Never assume that the world rotates around you. There are many people out there in the new country who assume the opposite.

Meet Yana, an HR professional with a very rich history of well-known companies she worked for, and interesting geographies her adventurous attitude to life and work has taken her to.

She started in a Japanese company in Moscow, Russia, and then moved on to a big multinational. At some point, led by her husband’s enthusiasm for new places and the nature of her work (international mobility) she thought to try the mobility first hand herself. She was successfully recruited by a well known international industrial company in Luxemburg, and this is where her adventures began. She later moved yet for another job, in a well-known insurance company in Zurich, and recently the whole family moved to Canada to settle, where Yana immediately found a contract with another international insurance group. Her daughter started school in German (rather Swiss German) in Zurich, and now is swiftly switching into English and is already picking up French. We talk with Yana whether her adaptations to the new countries and jobs were as swift.

First things first, what are you, culturally?

I would dare to say that I am a multi-cultural person. It all comes from my interest in cultures and where and how I belong. Now when I look back at all my moves I think they all were fairly smooth because of this open mind and interest towards other cultures.

Have you always been like this?

I am not sure. I think we all need a person or an even in our life who would help your inner self to get out and explore the world.

It happened to me when I joined a Japanese company in Moscow in my early days. I was lucky to have a boss who always found time to explain the peculiarities of Japanese culture, business etiquette and their life style in general to me. It felt like another planet at first but it was amazing. It was even more amazing when I began visiting Japan on business trips and could see all that by myself.

But I never planned to go anywhere for good. I was content with my life in Moscow, with its hectic life style and all its plusses and minuses. But my husband had always had ideas about living in other places – he had worked abroad a couple of times even in the Soviet times. He was very open to embrace yet another international experience. This adventure spirit infected me. We worked together on international projects from Moscow getting exposure to different cultures this way. When I started working in international mobility for a big multi-national he told me – Have you ever thought of becoming mobile yourself? It took me a while to open up to the idea that I myself can move. I had started thinking, looking at options. I was surprised by myself to a certain extend that I had no fear at that point – just pure excitement.

So how did you move for the first time?

I applied to a couple of positions and discovered that indeed there is interest towards me as a professional. And then the first job in Luxemburg came up.

How was Luxemburg?

This was more adventurous than I had expected. I thought I was moving countries. In reality I was moving countries, companies, sectors. To top it all, I was going to work in corporate headquarters with its own peculiar culture – the discovery of how different this was to the Country or regional level jobs that I had had before came later.

But now, when I look back, I think this was a very helpful exercise. It is important to shift focus in life (from being bold and proud of working for a world known FMCG to moving to industrial sector; from being bold and proud of working in one of the largest markets to moving to the corporate HQ, which have other large markets reporting into them, etc). You start seeing things differently.

Luxemburg in a coupe of words for you

French flavoured culture– German order – surprisingly nice mix.

In business – an international mixture of cross-border commuters (French, Belgians and Germans) and expats from the UK and other European locations.

Relationships is king – find a good topic for conversation.

What was the most difficult for you in adapting to the new culture?

I did not feel difficulties in the beginning. I was in the proper cross-cultural honeymoon stage for a while. It was later that I started noticing how much emphasis they put on building relationships and on small talk.

I would come to the office to work, but they would push me into the conversations about a co-worker’s new haircut and insist I go and tell her that I like it. This looked slightly odd to me, but then I realized that this is part of the culture – this is how relationships are built and maintained there. In a while, I embraced this cultural norm and as a result I ended up running a fairly busy lunch and coffee breaks social calendar.

It all felt like a big adventure to me and I was taking all of its elements in.

When did the feeling of adventure stop?

It never did – I still feel I am in my big adventure (it is a part of bigger journey…). There are all sorts of formalities, of course, such as work permits and such, but once the interest for the adventure overtakes the fear to fight formalities, it all happens.

How did you find Switzerland after Luxemburg?

To my surprise I did not have much of a culture shock again. Definitely people were different, they were less straightforward than I had expected from German speaking environment and very caring in a sincere way. The striking feature of the working environment was a great emphasis on the work-life balance, the need to enjoy the great outdoors, which Switzerland has in abundance. Our team leader whenever he addressed his employees would always wish them a great quality time.

