Is Cultural Knowledge More Important Than Language Skills?

Learning the local language might seem an obvious goal for anyone moving abroad. But in an increasingly globalised world, whether this is an effective use of time is increasingly up for debate. Growing numbers of multinationals and start-ups are adopting English as their official company language, even if they’re not based in an English-speaking nation. And internationally, millennials seem to have a much higher tolerance for using the global language than older generations, meaning it’s potentially easier to socialise with young locals by speaking English than in the past. The British Council estimates that by 2020, two billion people will be using it, well over a quarter of the world’s population. Plus, while the idea that millennials are job-hopping much more than their parents is something of a myth, being able to work flexibly in different locations remains a core goal for many. In 2017, the Global Shapers Annual Survey, funded by the World Economic Forum, showed that 81% of respondents aged 18 to 35 from over 180 countries said they were willing to work abroad. The “ability to work and live anywhere” was one of the most important factors they identified regarding making them feel freer in their society.

But for those people who are up for relocating without a firm intention of staying put, how much point is there in spending your free time immersed in language apps or classes, if you can survive in English? “You don’t immediately get a return on your investment,” argues Sree Kesanakurthi, an IT consultant from India who’s worked in Dubai, Singapore, Stockholm and Brussels. He has largely felt comfortable getting by with the global language, both professionally and socially. The 31-year-old suggests that anyone moving to a new country for less than two years is better placed to focus on getting ahead at work and “finding like-minded people” to connect with, either through expat clubs or local sports and cultural activities. There are so many communities that give you the freedom to not be alienated in a country which you don’t know,” he says.

Versus language intelligence

“You can exist quite easily in many locations globally without speaking any of the local languages,” agrees David Livermore, author of Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The New Secret to Success. “I wouldn’t suggest a full fluency in the language is needed for a five-year or less assignment,” he says. “Having adaptability to different communication styles or socialisation norms are perhaps as much or more important.” His research, which spans more than ten years and 30 countries, analyses the concept of cultural intelligence (CQ), which he breaks down into four key areas:

–       Having the drive and interest to work in cross-cultural environments

–       Knowledge of cultural similarities and differences

–       Having a strategy to help monitor, analyse and adjust plans in unfamiliar cultural settings

–       Having the ability to act by choosing the right verbal and nonverbal behaviours, depending on the context

While he accepts that “language has some importance,” he argues that “the ability to cope with, adjust to and persevere is the most important of the four CQ capabilities for expat success. You can think about this as the emotional and cognitive resilience needed to address being outside your home culture,” he argues. But some places are harder to adjust to than others: for example, where social and cultural norms differ wildly from an expat’s home nation and where English is not widely spoken among the wider population. “There are very big differences around the globe,” argues Eero Vaara, a professor of organisation and management at Aalto University School of Business in Finland with a focus on researching multinational corporations.

Japan is one expat hub he singles out as a place in which young professionals can experience an intense culture shock, thanks to fixed codes of conduct in both work and more informal contexts. These might include etiquettes such as bowing, saving face and avoiding conflict, extreme politeness and punctuality, respect for silence and very long working hours. “If you lack cultural sensitivity and you start trying to collaborate or bring in something new, it won’t work… and there’s a big need to invest in cultural learning,” he argues, while stressing that at the same time expats must be aware that not all locals adhere to national stereotypes.

Food for thought

Ryu Miyamoto, a 53-year-old living in Takarazuka, just outside Osaka, is originally from the US but adopted his traditional Japanese name soon after he moved there. He says he’s watched many fellow expats struggle to adapt to cultural norms in Japan, returning to their home countries for frequent vacations, or as soon as their initial assignment finishes. But he describes himself as becoming “culturally fluent” and “pretty ‘Japanised’” within about three years. “If people hadn’t reminded me every day by their behaviour towards me I don’t think I would have realised that I wasn’t Japanese,” he says. “Japanese still see foreigners – or ‘gaijin’ as they call them – as some sort of outsider… But the people close to me, they don’t see me as a ‘gaijin’…I think I am a pretty special case.” Although he had some knowledge of Japanese before arriving and is now fluent, he argues that learning cultural codes, immersing himself in Japanese television and even teaching himself how to cook Japanese food proved just as crucial to his adjustment as the language. And from a business perspective, Miyamoto argues that adopting a Japanese name also made it easier to build relationships as he set up his own education company. “If I called people I would say my American name and they wouldn’t comprehend, they would be like ‘oh how do you say that?’. Or they would say ‘no’. But if I said ‘this is Miyamoto’ they’d say ‘oh okay, fine.’

