Negotiating a new culture in a foreign land can be the biggest challenge for expats who have just arrived in their new home. Cultural clashes do not only mean a difference in religion, food, dress, and language but even the little things can make an expat feel completely out of their depth. If you are fortunate to speak the language, it is still necessary to understand foreign customs better than the average tourist. The most important thing is to try not to offend any locals whilst navigating this cultural minefield.
As an expat in a new country, communicating with locals can be tricky if you don’t speak the language. It can be tempting to turn to what you presume are international hand gestures to get your point across. However, the most innocent of gestures can cause offence once you travel across a border, which some expats discover the hard way. Here are a few examples of what to avoid….
The ‘OK’ sign used in some countries using your hand actually means many different things around the world. In Brazil, Germany, Russia and other places, it is an obscene gesture used to depict something very different! In Japan, the same symbol represents ‘money’, and in France it simply means ‘zero’. Beware that it is not ok to use the ‘OK’ sign in some places!
The 'thumbs-up’ gesture is commonly used in many cultures to signify that all is well. However, when used in Greece, the Middle East or Australia it is a very rude gesture. The ‘thumbs-up’ gesture can also be problematic when it comes to counting on your fingers. In Germany and Hungary, holding your thumb up is used to represent the number 1, but in Japan it means the number 5!
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When expats make the big move from home, they often find that the new culture of food and drink is different to what they are used to. Being invited for dinner at a new colleague’s house can be tricky unless you do your research into the correct etiquette. You need to know if it is necessary to take your shoes off when you enter the house and whether you should buy your host a gift. How should you greet your host- with a handshake, bow, one or two kisses? Then it comes to eating the meal. In Japanese and Moroccan cultures, people tend to sit on cushions to eat but in the US and Europe, meals are usually eaten at a table. The way locals eat can be baffling to an expat. They might use a knife and fork, chopsticks or use their hands. Even then, this is subject to local nuances since Bosnian Muslims use their left hand for eating whereas in Saudi Arabia the left hand is dirty and therefore the right is used. It is important to understand the culture of eating your meal. Should you leave some on food on your plate or finish it all? In Thailand if you leave your plate clean it is perceived that you are still hungry, so guests in Thailand should leave some food on their plate but eat all of their rice, as rice is considered a sacred essence.
The important meals of the day can also vary internationally. In the UK, Hong Kong and American cities, dinners tend to be the biggest meal of the day and friends use the opportunity to socialise over dinner in the evening. Yet, in many countries in South America, if you stepped out late at night to buy some food you would find that many restaurants are closed for dinner. This is because the big meal is at lunchtime, where on a long break from lunch or school, locals enjoy a three course meal with their families.
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Some expats might hope to make new friends over a drink or two in a bar in their new home. However, a local bar can be difficult to find in some expat hotspots where alcohol is prohibited. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, alcohol is only allowed to be consumed in top hotels. Even where alcohol is permitted, there is sometimes a completely different culture of drinking since a bar culture might not exist if locals tend to consume alcohol at home. Participating in the local drinking culture can be a great way to make friends though. In Ireland you might go to enjoy a pint in a pub or in Russia you can take part in ‘zakuvskis’, by making many toasts with vodka throughout a meal. In Japan, Nomikai is a drinking practice enjoyed in business to aid team-bonding.
When an expat moves to a new country, getting around can cause challenges in the first few months. Navigating a new place, potentially with a completely different system can result in a few expats ending up a bit lost along the way. The language barrier can make asking for directions challenging. A kind local might offer to take you to your destination, so you have to decide whether to trust them and hope that they understood you correctly.
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Using public transport can be completely different to what an expat is accustomed to. Firstly, the form of transport might be unlike what is used at home - from trams in Hong Kong, subways in the US to minibuses and communal taxis in Peru. Then, the transport etiquette can perplex expats. How do you hail the taxi or bus? Do you pay for your ticket before, after or during? Can you get off where you like or are there particular stops? It can take weeks to figure out the procedures for using the underground in London (standing on the right on the escalators, letting people off before you get on the tube etc.).
All of these factors can make it difficult for expats to get along in their daily life in a new country. It takes time to learn about the new culture and therefore make local friends. However, the variety and diversity makes settling into a new country all the more exciting.