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How to Work With People Overseas

So you’re working in a new country and you’ve got a whole crew of new coworkers. There’s a host of anxious questions going through your mind. What should you bring to the work barbeque? Is it ok to still dress like Spiderman on Fridays? Will anyone like my Dad jokes? Answers: Deviled eggs (devil them yourself), Probably, and No. Now that those pressing questions are out of the way, here are some other things to keep in mind.

Nothing’s Really That Different

You’re in a big crazy foreign land and everyone’s an enigma you need to figure out, right? Well, not quite. Basic social skills are universal: smile, look people in the eye, and maintain an energetic and positive attitude. These three things will win you friends across all cultures. And it’s pretty likely that you’ll find some people with similar interests as well. Don’t fret too much about the Otherness of your new coworkers.

But do be careful about making broad generalizations. Whenever something doesn’t go the way you want it, it’s easy to just blame it on this new and exotic culture. For instance, the owner of the teaching company I worked at would complain that ‘Thai people have bad phone etiquette’ because the Thai teachers would take out their phones whenever he was making presentations. It couldn’t have been because he was a terrible public speaker, no, it was just those pesky Thais. Even if you put on a mask of tolerance (“You just need to understand that Thai people don’t see that as a problem and be tolerant of it”), in reality you’re just creating unhealthy boundaries between you and ‘those people’. Unsurprisingly, the owner’s attitude had clearly trickled down and the company had several inequities built into its structure, creating tension between the Thai staff and the Western employees.

Learn the Language

But the main difference with your new coworkers will likely be the language. Make an earnest attempt to learn as much of it as you can. Practice and practice some more. It’s embarrassing at first, and you’ll feel awkward tripping over words, but get by that and you’ll get better really fast. Learning the language will build trust in your new home, as well as an inner belief that you’re truly assimilating rather than just docking for a little bit. Your coworkers will appreciate your effort and they won’t think that you’re just someone screaming the exceptionalism of your own culture.

Take it from me: I blew off consciously learning Thai for a long while, preferring to try and pick it up in the street. I never really connected with any of the Thai staff at my school, beyond “Hellos” and “Goodbyes”, and part of that failure was because I refused to bridge the language gap.

Be Conscious of Your Sense of Humor

In general, different people have different levels of tolerance for humor, whether it be deadpan, dark, eccentric, or sarcastic. The workplace exacerbates this tendency, since, for some reason, humor is often seen as unprofessional and distracting. If you think your remarks are hilarious, do your best to professionally figure out who agrees with you or who will at least tolerate and understand it. Nothing’s worse than making a dark joke that ends up spreading rumors about your necrophilia. Likewise, it’s really not OK for you to mock any of your colleagues just to get a laugh, particularly when they’re not around. Even if you preface these remarks with “He’s a great guy and all”, that ‘but’ you’re about to utter will damage people’s trust in you and mark you out as the office gossip.

Do Your Part to Create a Positive Atmosphere

This step is actually extremely hard to do. But it’s worth trying for. A negative atmosphere in the office is going to infect you, stress you out, and more than likely follow you into your personal life. Best thing to do then? Really try and make yourself smile and make positive comments. This sort of positivity extends to all your interactions with everyone, from the janitors to the boss, and it applies all the time. If you put on a nice face and still gossip about others, you need to realize that people are going to figure that out and the atmosphere will suffer as a result.

I had a very interesting recent experience where I walked into the office every morning acknowledging no one, never saying Good Morning or trying to build any camaraderie with any other colleague. I just wanted to do my job and go, friendship be damned. This was a profoundly negative attitude and it was a little bit infectious I believe. Even though I rarely spoke, my demeanor could still bring energy levels down and slowly eat away at any sense of cohesiveness. Having experienced life as an energy vampire, I can pretty firmly say it’s not something to try.

But do note that you just need to do your part. Don’t shoulder the entire burden for the air in the office. If you’re cheery and everyone’s still complaining all the time, don’t feel like you have to improve everyone’s spirits. That’ll just stress you out.

Overall though, working with people abroad is just like any other social experience. Be kind, genuine, positive and forthcoming and you’ll be served in good stead. Complaining, cynicism, and general sullen grumpiness will bring your spirits down and it might make other people feel worse too.

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