Unexpected culture shock

One thing that can catch expats unaware is the experience of struggling to gain cultural fluency in nations that, on the surface, might initially seem to require less adjustment. The Netherlands and the Nordic countries, for example, jostle among each other for the top spot in the annual global English Proficiency Index and don’t have a global reputation as being wildly different to other parts of northern Europe (rather, they are frequently idolised as leaders in efficiency and innovation). This suggests that English-speaking expats – especially those from elsewhere in the Western world – should have less need to pick up the local language or deal with unexpected behavioural norms. But according to Caroline Werner, the managing director at Settle into Stockholm, a start-up offering culture and language courses geared specifically towards young professionals relocating to the Swedish capital, “a lot of people make the mistake of not feeling the cultural codes” in Scandinavia. Her lessons include everything from which topics to avoid bringing up during lunch breaks or dinner parties (it’s generally a taboo to discuss religion, politics or how much money you’re making in Sweden), to deciphering how to make friends and date in a country that avoids small talk and where more than half the population lives alone. Meanwhile, she’s a strong advocate of expats learning at least some of the local language in their host country, even if they’re unlikely to use it again if they move on elsewhere. “I feel that it is an opportunity, not a waste of time, so you get to know people in a way that you wouldn’t have if you never learned the language,” she argues. “A lot of Swedes are good at speaking English when it comes to just being polite,” she says. “But if they want to relax really, they are not 100% comfortable with English.”

Eero Vaara’s research into language use at multinational corporations backs up the idea that taking the time to learn core local language skills is worthwhile for expats, even those living in countries with strong English proficiency levels. According to his work, it can prove crucial to cracking local power dynamics if they choose to settle in a foreign country or company in future. “There are these inner circles or parts of organisations, not so much the formal but the informal networks and conversations that are hard to access,” he says, noting that language skills can play a key role in connecting with these groups both professionally and personally. For example, if you’re British but hoping to climb the ladder of “a Russian organisation that’s been around for hundreds of years,” learning Russian is likely to add value in the longer term. However “if you’re British and working for a British subsidiary” in Russia, Vaara suggests that while still highly useful, Russian proficiency might be less relevant.

Assimilation or acceptance?

But where to draw the line when it comes to both linguistic and cultural fluency remains a complex issue for many people living and working abroad. Sima Mahdjoub, 30, who is French but has lived in nine countries including the UK, Australia and Spain, recently decided to settle in Sweden for the foreseeable future, largely as a result of its outdoor lifestyle. She has become fluent in the language and worked hard to understand local business norms (“in France, you can close a deal in one meeting. That’s not possible in Sweden”), but says she can’t ever imagine viewing herself as Swedish, or becoming completely fluent in her adopted nation’s culture. “In southern European countries, in general, we tend to be quite fiery people, quite expressive in both negative and positive emotions,” she explains, arguing that she does not want to remove these “natural instincts,” which are less common in Scandinavia. “It is possible because I have seen other people manage it, but for me, I’m too direct, and I’m too influenced by too many cultures to want to really.”

Meanwhile, the now Brussels-based IT consultant Sree Kesanakurthi says he has started learning French because he would like to put down stronger roots in the Benelux region than he has in previous locations he’s lived in. But he’s also not fazed by the idea of never achieving complete linguistic or cultural fluency. “Learning a local language is important when it comes to buying a property, dealing with paperwork or taxes and accounting for example,” he argues. “However I am not worried about how integrated I will be. As long as I have good people around me, I will be okay. At the end of the day if I am born in a foreign country… I will be differentiated no matter what.” For Professor Eero Vaara, it is this kind of acceptance that can often hold the key to expats making the most of their experiences abroad, whether they end up staying for the short or long term. “Differences are okay…it’s more a question of trying to appreciate the differences and deal with those, rather than going too far and trying to be what you are not, or what you’ll never be perceived to be.”

Credit: Maddy Savage for The BBC, 18 May 2018.