I was thinking about this openness to emphasize values of work life balance, family time, spending time in the nature, I was trying to understand where it comes from, why we do not see this often in Russia. And to me it all boils down to the basic needs in the Maslow’s pyramid. In Russia most of us are still fighting for survival. In Switzerland there have already been a number of generations who simply could afford to enjoy life. But that does not mean they work less than others (working week is one of the longest – 41.5 hours), maybe it is just a bit more rationalized and a bit more efficient…

I am not saying that there were no challenges at work. There were many. But they always got resolved in a calm and orderly manner since work was not the battleground and was not the only reason people woke up in the mornings.

Switzerland in a couple of words for you

Have nice things, appreciate quality time, enjoy life.

And then you moved to Canada – how did it work for you?

 The biggest discovery was that there are certain cultural layers within the corporate world: there are people who have been in the company and in Canada for all their life, so every time you come up with new ideas the only answer you get is – you are too new to Canada. And then, because Canada is such a mix of cultures and, you see very different combinations. It was there that I saw a very defined layer of good managers with high IQ and EQ (for the lack of a better reference), and yet a layer with very high IQ and almost non-existent EQ.

Having come after Luxemburg and Zurich with a very busy social lunch and coffee calendars another discovery I made was that building relationships was not appreciated as much as it was in the two countries I had worked previously.

Some cultural textbooks mention “passive aggressive” as a typical Canadian rejection attitude. This was interesting to observe: you might be in the meeting where supposedly many issues are discussed and decisions agreed, no one speaks up against anything; you leave the meeting but do not see that the decisions are being implemented. This is their cultural way to show that they do not support the decisions. It takes a while to adjust to this meeting culture.

Another interesting feature that I picked up – and this might be true for the whole North American continent – was that it is important to make sure that everyone around you knows how busy you are. It is almost a norm to start a meeting or a phone conversation with an opening phrase “I have so much on my plate”. I remember my European colleagues would get offended by such statements in phone conferences, they thought that this phrase implied that they most definitely were not as busy. When I arrived in Canada I realized that this is a way to reinforce the value of hard work to yourself and the people around you.

Canada in a couple of words for you

“I have so much on my plate”, passive aggressive

What would you have done differently in your first move?

Now when I look back, I think there is one thing that I wish I could have been doing differently in every move. It is important not to allow your previous experience create expectations of how the new place and the new work culture will be.

“Simply do not assume too much !”

More often than not we all fall victims of thinking that we know it all. But knowing all is impossible. We know all, which is true to our previous place. We cannot know all about the new one. Listening first is a very difficult skill to master, but it is crucially important. In such situations I often remind myself of the phrase “If you think you are the smartest in the room you are in the wrong room” and continue listening.

It is helpful to remind yourself that the new place might have a new set of values and it is important to understand them first rather than insist of introducing your rules.

How do you do this? What advice would you give to those, who are just thinking of a big move internationally or across companies / industries?

First of all, it is very important to do what you like. Through doing what you like you create the mood for yourself for further exploration, you open up your mind.

It is not always that you do what you like, how do you resolve it?

I know what I like doing, say, I like problem solving. So when I feel that the “like” factor is on decline I might create a problem solving situation for myself, so that the results will add positive energy to my world view and I would be able to deal with the world around me better.

I guess we all should find something to create this enjoyment, this will in turn create space for exploring what’s around us with an open mind. You can find refuge in building relationships, in developing a new skill set, learning a language – there must be things that you like about your work.

How do you study a new culture?

First of all I observe. Then I simply enjoy interactions and conversations – you learn a lot from them. Working for Japanese taught me not to jump at any judgments at first.

What’s your secret? What do you do to embrace the new culture?

Never assume that the world rotates around you. There are many people out there in the new country who assume the opposite. The fact that you come from the country (in my case) with what you might think the best ballet and best history of space exploration might not at all be relevant to them, your bragging about it might even irritate them.

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