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Why is working internationally (sometimes) so frustrating?

Think about the last time you got frustrated with something or someone? Most likely something didn’t turn out the way you would have liked it to or someone didn’t say or do what you wanted them to. Hmm… it appears what you’d like or what you want is part of the equation, in other words, your expectations.

"Our inability to recognize and to clearly express our expectations can cause many communication issues."

Most frustration arises because of the gap between an expectation and whether or not it is met. But for someone to meet an expectation you have, they need to first know about it, and, perhaps even more importantly, you have to know about it yourself! And that’s the heart of the problem. Our inability to recognize and to clearly express our expectations can cause many communication issues. Some expectations are shared and known implicitly, as they might be between 2 people who have known each other a long time, or among groups, like families, communities, companies, or larger groups like countries. Those common expectations are part of what constitutes a common culture. But how about people you are not that close to, or just do not know well, or who are in a different country?

Let’s take a simple example: It’s Monday in a typical American office, and you fire off the same email to your colleagues Mark and John. You immediately receive an out of office notice from Mark stating he’ll be back on Thursday. Your email is not urgent so you decide to wait. Wednesday rolls around, still nothing from John. You may be growing frustrated with John at this point but you wouldn’t be frustrated with Mark. The difference? Obvious: You expect a response in 24 to 48 hours, because you are all 3 in the U.S. and that is the accepted norm in your company.

But now let’s say Mark is in a different company and let’s also say that he is in Turkey (or any other country) and you don’t know he’s out until Thursday. Now it’s been over 2 weeks, you’ve sent a couple of polite follow up emails and left a couple of voice mails, to no avail…now what? You assume that Mark is no longer interested in pursuing the project. But, you think, at least he should let me know! You’re frustrated…

One week later you receive an enthusiastic phone call from Mark that not only the project has been approved but the budget has been doubled. He doesn’t understand why you sound so surprised, he’s been working so hard on this for 3 weeks! And he teases you gently for “inhabiting” his inbox.

The problem here is simply that you expected, without realizing it, that you would get a response, regardless of its content, within a couple of days. But from Mark’s point of view, why write when there is nothing to write about yet, no result to report? You also expected Mark would keep you informed that he was trying to get the budget doubled! In contrast, Mark’s expectation was that you would know he was working on the project and that he would contact you when he had results…and also that you would not “email him every other day”…

Anyway the news is great and his enthusiasm is infectious so you have a nice chat after all and decide to share your respective expectations next time so that you can avoid what you both politely call “uncertainty”.

Crisis averted.

Until the next time one of you expects something without realizing it…

"There are myriad assumptions we make, things we expect without giving it another thought, and that is what trips us up."

The key is to identify these expectations, examine whether or not they are reasonable given the context, and either adjust them or at least express them and ensure they are clearly understood. The other part of the equation is to get your counterparts to do the same. This is even more important when you are not in the same country and your respective cultures likely lead you to make very different assumptions and have different expectations.

So here are a few things you can do:

  • Lay down as many norms as possible from the beginning. Have each person explain their expectations in as much detail as possible, and then ask the other person to restate them to make sure they are clearly understood. It may be awkward at first, but it will pay off as the relationship develops.

  • Practice becoming aware of your expectations. Make a note each time you are frustrated, and examine the expectation that wasn’t met. Encourage your team members and external partners to do the same. Over time, you will observe patterns that provide useful clues about your own preferences and those of your teammates and partners.

  • Consider one or more facilitated workshops in which mutual expectations are brought to light. Through this process, you typically receive suggestions on how to address differing expectations, as well as exercises to help recognize more of them, particularly in cross-cultural settings.

  • Learn about the culture of your counterparts. Many assumptions, behaviors and unwritten expectations result from a country’s history and shared values.

So the next time you’re frustrated with a co-worker, supplier or other partner from another country, take a minute to consider the expectation you are measuring against, and whether it has been clearly expressed and understood. If not, there’s your opportunity to improve going forward and strengthen the relationship.

Working internationally doesn’t have to be frustrating!!

What solutions haveYOU found for this very common problem?

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