Traveling Abroad for Work: 10 Things No One Tells You

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Traveling abroad for work can be a bit intimidating; forcing you to step outside your normal comfort zone. In the first six months of 2013, I made six trips to Adecco Group headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland; passing through five different airports on my journey there. By the end of June, I had spent nine weeks total overseas.

Before my first trip, I tried to prepare by reviewing tips about Swiss culture and international business travel. Looking back, I realize that while I found a few useful articles, most of the content I came across seemed recycled and cliché.

Are you traveling abroad soon for work? Below are 10 things I really learned during my time spent overseas.

1. Stereotypes aren’t always true, especially in a global economy.

Websites like EDiplomat have a wealth of information about “typical” cultural traits and etiquette in each country. However, it’s difficult to accurately describe an entire population with broad generalizations. (For example, see the generalizations applied to Americans here). Especially in a large organization, its common for people to leave their home country to take on a new role; meaning that the people you meet may have entirely different cultural expectations. For example, Adecco Group has offices in over sixty countries. While working at the headquarters I met only a handful of native Swiss people, but many people are from countries like Spain, the UK, Germany, France or Sweden (among others).

2. You don’t have to speak in every meeting and challenging authority may be perceived negatively.
Often, in the US, people feel obligated to speak up in meetings to avoid the perception that they’re inattentive or lack knowledge about the topic of discussion. While some cultures share this norm, in other countries listening attentively without chiming in is appreciated. In some meetings, less senior colleagues may be expected to listen but not speak at all. Interrupting may be perceived as especially rude.  (Need to understand why you interrupt and how to stop? Take a look at my previous post here). Similarly, depending on where you’re traveling to, position and rank may carry more weight.

Traditionally, in countries with a higher power index, leaders opinions are accepted not challenged. In these cases, when a superior explains their view on a topic or announces a decision, it may be best not to comment unless you have something positive to say. Observe how your colleagues from the country you’re in handle situations like this to determine the accepted norm.

3. Greetings, including the correct cheek-kissing method, vary by country.
As business becomes more international, shaking hands is increasingly common, but the quintessential kiss-on-the-cheek is not extinct. However, some people will prefer to shake hands until they get to know you better and the number of kisses and side to kiss first varies between countries (and sometimes even regions within a country – see the “Cultural Conventions” on air kissing).

Even if kissing is common in a culture, people who have done business in the States may opt to shake hands with Americans to avoid making us feel awkward as there are still people who may not feel comfortable with physical contact. For these reasons, it’s best to let your counterpart initiate the greeting.

4. Staying in touch and getting around may require some (okay, many) tools.
A few of the most valuable items during my time spent traveling abroad included:

  • A few different power adapters: to charge all of my devices regardless of country. The outlets in the UK pictured here were different from those in Switzerland.  (Keep in mind that power adapters do not convert voltage – for certain hair tools and electronics you’ll need a power converter.)
  • International texting apps (like Viber or Whatsapp): to stay in contact with friends and family at home.
  • The SBB app: to decipher complicated train and bus schedules, like the one pictured at left, and to purchase tickets from my smart phone.
  • A local SIM card for my cell phone: to avoid outrageous data charges and make it less expensive for colleagues based in Switzerland to call me.
  • Skype number: to make unlimited calls to the US for just $2.99/month.

5. The things you miss will not be the things you expect.
I expected to miss my friends and family while traveling abroad but I had no idea how much I would miss McGriddles, Diet Coke (difficult to find and displaced by Coke Light), the freedom of driving my own car, or getting water for free in restaurants, just to name a few. A bit homesick, I was pleased to discover this Starbucks in downtown Zurich!

6. Small talk rules vary depending on where you go.
While you may not want to have a conversation with every person you meet in America, you probably wouldn’t consider it odd if someone you didn’t know spoke to you about the weather while waiting in line or at a bus stop. It’s common to go out on weekends with the expectation of meeting new people.

In Switzerland, I noticed quickly that small talk just doesn’t happen between strangers. People in some countries may perceive attempts at small talk as invasive or believe that spoken word is valuable and speak up only when they have something meaningful to contribute. Even at a bar it may be considered strange for a man to approach a woman he does not know; in some countries, people prefer to meet through friends or colleagues.

In contrast, in other countries such as Spain or Italy, people tend to make small talk before getting down to business to help form a relationship. Failing to do so could be perceived as rude.

When doing business in a company with various cultures; let the person you’re talking with take the lead in a conversation. Follow their lead, whether they get straight down to business or ask you about a recent holiday (a.k.a. vacation).

7. Short layovers, long customs lines and inclement weather can be your enemy.
Airport logistics can be tricky. After two frantic runs through Frankfurt airport – one of the top ten busiest airports in the world – I realized I would prefer to take my time, even if that meant waiting a little while.

Similarly, in my personal experience, I found customs lines went much faster if I had a connection in the United States, rather than abroad. Even better, frequent travelers who qualify for the US CBP Global Entry program can skip the customs line by using a self-service kiosk — a huge time saver!


8. Don’t be surprised if your luggage is lost, but do contact the airline through social media.
My luggage was “lost” twice; once on the way to London and once when I got home. Until then, I had no idea that bags just “didn’t make it onto the plane”. The good news? It should eventually arrive and you can track it online.

9. There may be a lot more options for titles in other countries and you may be addressed by your last name.
When you first meet someone, it’s best to use a formal title (also known as an honorific), rather than their first name. When dealing with a superior, don’t assume that just because they call you by your first name that you can do the same, unless invited to do so.

For example, in Japan honorifics can often be confusing. The most common honorific is “san” (equivalent to “Mr.” or “Mrs.”). A superior may also be addressed only as “Kachou” (boss) or by their specific title, or if much higher in rank, with the honorific “sama” (less frequently used). If you’re not sure which honorific to use; err on the formal side – but don’t automatically follow your colleague’s example. They may have a closer relationship with the person and be using a more intimate honorific.

The honorific is applied after the last name, so Mr. Nakamura would be addressed as “Nakamura-san”. And last, you don’t need to use honorifics when referring to yourself; like when signing your own name. (Confused yet? See this article for useful examples of how to properly use these titeles).

10. Corporate headquarters is often outside of the city but it’s so important to make time to explore.
Adecco headquarters is located outside of downtown Zurich in a smaller city called Glattbrugg, mostly devoted to hotels and office buildings. Still, with some planning, I was able to explore! I saw wild deer at Lake Zurich, the “bahnhofplatz” (train station) and “high street” shopping in downtown Zurich, beautiful castles in Rapperswil and Uetliberg, the highest point in Zurich (pictured clockwise from top left, below). Be sure to ask colleagues what they’d recommend and then make sure to do it! Even if you’re alone, you’ll avoid having regrets later.

Check out our previous blog post for more tips about business etiquette while working abroad or, for a candidate’s perspective, Taylor’s blog posts (winner of Adecco’s Way to Work international experience contest).

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