I was talking to a friend today whose first time of moving abroad was from Iran to Malaysia. He was describing one of his early experiences of moving, where he simply wanted to open a new bank account in the country.
Before he went to the bank, he had already heard from one of his friends that it is very important to be patient in the bank. According to his friend, business in banks generally goes slower than it does in Iran. Furthermore, he said that Malaysian employees are expecting patience from customers, and they react negatively towards pushing them to work faster (as always none of these statements mean that they are an accurate description of the culture).
So when my friend went to the bank, he personally felt that this description was true. What really troubled him, however, was that he didn’t receive any support in terms of activating the pin code of his credit card. When he asked for help, the people at the counter merely said that he should call this number and ask for help to the people on the phone.
Next thing, when he called the people at the counter, he found that he had a lot of problems understanding them, and that they were not very appreciative when it came to his communication problems. The result was that in the end he became quite angry about the customer service in Malaysia. And, as you can probably guess, becoming angry at the employees has exactly the opposite effect of what one tries to achieve – it makes them delay the work on purpose.
What’s amusing about this story is that six months later, one of his friends was exactly in the same situation like him. This time, however, he had already learned how to talk with people from Malaysia, how to have small talk with them, how to have a laugh with them and how to address little problems.
So when he picked up the phone for his friend, he was able to solve his problems right away and everything went smoothly.
This story is a very typical one for expatriates. We move to another culture where things are done in a completely different way compared to our own typical behaviour. What this does is that it makes us feel helpless. We don’t know how to act, how to get our message across, and this makes us angry. Both at ourselves and also at the local people.
If this happens to you, don’t worry. It is completely normal and it can happen to anyone. How you deal with this kind of situation is important.
Some people get stuck in a circle of negative thinking. They might have thoughts like: “these people treat me unfairly because I am a foreigner” or “these people are not respectful at all”. Unfortunately, having these thoughts on the long run has a very strong effect on their behaviour,
When you believe that other people are treating you unfairly or when you have other negative thoughts of some sort, then your behaviour also automatically adapts to these beliefs. You will approach conversations with local people with negative feelings and these negative feelings will come across to the people around you.
The result: a circle of negativity develops around you
Breaking this circle is not an easy task. Negative ways of thinking like this can become habitual, which often means that we are not consciously aware of them.
The first step towards resolving a circle of negative thinking is therefore to develop a sense of self-awareness. Try to stay mindful of your thoughts, and catch yourself whenever you find that you have a negative perception of the people from the different culture.
Say to yourself: “I acknowledge that I am having negative thoughts about a different culture”. Do not judge yourself for having these negative thoughts, and do not try to evaluate their validity either. Just acknowledge their existence for the time being.
Once you start seeing a pattern of the negative habits that dominate your thoughts, it is time to make an active decision about what you want to do with these thoughts. Where do they actually come from? Why do you think this way? Do your thoughts reflect reality? How can you find out more about the behaviour of the local people and why they are behaving this particular way? With what thoughts can you replace these negative thoughts?
Next time you catch yourself having these negative thoughts, you can then make the active decision to call upon the new thoughts and new beliefs which you have acquired about the behaviour of the local people.
For example, you could say to yourself something like this: “I acknowledge that I have the thought that the local people treat me unfairly because I am a foreigner. However, after I did my research I found out that in this new cultural environment people need long periods of time to build trust first. It’s not like in my own culture, where you start a relationship with the assumption that everybody is trustworthy. Instead, the locals believe that one has to earn the trust for himself”.
First, acknowledge the negative thought. Next, replace the negative thought with a new belief about the new culture which is based on research and a clear process of validation.
Lastly, I would like to ask you to share your experiences with us. Have you ever been stuck in a circle of negative thinking about a different cultural environment? Or, have you ever felt frustrated about yourself when you were feeling a sense of helplessness when you were overseas? How did you resolve these situations?