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5 Tips for Managing Social Customs in an International Workplace by Colleen Boggs (SEAS ’06)



Thinking of a career abroad? Perhaps in Europe, where you can experience many different countries and cultures with ease? This was my dream, and two years ago it came true – a real job in the space industry in southern France! Working in a multicultural European environment with French, Spanish, Belgians, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Brits and Russians would feed my hunger for diverse perspectives well. Starry-eyed and a little clueless my first day on the job, my boss told me to be expecting kisses by the end of the week. Um… what?! Yes, we are in France, but this is the OFFICE, I thought to myself.

Kissing your boss and co-workers – can you imagine that? It was far beyond the verbal greetings I was used to working in the NASA community in Houston. Shaking hands was still not a typical daily greeting. However here in France, females can expect the “bise” or cheek-to-cheek kisses each morning (or throughout the day, for each colleague you have not personally greeted yet). Males are expected to shake hands with each other. There are exceptions to the rule, though you have to set them yourself (i.e. extend your hand when approached), though most everyone – French or not – embraces the local custom of the “bise.”

Adapting to customs such as this can be the social oil that keeps the workplace machinery running smoothly. Refusing to adapt at least some of your habits is more likely to alienate you as others may consider your actions rude. Other social norms to consider:

1) Learning the local language. This one is obvious. Though the working language at my office is English, you can expect lunch, coffee breaks, and social gatherings to switch to French. The majority of my colleagues can speak more than 2 languages.. don’t be the weakest link!

2) Enjoying a long lunch with co-workers. A bagged lunch at your desk is considered abnormal. A typical lunch is between 1-2 hours, 3 courses, and followed by coffee and more conversation (note that work topics are generally avoided, this is the time to refresh your thoughts!).

3) Drinking a glass of wine or champagne at the office. What? A champagne toast for the new Belgian king in the conference room at noon??.. Relax, this is Europe. Celebrations of life’s milestones are important. Just don’t abuse the offering of course, you still have work to do!

4) Using all your vacation. Don’t expect to save up and bank your leave hours. You may get 3-5 weeks more than you would in the US, but Europeans are serious about balancing work with relaxation. Some people leave the office for a full month at a time, usually around August.

5) Throwing your own party. It’s your birthday? Time to bring some goodies for the office. Yes, the special day is often celebrated at your expense. This holds for marriages, babies, and going away parties too. Surprisingly enough, this can be expected at the start of the job as well – pop some wine, you have arrived!

Of course I’m not suggesting you cast off your identity and fully assimilate into the European culture. These are merely tips to aid the social transition in the new workplace. The sooner you learn to adapt your expectations to your new surroundings, the more comfortable you will feel in your new environment.

The theme here is very much “work to live” not “live to work.” Keeping this in mind while retaining American enthusiasm, innovation, and initiative will help you thrive personally and professionally in an international workplace.

Thoughts on “5 Tips for Managing Social Customs in an International Workplace by Colleen Boggs (SEAS ’06)

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