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When Cultures Collide: Leveraging Soft Skills to Feel at Home Abroad

September 21, 2016 | David Godsted, Global Health Fellows Program II (GHFP-II) | This post first appeared on the Global Health Fellows Program II blog.

A GHFP-II staff member gets assistance donning appropriate attire before visiting the Gadaffi Mosque in Kampala, Uganda.

There are many facets to the work of the Global Health Fellows Program (GHFP) II, but our first mandate is to build the next, diverse generation of global health professionals. Our Fellows and Interns play an important role in helping the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Health Bureau improve the effectiveness of the Agency’s health programs worldwide.

While technical skills are essential, non-technical skills (“soft skills” as they’re called) play an even greater role in creating a successful GH career. Among them, GHFP-II has identified cultural competency—the ability to navigate in a culture other than your own—as an important component of these soft skills (and one that takes effort at developing).


As someone who has spent many years in developing countries, working in the Middle East and other regions, I’ve compiled the following tips and tricks for living and working abroad. They were drawn in no small part from my own missteps (as well as from observing many fellow expatriates), while also seeking out the advice of some of our Fellows who are stationed abroad.

So, you’re going overseas! Feeling a bit nervous? Perhaps it’s your first time abroad, and you have absolutely no idea what to expect. Maybe you’re a seasoned world traveler, but you’re being posted to a country you’ve never experienced before, and working in a country isn’t the same as spending time there as a visitor. From the moment I set foot in Yemen thirty years ago with the Peace Corps, and during subsequent Middle East postings and trips to other regions, I have found myself fascinated by what happens when cultures cross paths. 


Tips and tricks for living and working abroad: CULTURAL COMPETENCY

  • GHFP-II staff meet with Guadalupe Pos, Executive Director of GlobeMed Partner organization Escuela de la Calle.
    Common sense (a good place to start)—I know, you’re thinking, wow, that was insightful! Well, you’d be surprised at how much people have in common across cultures. Often, it’s best to start with this assumption, rather than assuming that everything will be different. In general, people want the same things (safety, friends, family), and they certainly do the same things (eat, sleep, laugh, cry), though not always in the same way you do. Beginning here can often help you to start out on the best foot in your new posting. Some examples of common sense include:
    • Sex, religion, and politics—just about everyone has the potential to make someone else upset by talking about these subjects. It’s probably best not to talk about any of them…just like back home!
    • The local language—As Phoebe Kenney, a GHFP-II Fellow currently posted to Zambia (and also a returned Peace Corps volunteer), notes, don’t be shy about learning at least some of the local language at work and in social settings as a method of connecting with the new community you find yourself in. Phoebe says:

      "Even though I spoke Spanish prior to leaving for El Salvador with the Peace Corps, I quickly realized I did not know the local dialect! One way I quickly learned the local dialect was to socialize—make new friends. I also learned to not be scared to speak. So what if I made mistakes? How else was I going to learn the correct pronunciation or meaning of a word? I also learned cultural dances as well as how to make pupusas. Learning traditional dances and how to cook local dishes helped me learn much of the local dialect, 'slang' words specific to El Salvador and created trust with women and children. Learning the local dialect enriched my experience more than I could have imagined!"
  • Observe—Again, this seems painfully obvious, but I’ve found that expatriates don’t spend nearly as much time quietly watching the people they are interacting with as you might think. Many questions regarding personal space, etiquette, and socialization can be answered by watching. Having said that, the learning process can certainly be expedited by speaking with other expatriates who have more experience in the country than you do. Some classic no-no’s in Yemen included:
    • The left hand—even if you’re left handed, Yemenis don’t use their left hands for eating, or in greeting other people (because they use their left hand for cleansing themselves, everywhere. It’s considered rude to use it under other circumstances).
    • The bottoms of your feet—since feet are used for walking, they are considered unclean. Yemenis often socialize by sitting together using cushions on the floor. While Yemenis curl their feet under themselves in those circumstances, foreigners would often stretch their feet out, pointing them in the direction of the Yemenis sitting across from them. This was not the best way to generate good will.
    • The OK sign—it doesn’t mean OK in Yemen. It means something, very, very rude. Too rude for me to repeat here. Under the category of observing, GHFP-II Fellow Ados May contributes the following:

      “While working in India, I noticed the value my local colleagues and society in general placed on pop culture icons such as Bollywood actors and cricket players. I found it useful to become aware and familiar with these figures, and in fact, it made me understand the culture a little bit better. I could use the references to make a point about work and my colleagues appreciated my knowledge of pop culture. I have had similar experiences in other places where I was posted, such as Kenya, South Africa, and the UK.” 


