Culture Shock

Article excerpt

Culture Shock For Liz Wallace, the assignment sounded like an opportunity that could make her career. The promotion to vice-president of her hotel chain's Mexican division would give her valuable experience and exposure. The only drawback was that she would have to start next month--it wasn't much time to prepare.

Liz wished she remembered more from her two semesters of college Spanish, 20 years earlier. But her boss assured her that it wouldn't matter; English was the corporate language. Besides, the whole world speaks it.

Her husband, George, was supportive. Liz had agreed eight years earlier to move here to Chicago, when he was offered an opportunity too good to pass up. Now he would do the same for her. He just wished he had more time to make some professional contacts in the new city.

Liz's company sent her to a three-day seminar on Working in Foreign Cultures, and reimbursed her for the three-week crash course in Spanish for Business that she took on her own time. The company rented a house for the family, and provided information on English-language schools for Liz and George's 14-year-old daughter.

Six weeks later, the family was in Guadalajara. Six months later, they were back in Chicago.

What went wrong? Liz's qualifications for the job were impeccable. She knew the hotel business inside and out. She had the experience and skills for top management. In fact, she had performed well in the new job. Like many failed expatriate managers, Liz's problems had more to do with her adaptation to the unfamiliar culture than with her professional expertise.

Knowing the ropes

Functional expertise is the most important criterion in selecting and preparing employees for international work. At least, that's the opinion of managers and professionals involved in international work, according to a recent survey. That is also the approach most U.S. companies take, says the same survey. But that approach underemphasizes the impact of an unfamiliar culture on the organization, the job, and the individual.

It has become increasingly important for companies to prepare employees to function in international markets. In 1980, more than 200 Fortune 500 companies generated at least 20 percent of their sales abroad. Exports increased from 4.8 percent of the gross national product in 1960 to 9.6 percent in 1981.

Competition has escalated. In many industries, the performance of a few expatriate managers can make or break an organization. Having the right people in the right places at the right times could be the key to a company's success in the international arena.

In 1987, the United States had a trade deficit of $166 billion, larger than that of any other nation, including Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina.

Ironically, as the United States' economic performance on the global level appears to be declining, some organizations feel less pressure to prepare employees for international work. Perhaps because the number of expatriates has declined over the past few decades, there has been a lack of information and research regarding cross-cultural training.

But international trade is increasing. Although many employees will not physically move to another country, they will have to work with others internationally via travel and electronic communication.

People draw on a combination of personal characteristics and functional skills in order to adjust to their jobs. That is particularly true for managers and professionals, who are most likely to work internationally. They learn how to "fit into" the organization through communication with superiors, peers, and subordinates, who show them "the ropes" they need to do their jobs well.

Imagine that you are in a foreign country. You do not have adequate language skills to learn "the ropes," the information and insights from co-workers about how the organization really works and how people really think. …