You just received an excellent job offer abroad, or maybe you decide to open a company abroad and have the full plan read. Either way, you concluded that you checked what to consider when moving out. You think that the chosen destination offers a good professional perspective. Now it is time to pack your things and decide the date of the flight, right?
If you are planning to the new place, there are other things to consider. We will call this group the non-professional elements. The reason to consider them is that it is hard to have a successful career or enterprise if you are feeling miserable, living in a place you dislike, or in an environment that goes against your values.
In my first book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity, I dedicated one entire chapter to exemplify why understanding your own life project is important to succeed as an expatriate. This applies if you are a big-corporation employee, a foreign student, a person moving with your spouse, or an entrepreneur.
A phenomenon frequently affecting expatriates is what I call environmental dissonance. It happens when your values conflict with the place surrounding you. In my before-mentioned book (Moving Out) I recounted the story of Breno, a colleague I met while living in the Middle East. Even having a good job and working in his field of specialization, he left months after arriving because the environmental dissonance became overwhelming to him.
Just imagine how more complicated is to suffer this dissonance while you hire and motivate a team, establish goals, write a business plan, pitch for seed capital, and so on. For this reason, becomes essential to assert that your target country, if also attractive to your business and career, also matches your life project and goals.
Just be aware that I am in no point advocating you should “follow your heart” or “listen to your feelings”. In fact, to follow your passion is poor advice. What I propose, instead, is to rationalize what your new country offers and how it matches your personal needs. For this, I recommend analyzing the following non-professional elements.
Probably the greatest modern researcher in comparative cultural aspects was Geert Hofstede. Starting in the 80s with his book Culture’s Consequences, he developed an extensive bibliography in the area, culminating with the institute that carries his name.
Present in 60 countries, the Hosfted Insights institute developed a model breaking down the cultural distance into 6 major areas. Below, each one of them, with the definitions from the Hofstede-Insights researchers:
· Power Distance – This dimension […] expresses the attitude of the culture towards inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power distribution is unequal.
· Individualism – The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It is whether people’s self-image translates to terms of “I”, or “We”. In Individualist societies people look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies, people belong to ‘in groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.
· Masculinity—A high score (Masculine) on this dimension shows competition, achievement, and success will drive the society, with success being defined by the winner / best in field—a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organizational life. A low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success, and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. The fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).
· Uncertainty Avoidance – It is how a society deals with the fact that we can never know the future: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? This ambiguity brings with it anxiety and different cultures have learned to deal with this anxiety in different ways. The score on Uncertainty Avoidance reflects the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and create institutions to avoid risk .
· Long Term Orientation – This dimension describes how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Normative societies. which score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honored traditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Societies scoring high here, on the other side, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future.
· Indulgence – The Hofstede-Insights define this dimension as the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised. Relatively weak control is called “Indulgence” and relatively firm control is analogous to “Restraint”. Cultures therefore are grouped as Indulgent or Restrained.
When I had my first contact with the research of Dr. Hofstede, my immediate action was to check how the countries I lived before (Brazil, Chile, Qatar, and Poland) scored in each ranking. The comparative results from each one – got from a tool available on his institute website – reflected with Swiss-precision the reality I witnessed living in each of them.
For example, according to the results, the Power Distance in Qatar is very high. This matches my observations of a place where the people take as natural the near immutable social differences. Similarly, the higher levels of indulgence and femininity (as per Hofstede’s definition of femininity) in Chile are noticeable in their capital. At the end, the results from Poland fused two of my biggest impressions from living in this country: it is a non-indulgent society, with a considerable level of risk-aversion.
The two characteristics mentioned above – frugality and risk-aversion – of the Polish people contrasted with my cultural baggage.
As a Brazilian, I grow up seeing people spend a fair share of their income in branded shoes, new cars (paid in installments distributed across years), and eating out. Even though nowadays Poland has a similar income to my native São Paulo, someone will rarely buy a new car, and a 10-year-old vehicle is still OK. Personal anecdote: my wife considers it absurd that someone would spend over 5 times his salary in a new automobile. In contrast, in Brazil it is not rare to see people buying cars with the price tag of their annual salary.
