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How professionals can avoid British culture shock during an international assignment in the UK

Working abroad can lead to unexpected culture shock. In this article, Marina Ibrahim looks at ways professionals can reduce and avoid UK culture shock to make the most of their international assignment.

Written by Marina Ibrahim on 24 July 2020

Any international assignment presents great opportunities to see the world through a different lens, form amazing memories and life experiences as well as achieve career and personal growth.

If you are an experienced senior executive there are many opportunities for international career progression by taking up a position in the UK.

But working abroad means venturing out of your comfort zone which can be extremely challenging. International assignments are expensive for the employer and a high number - 40% of them fail for a variety of reasons including unconscious bias and underestimating culture shock and cultural differences.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock can be described as a clash between our own and another culture - feeling distanced from your familiar environment, social networks, norms and the inability to communicate. Even well-travelled professionals can experience culture shock with feelings of depression, fatigue, loss of self-confidence, anxiety, frustration and isolation.

It is a normal reaction but with time and cross-cultural training you will look back on your international experience as a very positive one that has enhanced your professional and personal life.

How to Avoid Assignment Failures Caused by Culture Shock

The difference between surviving and thriving is understanding cultural and intercultural relations. But how can you to integrate into a new culture and make a success of your assignment?

  1. Common Sense at Home is not Common Sense Abroad
    Your experience, skills and dedication may equip you for a new role but what got you to your current position will most likely not be the same skillset that enables you to become a successful international leader.

    You need awareness, curiosity and willingness to discover culturally unfamiliar values and motivators to help you navigate social levels and interactions.

  2. Avoid the Ignorance Trap - Intercultural Understanding does not come Naturally
    Many leaders are so focussed on delivery that they assume ‘my own culture is the only reference point that matters’ because this make them feel safe and in control.

    Without cross-cultural preparation this adaptation process can take anytime from 4 to 24 months. How you cope depends on your personality, experience, motivation and resilience to stress.

    Instinctively we are unconsciously biased. We prejudge situations and stereotype people based on our cultural upbringing and values. Overcoming unconscious bias requires empathy for people from other backgrounds, the ability to listen and strategies to adjust and flex your communication and behavioural style.

  3. Be Prepared - Do not Underestimate the Cultural Challenges
    Do your own research and talk to those that have lived and worked overseas. Your company will help you prepare for your international assignment and should invest in training and coaching to support you and your family throughout the international assignment lifecycle.

Cultural Differences in the UK

Culture is complex! It can be compared with an iceberg - the smaller, visible part is what you notice with your senses: the food, sounds, how people dress or speak - their way of life. And then there is the hidden part. You don’t know what you don’t know – you don’t understand the local politics and networks, who is really in charge or the nuances of the language or humour.

With English the predominate language in many areas of business or academia, expats moving to the UK from Europe or North America might think they will not experience excessive culture shock.

But let’s look at some of the visible differences and how they might impact on your understanding of British culture.

  • The UK comprises of four nations with devolved administrations, local laws and regulations including things like taxes, healthcare, house buying, education and university fees are very different in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to England,
  • People are also very proud of where they come from so don’t assume everyone is ‘English’.
  • The UK is very diverse, and you will find people from every continent here, and this is reflected in the shops, restaurants, communities, music and cultural events. With third or fourth generation immigrants, don’t assume that people from different backgrounds are not British.
  • You can drink from the age of 18 and alcohol is freely available in shops. The British like a drink (or two) and much of the social life is around social drinking and people are not afraid or embarrassed to get drunk in public.
  • When not drinking, you might find the British people reserved and unwilling to divulge personal information to relative strangers. It is considered impolite to ask personal questions.
  • The British sense of humour is often dry, sarcastic and heavy on irony and self-deprecation. However, people steer away from discussing or making jokes about religion and politics, even with friends. It is also unacceptable to make any sort of racial, homophobic or sexist remark
  • The British are very polite, they are happy to queue, talk quietly, hold doors open for each other and apologise for bumping into someone even if it is not their fault.
  • The weather is changeable, and everyone talks about it.
  • British men (in general) also talk a lot about sport, not just football but also golf, cricket, motor racing, rugby, darts and snooker.

How can you build Cultural Competence?

International relocations bring many risks and rewards and those with a global mindset are more likely to avoid the cultural pitfalls. Businesses that successfully leverage their employees’ cultural competency into diverse assignments, projects and operations will gain a competitive advantage.

Cultural competence is based on a growth mindset, a complex combination of skills, talents, experiences and attitudes. This can be enhanced with training and coaching to ensure that expats can:

  • Rapidly integrate, establish trust and build credibility within the new cultural environment
  • Have the confidence to tackle essential communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Maximise time, productivity and performance
  • Reduce frustration and stress
  • Avoid wasting time, energy and opportunities due to cultural misunderstandings
  • Develop global leadership skills

Why take the risk? Fully preparing and supporting global talent with cross cultural training and executive coaching could be the difference between success and failure.

In association with

Globility Coaching