5 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid When Working Abroad for the First Time

by Mary Ellen Dingley

Working abroad is a great way to gain a career edge in this globalizing economy; of course, it’s also a great way to grow as a person (and to travel!). But after getting notification that you’re hired for your first international job, you can’t rest on your laurels - now you need to prepare for the transition into a new work culture. What is professional behavior in one office could be considered too casual in another (or perhaps worse, too formal and aloof!).

I once transitioned from a very formal office to a culture that was more casual, and was sat down by a colleague who told me I was coming across as “standoffish.” And she was right! She quickly taught me a few pointers of how to best conduct myself in this new environment, and it improved my ability to get things done.

Business meeting

Of course, alongside the cultural differences, there are the usual challenges of learning the ropes in a new organization. This can be true whether you’re taking an entry level corporate job, teaching abroad, or finding yourself in some other exciting line of work (cruise ships?!). Heed our work abroad advice: make it easier on yourself, and your new colleagues, and avoid these rookie mistakes!

1. Not researching

If you show up without knowing the basics of business etiquette or cultural norms, it’s going to make things awkward. We all make mistakes when we move abroad and your co-workers should understand that, but knowing basic things like how to greet people professionally, how timing and scheduling works, what titles to call colleagues, etc will make the transition much smoother. Don’t get caught off guard by someone else’s hand shake or bow, and be ready to know when to show up for meetings! Whether you are heading to work in Thailand or to the beaches of Brazil, read up on the culture, or better yet, get in touch with someone who lived there. Most working abroad programs have reviews from participants, and that’s a great place to start for some insider information.

And outside of cultural differences, there are things to consider like driving laws, taxes, when to pay rent, or being prepared for the price of living. If you are going with a program, much of that may be taken care of for you, but if not, keep in mind all of the “little things” that can be different. Doing your research will help lessen the discomfort of the move and shows that you respect your host country and your new colleagues. There might still be a few bad days those first few weeks, but you will be more prepared for them.

Having a coffee while working on a laptop

2. Making assumptions

If you aren’t careful in your research, you could absorb stereotypes about your new host country, and then find yourself sailing into your new job with preconceived notions and a lot of assumptions. This can lead to misunderstandings, bad judgement calls, and a mind closed to learning because you think you already know everything there is to know. Like the time in the Dominican Republic when I assumed I fully understood local classroom rules and embarrassed myself by not asking for extra training early on!

After researching on your own, make sure you arrive with an open mind. The research will be vital to create a base level understanding, but it cannot replace learning while on the ground. Ask questions of your local colleagues! Take them out to coffee and pick their brain. Or not coffee if they don’t drink coffee - tea? Ice cream? Whatever sort of treat! They will likely appreciate that you want to learn and that you recognize they have wisdom and knowledge to share.

3. Over-committing

When starting a new job you want to make a good impression, but you need to know your limits and only commit to projects you can succeed with. Roadblocks you don’t expect could pop up as you run into cultural or language differences you aren’t used to, so projects that might be easy in your home country could take longer in your new location. Can you get a spreadsheet done in 20 minutes back home? Cool, but in your new place you might need to look up spellings or be trained on the organization's style guidelines. Or maybe the internet connection won’t be strong enough to load your awesome data set quickly (or consistently). Your 20 minute spreadsheet could take a few hours (yikes, make sure to hit that “Save” button just in case!).

When you are busy settling into an entirely new country and culture, and trying not to get lost, you don’t want to also be swamped with too many commitments! That could send stress levels through the roof. So be careful not to bite off more than you can chew early on. Your boss and colleagues will understand that you are busy transitioning.

Working on her laptop

4. Make sure not to close yourself off

A new job, new country, and new culture can be overwhelming, and for many of us the tendency is to spend a lot of time alone, soaking it in. We might find ourselves exhausted because of all the newness or from culture shock. Maybe after a long day we just want to Skype our family or sit at home with a good book. This is understandable, and some days it’s exactly what we need, but make sure you are still being friendly with your co-workers. Especially in certain cultures, turning down invitations can be seen as rude. Make sure you are friendly and pleasant to your colleagues, even when you are feeling overwhelmed.

If you simply can’t make it out, explain to them that you are tired. Practice self-care and alone time, and don’t push yourself too hard, but balance that with making connections. It can be tough your first time working abroad to balance it all, but it will make the rest of your time there much more pleasant if you jump in ready to build good relationships!

5. Trying to do it your way

You were hired because you have the skills and knowledge your new workplace needs, and they want you to bring that to the table. But don’t try to come in and make changes or push your weight around during your first few weeks!! While you might see problems you can fix, realize that you probably aren’t seeing the big picture yet (not to mention you could just come across as arrogant!). So ask questions, gather information, and observe. Get a sense of what is happening in the background and why. Remain humble throughout - humility will take you far. See which colleagues are open to suggestions, and which might be more sensitive.

After you feel that you fully understand the inner workings, ask one of your more approachable colleagues or supervisor for time to chat and lay out your ideas. The beginning is the time to learn and listen, to get your thinking cap on, and soak in all the information.

Working

Now become their best hire!

It may seem scary to move abroad for work, but the advantages are many! Realize that there will be challenges, and the initial transition can be tough. Research as much as you can to lessen the shocks of transition. If you are going with a program, request to speak to someone who has made the transition before you. Cut yourself some slack those first few weeks - you’re going through a lot of change. But any challenges pale in the face of the great ways international work can help you grow. So, prepare yourself well for your first week and jump into your new adventure!