I’ve worked many jobs across three continents and in each office, I was always surprised by the cultural differences working abroad versus those at home in the United States. I work mostly as an English teacher in both schools and private academies, and I’ve worked in corporate and small business offices in the United States. My personal experience has been in Spain, where I currently live, Thailand, and the US, but these main points of cultural differences will help you what to be aware of in any country in the world.
Here are some you can try to prepare yourself for before you go abroad.
1. Dress Code
In many of the American offices I worked in, I wore pencil skirts and collared shirts, heels and a blazer. In Thailand, where it was never cooler than 70º Fahrenheit (21ºC) and the culture, in general, is much more conservative, I wore breezy dresses that fell below the knee and always covered my shoulders. Here in Spain, my outfits are so casual that when I want to wear one of my skirts or dresses, my co-workers often ask why I’m all dressed up.
Consider where you’re going and who you’re working for and pack clothes accordingly. Remember you can always buy clothes there if what you currently have doesn’t go well. You can also contact your coordinator and just ask what’s considered appropriate to wear.
At my schools in Spain and in Thailand, the bell indicated both the start and the end of class. It threw me for a loop. How would you ever know when anyone was late? Apparently, time tables were a guestimate.
While I eventually adjusted (giving the kids a 5 to 10-minute cushion for arriving to class), this was a huge cultural difference for me to adjust to because, in America, punctuality is king. If you clock in at 9:05 AM instead of 9:00 sharp, you’re late. If you take more than an hour’s lunch, you’re late. And tardiness has consequences over there.
Always arrive on time or earlier. This way, you always preserve your professionalism. If no one’s there yet, enjoy the silence. Take note of when others generally arrive and leave, and eventually, you’ll find you’ll adjust.
The 2 PM lunch time in Spain was difficult for me to adjust to, so I started bringing larger snacks (sandwiches, lots of fruit and vegetables) for the noon break time (When I tried to bring a full lunch once, my co-workers thought it was odd and then I felt odd and then the whole thing was just embarrassing).
In my experience, in countries like Spain and Thailand, holidays and extra activities (see below) take precedence over scheduled classes or meetings. They are often a surprise (people don’t communicate right away that you’ll have one), and sometimes what you’d planned to do (for class or at work) will simply have to be postponed. This year, there were 28 individual official holidays in my region of Spain (each city varies due to city, provincial, regional and national holidays).
In the US, holidays are both less frequent and not as important. Americans, depending on the company and how long you’ve been working for them, typically only receive 10 days vacation their first year, very little by European standards. Other holidays, like the Fourth of July, for example, you’ll have an extra day if the holiday falls on the weekend (this year, the fourth was a Tuesday and most businesses took the third of July off, too).
Ask ahead of time if there is a calendar of holidays and events so you can plan weekend trips around long weekends or longer trips over a week. If you get a surprise day, oh well, enjoy it! Explore the town you’re in by trying a new restaurant or peeking around a corner you’ve never been around before.
4. Extra Activities
Like holidays, extra activities like school performances, field trips, special guest visitors, award ceremonies usually replace some classes in countries like Thailand and Spain. For au pairs, extra activities might look like a trip with the family, a family party, or an outing as a group, parents included.
In the US, team-building activities like going to lunch or happy hour together (if you can drink), company picnics, or even company outings to play golf or an Escape Room are considered important to human resource teams to encourage a cohesive company culture.
In general, it’s a good idea to participate in the extra activities that are presented to you. Sometimes, the school or your bosses might not directly ask you to join, but in my experience, it’s appreciated when you volunteer to.
With that said, honestly consider if you have the bandwidth to participate or attend anything outside of your regularly agreed to working hours. If, for example, the family you’re au-pairing for invites you on their vacation, but your parents are coming to visit the same week, it’s okay to say no IF the vacation wasn’t in your initial agreement. If it was, obviously you would have planned accordingly and told your parents to come another time.
Ah, politeness. This is a HUGE variable across cultures because it’s awfully subjective. Greetings, especially.
In the mornings in Thailand, I gave a quick wai, a bow with my hands together, to all the teachers older than me that I saw as I walked into the teachers’ office. It ensured I was respectful of everyone. In Spain, if my co-workers and I hadn’t seen each other for a couple weeks (after Christmas holidays, for example), we gave each other two kisses on each cheek (for guys, normally giving the two kisses to women only is fine). Every other day, it’s a simple “Buenos dias.”
In the US, saying good morning is a nice gesture. Occasionally, a light conversation about TV or what you did over the weekend with your co-workers over pouring coffee is good to make personal connections within the office.
Study your environment closely (yes, like animals). How do people typically both greet each other and leave for the day? Are hugs appropriate? Is bowing or shaking hands necessary?
In the end, I think most people will understand that you are new to the country. They will understand that you have to learn some of their ways of doing things. My best advice would be to go with the flow while staying mindful of the things you haven’t learned yet.
I’ve seen many of my fellow, type-A American expats get very frustrated by canceled classes. Some, more rebellious types, didn’t like bowing to elders. But remember you are in their country. It’s their turf. You are the guest. So, as much as you can, it’s a good idea to err on the side of being respectful and kind.