Culture Shock and International Business - Tips for Women

If this is your first trip outside the U.S., you are probably looking forward to the new, exciting experiences that are in store for you. Unfortunately, when you arrive in your first foreign country, instead of feeling excited and full of energy, you may unexpectedly feel depressed, disoriented and lonely, especially if you are traveling alone. The greater the difference between this foreign culture and the American culture you're familiar with, the more pronounced these feelings might be. The technical term for this is "culture shock."

For many Americans in foreign countries, the language barrier is often the most difficult issue to cope with. If you do not know some simple phrases in the language of your host country, you will feel very isolated. How do you communicate with others to find a place to eat or to find your way around town? What do you do for entertainment? The movies are in a foreign language and there are few places available where you can socialize easily. You suddenly feel very alienated.

Dealing with foreign currency can also be a problem. You have to do mental calculations every time you try to buy something. How much does this cost? All of these coins look alike. How much change do I get back? This can be very intimidating, especially if bargaining for goods is part of the culture.

While a brief, voluntary exposure to a new culture can be temporarily unsettling, with some awareness of what you are experiencing and a few techniques to deal with it, you will soon begin to enjoy your visit. Before your trip, learn as much as you can about the culture you are going to visit. Read some books on the history and customs of the country. Travel videos are especially helpful and readily available from the library. Get some foreign language audiotapes from the library as well and learn a few important phrases, such as "Where's the bathroom?" "Waiter," "How much is this?" "Please," and "Thank you." You'll likely run into foreigners who speak some English and who love to practice it on visitors. If you know a few phrases in their language they are often encouraged to try out their English on you. Also learn something about food names and ingredients so you will feel more secure in ordering from the menu in a restaurant. If you have the opportunity, seek out some ethnic restaurants at home and try out these exotic foods before you leave.

Plan to do some sightseeing in your spare time. Make a list of the key tourist attractions and find out from a travel agent how to get there from your hotel. Take a city tour after you arrive to familiarize yourself with the area. You can usually book English-speaking tours at your hotel once you arrive. Plan to keep yourself busy. Above all, don't hide out in your hotel room moping.

There are many American and other internationally-known hotel chains in most countries. The staff there usually speaks English quite well and the hotel will quickly become your home away from home if you feel comfortable in it. Look for a hotel with a gym, swimming pool, jacuzzi, several restaurants, a sundry shop and perhaps a lounge where you can relax in the evening. Get the business card of a reliable taxi service as well as the hotel card with its address and phone number in the local language and be sure to keep it with you when you go out. Show it to the taxi driver when you are ready to go back to the hotel. Some hotels even offer a shuttle service to the center of town as well as to the airport so you don't have to bother with taxis. Become friendly with the hotel concierge who will usually have walking maps, restaurant suggestions, theater and museum tickets, and shopping tips and who is there to make your visit as pleasant as possible.

Women traveling alone have the added burden of being an anomaly in some foreign countries where few women are employed in executive positions in the business world. You might find people staring or being downright rude. Ignore them. Focus on your strengths, take a few deep breaths, relax and move on.

Exhaustion is also common when traveling. Jet lag is a physical phenomenon and the greater the change in time, the more time needed to adjust. On some trips you may find night and day completely reversed from home. In addition, major cities in Europe, Asia, and South America are quite congested and have a higher level of noise and air pollution than you may be used to. When all of the noise and congestion begins to feel overwhelming, take time out to relax. Get plenty of sleep, eat lightly and drink lots of fluid, preferably bottled water. Get some exercise every day even if it is just a walk around the block (if the area is safe). Bring your laptop computer. Remember your friends and family are only an e-mail away. Above all, keep your sense of humor. This is an experience to be enjoyed; make the most of it.