The Latin America vs Europe example
This difference, summarized in the Indulgence factor of Dr. Hofstede research, probably affects not only me but thousands of other expatriates that move between Latin America and Europe. Sean Lana, an expatriate living in Germany, lists how other factors of Hofstede research (Individualism) impact his daily life.
Germany is not a country you want to be if your only major goal in life is to own a Bugatti, Ferrari, Tesla and shows off! Collectivism means the country is trying to redistribute wealth equally, at least in order to mitigate poverty and support low-income earners. Expect high taxes and you will enjoy a high quality of life with infrastructures. So if you are very individualistic, consider the next flight to another country. German organisation system is based on the ideology of Max Weber (bureaucracy), Americans practice Scientific management (Taylorism). If you are not used to obeying rigorous rules, regulations, huge laws, paper works, transparency, slow process, appointments, etc then you shouldn’t stay in Germany.
Cultural differences withing a country
It is essential to remind that cultural discrepancies – of the types studied by Dr. Hofstede and perceived in the two examples above – can exist even inside the same country.
Henry Eshleman, a Park Ranger at Fairbanks North Star Borough in Alaska, USA, explained how he felt closer to foreign students than locals while in Indiana, Midwest of the same country.
In Indiana, being from Alaska made me an exotic curiosity. People would ask me questions I never got in Europe, Canada, or Mexico- “What are you doing here?” “Is it cold there?” “What it’s like when it’s light all the time?” And so forth. As a student, I rapidly realized I had more in common with the foreign exchange students, or with my buddy Angel, from Puerto Rico, than I did with the “regular” kids.
My biggest culture shock was essentially domestic in nature, the result of coming from a state which isn’t directly connected to the rest right into the Midwest Heartland.
Even in a country with the size of a single American state, cultural differences are noticeable. In Poland, the northern region of Gdansk has considerable differences to the Subcarpathian cities in the south. Differences shaped during centuries of partitions between Russia, Austria and Germany. Nowadays, the differences reflect electoral results, practices and consumer behaviors.
Besides cultural characteristics, there are other non-business aspects to consider when doing a professional shift:
· Future family prospects: It is easy to make a decision when it concerns only you. The same is not true when it involves wife and kids. Even if you are single, it is important to reflect on what you want for the next years. If you are planning to build a family, consider this beforehand. This was my case when I decided to move out of Qatar (my previous country). My first thought was to move to Panamá with my then-fiancée, but we had plans to marry and maybe have kids in the next few years. For this reason, we live in Poland, closer to her family.
· The Time zone. I already mentioned how different time zones can create business problems. This also applies to your private life. A person in South Africa, even though is distant from his relatives in Europe, is still inside a similar time zone, but not someone living in the Middle East and with a family in South-America. This was my case years ago. The 5 to 6 hours’ difference restricted the chances I had to keep contact. During my mornings, they were sleeping. During their evenings, I was sleeping.
· How friendly the country is to your lifestyle. For example, if you enjoy practicing outdoor sports, places like Dubai or Doha may not be a good idea, since it is excruciatingly hot for more than half of the year.
To go deeper into this subject, my first book, Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity, has plenty of considerations to reflect on the personal side of expatriation. Still, if there is one positive advice in business and personal life, it is to immerse yourself in the local culture from the beginning. Talk to the grocery store cashier is a good start.
Conclusion of what to consider when moving out:
· Cultural discrepancies: How you will adapt to different degrees of Individualism, Power Distance, Risk-Aversion, indulgence and so on?
· Future personal prospects: Are you planning to marry, build a family, or remain single? How the local offer of schools, nurseries, etc., fit your plans?
· The time zone difference: Is the time difference considerable? How will that affect your relationships back home?
· How friendly the country is to your lifestyle: Of your routine and favorite activities, what you can keep or adapt to your new destination?
Levi Borba is the CEO of expatriateconsultancy.com and a best-selling author. You can check his books here and his articles here. The inspiration for this article comes from the book Starting Your Own Business Far From Home: What (Not) to Do When Opening a Company in Another State, Country, or Galaxy