Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

The Biggest Challenge for International Professionals? It's Not English

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Fri, Jan 06, 2012 @ 11:05 AM

international professionals englishHave you ever said something like this to yourself: "If only I could become fluent in English, I could finally succeed in the US". A lot of international professionals believe that learning English is the key to their success in the United States. In my opinion, this is not the case.  There is another dimension that  influences your way of being, your way of communicating, your way of viewing the world and certainly influences your ability to be successful here. That dimension is culture. Why do so many people think that it's all about language and miss the importance of culture? It could be the fact that language is a more measurable and well understood variable. It is easy to measure your progress on the TOEFL exam or even count the number of new vocabulary words that you learn each week. However, in today's article, let's explore why cultural adjustment and business etiquette are two issues that may influence your success as much as or more than your English skills.



Cultural Adjustment | A Real and Significant Challenge


Forbes Insights recently released a study that asked 106 senior level executives in the US what the major challenges were for the international professionals who were working in their US companies.


49% responded that cultural adjustment was the most difficult factor for their international employees.



If you are an international professional, what can you do to make your adjustment to life in the US easier?  First, you can start by recognizing that it won't necessarily be easy. It will be quite challenging at times. But if you understand that before you leave for your international assignment, you can take some time to learn about your own cultural values, norms and ways of viewing the world and know what to expect during the cultural transition. Gain an awareness of culture and don't make the assumption that your new colleagues in the US will think, engage in conflict and make use of time in the same way that you do.


39% said that understanding business etiquette and customs was a major challenge for newcomers.



Business etiquette is another area that can be addressed in a cross cultural training program and can help international professionals to feel more comfortable in their new professional environment. For example, handing out a business card in Japan might be a very different procedure than handing one out in the US. What about shaking hands in the US or making eye contact during an interview? These are the most superficial aspects of culture, but they could mean the difference between a successful exchange and a failed agreement. If you are about to move to the US, why not ask your company if they plan to provide cross cultural training in addition to language training to help you understand the key communication differences between your home culture and your new culture.



Let's Bring Culture Into the Picture


We've taken a look at a few numbers and we can see that language learning is not the only issue that can and should be addressed. So let's start thinking beyond grammar and vocabulary and let's take a look at what's really going on when we cross cultures and build a life and career in a new place. If you are an international professional getting ready to relocate abroad, ask your employer for some cross cultural training to get you ready. If you are already here, be observant of your own communication style and cultural assumptions and those in the US. Talk about your experiences with other international professionals and with your American colleagues and friends. Awareness is the first step to intercultural competence and success!



Practical Tips for your Life in the U.S.




Forbes Insights (2011). Reducing the Impact of Language Barriers.

Topics: Intercultural Communication

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