Feelings You May Have

o Depression: When you have to deal with great multitudes of people speaking a foreign tongue, and with vastly different customs and lifestyles, it is easy to become anxious and irritable. The resulting feeling of being helpless to do anything about your situation can lead to depression and an overall loss of energy.

o Disorientation: You may be traveling to countries where English is not used on street signs, office buildings, or restaurants. Panic can set in quickly. It is not only very frustrating to try to find your way in an unfamiliar environment, but it can also be frightening when you don't recognize where you are and realize that you can't just ask anyone to help you.

o Intimidation: We all like to feel that we are organized and in control of our environment. In other countries, however, you may feel frustrated and thwarted by the numerous steps it may take to do a simple task such as paying for some purchase.

o Alienation: When you travel abroad, you may feel out of place, particularly if you don't speak the language. In many countries it is not likely that you will be invited to join a social group or even be approached at a social gathering. You will more likely be left on your own, which may cause you to feel rejected and uncertain about how to proceed.

o Boredom: Because of language difficulties, there are not many places you can easily visit in the evenings or on weekends. Since you don't know too many people, you can't even make phone calls to lessen your isolation. Sightseeing presents both transportation and language problems as do sojourns to the movies and theater -- but how many times can you watch the same CNN or Sky Net programs on TV?

o Exhaustion: You truly do expend more energy doing less when you are on the road. Adjusting to jet lag, getting to your business appointments on time, maneuvering through crowds on the street, finding a cab, and haggling with a shopkeeper over prices when you are trying to pick up a few souvenirs can be physically and mentally exhausting.

Attitude Adjustments

Recognizing that any uncomfortable or negative feelings you're experiencing in this new culture are normal will help alleviate your discomfort. It's also helpful to know that others have similar reactions. Remind yourself that you are traveling for a purpose and that you'll be going home when your job is done. Here are some suggestions that may help ease your adjustment:

o Take care of your health. Get plenty of sleep and be careful about what you eat and drink. Get daily exercise.

o Relax. When the noise and crowds get to you, take some time out for yourself. Consider bringing a tape deck and a relaxation tape with you to listen to for twenty minutes a day. Luxuriate in a bubble bath.

o Don't mope around your hotel room. Stay active: jog, swim, or join a local exercise group if you have an extended stay. Take a walk through a local park or visit a museum (check with your hotel first on what areas are not safe and should be avoided). Re-center yourself by focusing on your strengths and pursuing your interests.

o Keep your sense of humor. Look for the amusing aspects of your situation. At least you will have lots of good stories to tell when you get home. Laughter releases tension.

o Know you are envied. Many people appreciate the exotica of other cultures and would give their eyeteeth to be in your position. This should bring you some sense of satisfaction.

o If you are traveling for an extended period of time, try bringing a few things from home to put in your room, such as photos, your favorite pillow and maybe some of your favorite CD's to play while walking around.

o Travel with a companion. If you know someone else who is also traveling on business, think about coordinating your schedules to meet for dinner or for sightseeing. It is easier to face a new environment as a team than to face it alone.

Preparing for Culture Shock

o Get to know the people you will visit. Use phone, fax, or letter to initiate your relationships. A friendly reception is more likely to await you when you arrive.

o If you are traveling to a country for the first time let your hosts know and ask them for some advice on what to do and see while you are there. You might find that they will spend more time with you if they know you are there for the first time, and may even make arrangements for you or help you arrange to see some cultural events or take a tour. Most hosts will appreciate your interest in their country and culture, and this will help enhance your relationship.

o List places you think you might want to visit. Jot down interesting day and evening destinations that you might like to visit in your spare time.

o Plan your days carefully, finding activities that will help you fill your spare time. If you are very busy, you will have little time to experience culture shock.

Exploring On Your Own

o If you can, take a city tour soon after you arrive. This is a safe and comfortable way to become familiar with your new environment. Short tours (about four hours) in English can usually be booked at the hotel, where you will be picked up and dropped off afterward. Tours also provide a good opportunity to meet other women business travelers.

o Do a little bit of sightseeing each day. Visiting even one city site on the way back to your hotel from a meeting or on the way to lunch or dinner will help give you a deeper understanding of the culture and the people.

o If the area is safe for walking (ask at the hotel), get a map and explore. Your hotel will provide a map of the surrounding area at your request. A walk through the neighborhood will help you see how people live and work. Be smart about walking and do so only during daylight hours and in safe areas.

o Hire a driver or use a taxi. In many countries it is very reasonable and a safe way to sightsee. Renting a car in foreign countries may be more than you can or would want to handle. In many countries public transportation is your best bet -- except during commuter hours when it may be very crowded.

