Saturday, February 2, 2008

The long and winding road

I was feeling a bit frayed this week: we're dealing with some tricky issues of defining how to run the business at work, and had meetings off-site most days and into the evening most nights. It was unusual for the Dutch, who generally adopt a sensible nine-to-five and don't-call-me-at-home approach to business Long road 2 boundaries. (And I'll happily acknowledge the wisdom of Nick's post on adopting a less-frantic approach to life).

Language differences make it harder. I know that others are forced to use English to accommodate me, and I try to acknowledge the effort by staying alert and engaged throughout. On a long series of days, this may be a mistake: it's just not possible to continuously hit that level. I'm experimenting with other ideas; for example, encouraging them to use Dutch when I'm familiar with the topic or when the speaker is struggling. In return, they are slipping back and forth a bit when they need to be clear about something. And I'm finding that I'm picking up more from the Dutch than even a few months ago.

And there are cross-cultural differences. For example, we were discussing why a recent presentation by the GM had left the team feeling more worried about the direction of the business. We agreed on the generally gloomy tone of the talk: I commented that, perhaps, he should have concluded with an expression of confidence in the future and the employees. Several others immediately disagreed: the Dutch simply would have preferred to see a completed plan for solving the problem.

Bleagh: now I felt stupid for advocating pointless cheerleading over thoughtful substance. I generally weigh my remarks to try be sure that they are crisp, clear, and consistent with local norms. My GM suggests that it's best to just dive in and keep a good sense of humor, rather than wait too long or be too dispassionate. Still, it can be frustratingly hard to try to always get things right.

By mid-week, I was sinking into a weariness with the constant effort that it takes to simply try to fit in. I wished that I didn't have to reflect on everything so carefully, to continually have to bridge the language gap, or to be willing to take lessons away from every interaction.

People have told me that a lot of expatriate success depends on how you deal with feelings like this. It isn't the time to go out and vent, or to stay in and avoid engagement: one colleague advised that he took a weekend in Italy when the stress piled up on him. An attractive solution: Flights are cheap, and somewhere the sun is out. That thought, alone, improved my mood (especially since I enlisted our marketing director, who had great suggestions for everything). The week turned better; Portugal beckons in mid-February.


Nick said...

It must be very problematic working in a country where they speak a different language. Luckily I've never been in that situation. It must be tricky learning the different set of assumptions that people bring to a meeting or a conversation, and as you say embarrassing when you get it wrong. But at least you're making the effort to get it right, which a lot of people wouldn't bother to do.

Dave Hampton said...

You point to a good question of whether language or culture is more tricky to adjust to. I was reflecting back on situations where it was more either /or, and it's not clear-cut to me. I've got to make a drive today, so it will give me some uninterrupted time to sort my experiences through.

You are fluent in Dutch? How bib a difference did that make, before vs. after?

Nick said...

Fluent in Dutch? Not me, I've never learnt it, though I do know a lot of Italian. But I've never lived in Italy so I have no practical experience of the cultural differences. You politely pointed out that I was confusing language and culture - good point.