 GHFP-II staffer meets with a woman at the Adonai Child Development Centre in Namugoga, Uganda.


  • Culture shock (a real thing!)—It can range from a minor annoyance to a crippling condition. There isn’t a good way to predict who will experience culture shock, to what degree, or how it will manifest itself, before it actually happens. There are many magazine and scholarly articles about culture shock, its stages, and how to cope. If this will be your first time abroad, it would certainly be worth learning more about the phenomenon so that you’ll know it when you see it. (Bonus tip: it won’t hit you right away, but after a few days in country, once the euphoria of being in a new place wears off). You may find yourself trying to stay in your comfort zone, perhaps by hanging out with other Americans, sticking to Western restaurants, or refusing an invitation to do something socially with someone from your host country). Doing so will actually prolong your culture shock, and it is likely that you will miss out on some very unique experiences.
  • Humor (that’s very funny…not)—As one might surmise, humor doesn’t easily cross cultures. As an example, Americans love to use sarcasm. In Yemen, we often found that our local friends would take our attempts at sarcasm at face value, having the opposite of the intended effect (American: ‘Wow, it sure is a lovely day today.’ Yemeni: ‘Um, no it’s not, there is a dust storm outside’). We eventually discovered that Yemenis found obvious slapstick (like Mr. Bean and Charlie Chaplin) to be very funny. They also devoured a ‘Candid Camera’ show out of Egypt that contained pranks we Americans felt bordered on the cruel. Give yourself some time to understand what your local friends consider to be humorous before jumping in with a joke.
  • The workplace (why you’re there)—Presumably, you are being posted in order to do a job. Thus, you will be spending a substantial amount of time in a workplace, where you will be side by side with local staff. Some things to keep in mind while you are on the clock…
    • Language Considerations—While it is likely your co-workers will understand English, don’t assume they are able to do so with the same level of fluency as you. I have often seen native English speakers use slang and speak very quickly, and then become impatient when the local person can’t keep up. It can help you to be more patient if you have studied a foreign language in the past, or are in the process, of learning the local language. In fact,

      “…the same holds true within local languages,” says Clive Mutunga, a GHFP-II Fellow based in Washington DC. “As a native Swahili speaker from Kenya, I have learnt to completely adjust my speaking in an effort to communicate with the fine Swahili speakers in Tanzania whenever I am there for work. Add to that mix that most of the ‘international development-speak’ has no equivalent in local languages. Furthermore, some English words like ‘shall’, ‘can’ , or ‘will’ may mean the same thing in some local cultures and languages,” says Clive.
    • Criticism—Whether giving a performance evaluation, or asking for honest feedback, different cultures approach criticism very differently. It can be difficult, if not impossible, for someone from a host country to admit to a mistake to their supervisor (because if they were to do so, they might ‘lose face,’ and bring shame upon themselves and their families). As you can imagine, this will often result in miscommunication that can demotivate staff, frustrate supervisors, and even derail projects. It will take considerable time, effort, and talent to come up with communicative workarounds to this potentially serious issue. In the West, we strive to separate performance from personality. Abroad, it may be nearly impossible to do this.

By now, your nervousness should be abated, and you are likely chomping at the bit to jump on the next plane bound for an international destination. If not, here are some additional resources to help you to prepare for your overseas posting. Safe travels!

Want more info? Here’s a short list of great recommended reading:

  1. Culture Matters—the Peace Corps’ cross cultural training guide.
  2. The Four Stages of Culture Shock—a Global Perspectives op ed.
  3. Having a Difficult Conversation with someone from a Different Culture—an insightful Harvard Business Review op ed.
  4. What’s Funny?—an article contemplating humor across cultures. 

David Godsted is the Deputy Director of GHFP-II.