Adapting to the culture on a relocation to the US

Relocating to the US can be a challenge to prepare for due to the differences in culture even between states. We take a look at one international assignee's perspective and offer advice for those relocating.

Image of an American flag
Relocating to the United States is like saying you are relocating to 50 countries. Gail Rabasca, Executive Vice President, Global Solutions at Chamness WorldWide and Dr Stephan M. Branch, Chief Executive Officer, World Trade Resource take a look at some of the nuances of American culture for international assignees.Regardless of the US destination, each city and town within each state reflects not only the broad national culture but also a unique local culture and, often, many subcultures that define the composite melting pot on which the American culture is based.

Knowing about local culture is key to a successful US move

The complexities of the great American landscape and the cultural diversity that is evident everywhere in this country can be challenge when preparing for one’s international assignment here, from both a professional and personal perspective.Cultural readiness and successful assimilation can be elusive in the US without the coaching and guidance necessary to understand the very specific destination. Standard cultural training programs for assignees coming to the US are not always effective because they focus on the broad stereotypes and generalizations of the US culture.They may not include the specific region, city and town culture the assignee is going to nor incorporate the corporate culture of the employer from the local perspective.The critical need for cultural readiness when relocating to the US is not a “nice to do”. The employer’s ROI and assignment success rate are positively or negatively impacted by the outcome.To maximize cultural readiness for successfully assimilation to any city or town in the US, there must be a deep-dive approach into the nuances of local culture. This generally will pave the way for a successful entry.
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First-hand account of a move from Dusseldorf to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas

Consider this recent, first-hand account of Alex Herrig, a German national HR leader for a Global 2000 company in the aerospace industry as an example of the need for cultural knowledge at the local level.Alex and his family were relocated from Dusseldorf to Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. He recently returned to Germany, after a five-year assignment, and sat down with us to share his experiences around the crosscultural challenges that profoundly impacted both his personal and work life. The following is his account.

Differences in friendship styles between the US and other countries can lead to frustration - knowledge can help an assignee avoid disappointment

“At first, the warm welcome of the DFW-based team made it easy to feel welcome and integrated. Travelling with my spouse and child, we were impressed by the friendliness of the people that we interacted with socially and professionally.“We enjoyed the new adventure and made many new “friends”. After a few months, the initial excitement started to lose some of its shine, as we felt that though we thought we had made many new “friends”, only rarely did we experience this friendship outside of the setting where we made these friends (i.e. school, work, children’s playdates).“The different perception of friendship is one of the key differences that we experienced in DFW and had to navigate very early. Understanding that friends in Germany are friends that one shares personal time with without having a specific reason differed from the DFW friendships that we developed.“Friendship in Germany seemed to be less driven by a specific business need or personal schedules. Time was found and taken to meet. This is difficult to understand and accept when coming from a seemingly so similar western background and without the right cultural awareness.“This became even more obvious during the repatriation phase back to Germany. Even though we had very solid relationships and spent holidays together with a family that became our friends early on during the assignment, we did not have any communication from any of them around our move back. As we moved out of sight, we also felt that we had moved out of mind.“When trying to understand the German concept of friendship, think about a coconut for comparison. The outer shell is hard to crack, but once you are inside, there are no barriers and friends are equal with family members (to a certain degree). The US concept of friendship may be likened to a peach.“Each slice cut from the outside towards the pit, resembling a different group of friends (work cluster, day care cluster, kid’s school cluster, sports cluster, gym cluster…). The clusters often don’t mix, and it is easy to become part of one. The pit/core is the family and can only be penetrated by becoming part of it (i.e. marriage).

Assignment preparation should be short sessions delivered over the course of the first six months of expat life

“I found this description to be very fitting and experienced the very same in five years of expatriate living in DFW. Our assignment preparation did include a one-day, instructor-led cultural training. But, having a one-day pre-departure session wasn’t right for us. It would have been more effective to have had shorter sessions delivered over the course of the first six months. That would have allowed us to work on real-life issues and challenges that we encountered in DFW after arriving and beginning our assimilation.“We could have used the time to work through our issues with a coach in the moment when we needed it rather than hearing general content that wasn’t customized to our needs or even aligned with our company or local culture."

Professional Environment

“Very early in the assignment, I was in the process of introducing myself and my area of responsibility to the functional leaders at our global HQ in DFW and learned quickly that my communication style would have to be adapted culturally.“I had prepared slides of my professional background as well as my area of responsibility. To set expectations, I stated carefully what I would be able to help with and clearly listed those areas where I would not be available to help. With a better understanding of the local culture, this could have been a successful approach. It should have been communicated in a softer more acceptable way that was more in alignment with the local community.“Not being aware of this, I emphasized what I wouldn’t do which led to business leaders silently accepting the presentation and a dialog not developing. Shortly after, I started to receive feedback through my supervisor that I had left the leaders upset and confused. The intent of establishing a relationship for collaboration backfired due to an insensitive choice of communication that wasn’t culturally aligned, leaving the impression of being aggressive and demanding instead of being well prepared and focused.“In another situation, my supervisor held her weekly team meeting. During my weekly report, a question arose that was connected to my area of responsibility but not necessarily a topic that I owned at that time. My supervisor stated that "we should create an analysis and then develop an action plan." I agreed with her.“One week later, she wanted an update on the progress I had made on this topic. Until this time, I wasn’t aware that by saying "we should..." she had actually assigned this to me. The local differences in communication styles weren’t clear to me, and she hadn’t been direct as a German would be. I had assumed that if someone wanted me to action something, it would be addressed directly with me.“This difference of communication also extended into leadership differences where I was accustomed to very challenging discussions in the room with superiors. German direct communication style can lead to heated discussions during a meeting with the intent to clarify the situation and come to a resolution. In DFW meetings, I did tend to naturally voice my opinion where I disagreed. This led to situations where my supervisor and I had discussions that my local colleagues found disturbing.“In one instance, I was asked if I still had my job after a closed-door discussion with my supervisor that was overheard. Once again, the concept of direct communication, combined with differences in local meeting culture had created a situation that was not common in a more culturally aligned environment.“I think this is a good example of how the business is hugely impacted by so many facets of everyone’s own culture. I felt safe to challenge the opinion of my supervisor – fact based and less focused on the emotions in the room (good or bad). I later understood that my DFW colleagues feared this type of intense discussion, as it could have had direct implications for their employment. Until that moment, I never even considered that.“These are only a few examples that I personally experienced where differences in communication styles and culture at the local level had a direct impact on the business outcome. Looking back, there were many other aspects of DFW culture that would have been helpful to understand while on assignment.” When relocating employees to the US, the destination’s culture, at its most local level, is as intrinsic to a successful assimilation process as it is to understand the overarching national culture.Preparing assignees with cultural and subcultural coaching saves the assignee from defining it in situ, often leading to a lack of local integration, both professionally and personally.Gail Rabasca Executive Vice President, Global Solutions Chamness WorldWide Dr. Stephan M. Branch, MBA, PhD Chief Executive Officer World Trade Resource, Inc.Find out how Chamness Worldwide can help with your relocation needs at www.chamnessrelo.comFor related news and features, visit our USA section.Subscribe to Relocate Extra, our monthly newsletter, to get all of the international assignments and global mobility news.Relocate’s new Global Mobility Toolkit provides free information, practical advice and support for HR, global mobility managers and global teams operating overseas.Global Mobility Toolkit download factsheets resource centreAccess hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online DirectoryClick to get to the Relocate Global Online Directory

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