Monday, June 10, 2013

6 Tips For Working Cross-Culturally

By Leslie Rollings

1. Learn ahead of time – but not too much! It’s good to take the time to learn about the country and culture that you’ll be working in, but it can also be a road block at times. It’s easy to develop expectations and opinions based on the experiences and opinions of others. Learn some, then let your own experiences help you develop your thoughts and opinions about the country and issues you are working with.

Leslie sitting amongst water filter supplies on
delivery day in the Artibonite Valley, Haiti.

2. Learn the language! Find out what language is predominantly used where you will be working, and then put a concerted effort into learning it. Western culture teaches that success is directly linked with productivity. Learning a language can be a frustrating and time consuming process that feels anything but productive. But, taking the time to do it sends a message to the people you are working with that you are invested in and respectful of their culture. Relying on translators can also put you at risk, as you have no control over what is being communicated to you or on your behalf. Expats with experience often recommend committing at least the first 3 months in a new country to exculsively learning the language and culture ("An expatriate [sometimes shortened to expat] is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing." Wikipedia).

A Bio-sand water filter installed in
someone's home in Haiti.
3. Be flexible. I want things to work in the way I’ve learned that they do, whether it’s time, methodology, or even social “rules”. But, when you work cross-culturally they don’t. Every culture is unique. None of it is wrong or bad – just different. You will need to be flexible as you learn how things work in your new culture.

4. Immersion looks different for everyone – find your balance. Living cross culturally can feel exotic and thrilling. The idea of totally immersing yourself in a new culture might be exciting. But, it can also be challenging. In the process of soaking it all in and trying to be a part of everything I have seen many expats burn out because they weren’t paying enough attention to their own needs. You might need a certain amount of privacy or personal space, but you’re living in a very communal society. It takes work, but learning what your personal needs are and finding ways to meet those needs will only help over the long term. Learn about your new culture and adopt what feels right, but don’t be afraid to maintain what you need from your home culture where you can. In the process of establishing those things you’ll have an opportunity to teach others about your home culture, expanding their world view while you expand yours.

5. Learn about the culture shock cycle. Culture shock causes normally sane people to behave as someone all together different, and we all go through it in our own way. You won’t be the exception. Learn what it looks like. Seek out other expats that have been in-country longer than you have and talk, talk, talk... The average burn out rate for cross-cultural workers is one and a half to three years, and much of that is attributed to culture shock related issues.

6. Be gracious with yourself and others. You are going to have a hard time. You will offend people. You will feel offended by others. You will get angry. You will probably want to go home at some point. You will see things in yourself and others that you will not like. You will learn about things you didn’t want to know existed. You will feel powerless. Remember that at the core, we are all human. Give yourself some grace. Then get up the next day and try again.

Leslie and Chris Rolling
Leslie Rolling has lived in Haiti for almost 8 years where her and her husband, Chris, are the in-country directors for Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian non-profit that helps Haitian families get access to clean water through the use of Bio-sand water filters. Leslie is also a mother to two young children, loves to cook, knit and build her own furniture. To learn more about the Rollings and Clean Water for Haiti visit the organization website at and their family blog at

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