o Plan your travel routes. Keep the telephone numbers of taxis, and bus and train route maps with you, as well as a card from your hotel in the local language in case you get lost. City maps can easily be obtained from tourist offices at the airport or downtown as well as from your hotel concierge or desk clerk.

o Establish familiar grounds. Frequent certain lunch and dinner spots and evening hangouts to help you establish a rapport with the owners and locals and make you feel like you're part of the group.

o Talk to locals who speak English. They appreciate the chance to practice their English and will be delighted at your interest in their culture and more than happy to answer your questions about it.


o Be flexible. Allow plenty of time to get to appointments. Bring a book to read in case you have to wait. Try to figure out ways to avoid offending your hosts while satisfying your own needs.

o Be patient. People in foreign countries are not usually as direct or in as much of a rush as people in the U.S. When you feel yourself getting uptight, take a few deep breaths and visualize a calming scene. Remember that people won't behave the way you expect or want them to, and getting upset won't make you or them feel any better.

o Ask your hosts some questions about their country and culture. They will usually enjoy talking about it, which will help you better understand and appreciate what you are seeing.

o Develop friendships by showing interest in your hosts. This, in turn, will help overcome what you may initially perceive as a negative environment.

o Keep an open mind. Look for similarities and intriguing differences between your culture and the one you are visiting. Focus on the good aspects. Try role reversal--how would you react if a foreign businessperson visiting you in the United States insisted that their way of living and doing business was the only way? When you're in another country, remember to do as the locals do, since it is your ways that may seem strange or offensive to them.

o Try to remember to keep a sense of humor. When you feel confused, embarrassed, or upset, smile, smile, smile.

Free Time

It is inevitable when you travel that things won't always go according to plan. You will probably experience delays and have free time. In general, when you travel internationally it is wise to allow more time to get to where you are going. You will most likely experience a delay at airports, on public transportation or from traffic. You might have difficulty finding an address. You might also find that a meeting has been canceled or rescheduled once you have already arrived. In general, be prepared for unexpected free time.

Free Time During Travel

o Keep a book or some magazines handy to help pass the time. It can be very frustrating to sit in an airport with an extended delay with only one English newspaper available for sale at the newsstand.

o Bring a CD or cassette player with you with your favorite music or, even better, language tapes for the country you are visiting. It will help pass the time and help you learn some key phrases. (Remember to bring extra batteries.)

o Many airports have services for business travelers who are delayed. Some excellent stop-over points include: Heathrow Airport, in London, England; Frankfort International Airport, Germany; the Miami, Florida airport for those en route to Latin America; and the Singapore airport for those traveling in the Far East. Services may include health clubs, showers, swimming pools, movies, city tours, and nap rooms.

o If you plan to travel a lot, it is wise to join one of the many airline hospitality clubs offered by major airlines. These clubs provide a quiet area in which to relax in a comfortable environment during a long delay. You will most likely also meet other traveling businesswomen there. Many of these hospitality clubs serve refreshments and offer various other amenities such as TV, flight confirmation and magazines.

o If you are traveling overseas and have not joined a club, see if you are eligible for one-time use of a club in an international airport. Many times if you are flying business- or first-class the club entry is included with the flight as a layover courtesy.

Free Time at Your Destination

o If a meeting is canceled or postponed and you can't make business use of the time, take a tour to familiarize yourself with the area you are visiting. Your hosts will appreciate your efforts to understand their culture.

o If you don't have a lot of time to sightsee, walk around the city (ask first if it is safe to walk around and for suggested areas to walk) to get a feel for how the people live, eat, and interact with each other.

o If you have a part of a day which is free (due to a canceled meeting, for example) talk to your hotel concierge about a morning or afternoon tour or hire a taxi to take you to the major sight seeing spots.

o Many hotels offer nightlife tours that include a city illumination tour, dinner and a cultural show. Many of these excursions can be booked the same day so you can fit it in to your busy schedule. It is a great way to learn about the culture and meet other businesswomen on the road.

o Check to see if any museums or department stores have late night hours. Major cities such as London and Paris have extended hours at least one night a week, which is ideal for business people on the road.

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