Last summer, the INSEAD publication World Business published an article “Workers of the World”, about the unique characteristics and problems of global workers. It is based on studies by Linda Brimm, a psychologist specializing in organizational behavior: she describes a “Global Cosmopolitan — a population of highly educated, usually multilingual people that have lived, worked and studied for extended periods in different cultures”. I enjoyed the article a lot; she made a number of points that resonate with my own experiences.
- Certainly I’ve found that exposure to more cultures does help with understanding and adaptation when I encounter new situations. Still, this is as much a developed skill as an acquired one: I recommend Martin Gannon’s Understanding Global Cultures (3rd ed) as a thoughtful and very readable framework for reflection.
- I’ve also seen people fail and return home early because they don’t reach out and find their place in the local culture. I’ve listened to how people’s apartments are too small, their friends don’t match the ones they left, they’re careers are falling behind others back home. At the extreme, they eat at McDonalds and disappear into expat-support groups. As a result, they miss out on the chance to immerse in the local culture, to extend and enrich their network of ideas and associates, on the chance to become truly unique.
- Her comments on the difficulty of maintaining a sense of personal identity are also spot on. I know that I’ve struggled with who I am, apart from the things that I surround myself with. Identity is about feeling comfortable with your thoughts and experiences, confident in your opinions and actions. It means being grounded even though I’m surrounded by artifacts that aren’t mine and I’m pressured to fit in with my host’s customs.
Although she doesn’t mention it, a lot of these ideas reduce to how successful we are in maintaining and growing our personal identity. Here, I think of Erik Erikson’s work, he defines identity in both individual aspects (our sense of personal continuity and of uniqueness) and social ones (our affiliations, which define us in our own eyes and to others). Successful adjustment requires us to adjust and maintain both identities despite the lack of customary references and new pressures to adapt.
Finally, her recommendations for work are great, and I’ve made adjustments to my CV as a result:
- Know your story and value it
- Know your strengths and let other people know too, such as:
- Success and experience in managing change and transition
- Success and experience in managing difference and the creative edge of
- Developed observational skill
- Understanding of different lenses for seeing the world
- Understanding of different ways of doing things and contributing them
to creative problem solving.
- Know your double-edged sword:
- That your agility and chameleon-like abilities can mean that you don’t bring their own ideas to a situation for fear of standing out
- That you might have successfully adapted by being non-confrontational and adopting a diplomatic role, and therefore have the tendency not to speak up when you disagree
- That you might have the tendency to see endless new possibilities, but find it hard to focus on a particular project
- That while you may be fluent in several languages, you may never sound like a native-speaker and miss out on nuances and colloquialisms, and
- That you may be an excellent observer, but fail to engage.
- Apply your strengths to personal challenges, such as:
- Maintaining multiple networks
- Finding a sense of meaning
- Recreating a sense of home