too formal or a tad casual, and that adds to the discomfort of the situation.

Starting a new job in a foreign country can be equally disorienting. You have to navigate everything from the mundane, like lunchroom etiquette and water cooler gossip, to the more intricate such as hierarchies and company culture in regards to meetings and deadlines. And while you have a learning curve at any new job, it tends to be extra steep in a place where you have no cultural background.

For example, in Sweden where I grew up, it’s common to have two short “communal” coffee breaks (also known as “fika”) each day — once in the late morning and once in the afternoon. To someone not used to this tradition, these 15-minute breaks may seem like a waste of time, and they may opt to not join in. But the fika-breaks fill an important function: in addition to getting away from the desk for a few minutes, they offer the opportunity to network, as well as serve as informal meeting sessions where minor issues can be discussed and resolved. Last but not least, they build company spirit.

Learning to communicate with colleagues from different cultures might be the hardest task of all. Styles of communication vary widely, from straightforward to the more diplomatic, from detail-oriented to visionary. In my experience, how successful you are, often has more to do with how well you learn to navigate the culture and the communication style of your new environment, and less to do with your specific skills.

By: Felicia Shermis

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