Training: The Solution to the Expat Challenge

The single more important reason expatriate professionals fail is not even themselves: It is their families.

By Valérie Berset-Price

To succeed internationally, companies often have to rely on expatriate professionals. Expatriates, or “expats,” embody the corporate culture of the company, representing a bridge between the headquarters in the United States and the foreign subsidiary. Sadly, up to 75 percent of U.S. expat assignments fail, according to “Carry a Chicken in Your Lap or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business,” by William Ayres and Bruce Alan Johnson.

Unfortunately, expatriates too often are selected for their technical skills and seldom for their ability to adapt to the host country. U.S. managers focus on the bottom line, see time as a commodity, and gauge efficiency by productivity. Those concepts are typical of the U.S. work culture, but not of many others. The Chinese look at “quanxi" (connections) as more important than money in the bank. Spending time nurturing relationships is thus an essential part of doing business in China.

Without cross-cultural training, U.S. managers on international assignments might pass judgment on the other culture, not understanding that the way the host culture behaves is attuned to what local businesspeople expect.

I met a woman who told me that she had tried to teach English in Seoul, but found the South Korean people to be mean-spirited and disdainful of Caucasians. When I asked her to give me some examples, she revealed how a South Korean colleague visited her apartment and accidentally broke a beloved vase. The colleague started laughing instead of apologizing. The English teacher was so upset by her colleague’s reaction that she kicked her out. Obviously, she had received no cultural training prior to her ESL teaching assignment or she would have known that laughing in many Asian cultures is a sign of embarrassment, not amusement. As a result of many misinterpreted cultural reactions, the ESL teacher felt ostracized and requested to end her contract early.

The truth: Not everybody has what it takes to be a successful and productive expat. Even with the right candidate, everyone needs training. But the single more important reason expats fail is not even themselves: It is their families.

While the idea of moving to a foreign country may appear romantic to some expat spouses, few people have the innate stamina to fully adapt to the host country. Moving to a foreign country is tedious. Embracing new cultural values, learning a new language, making new friends, adapting to a different climate and gastronomy all require a considerable effort that often is underestimated by expats and their spouses, and that is directly reflected in the level of failure U.S. companies experience throughout the world.

When Jane accepted her husband entering the growing international pool of potential expatriates at his company, she was excited. She envisioned her family living in Rome, London, or Paris. A year later, when Jack was offered a position in Bangalore, India, Jane refused to go. It took lots of convincing on Jack’s part for Jane to finally agree, but their five-year assignment ended after 13 months because Jane had given up. Moving Jack’s household to Bangalore and back cost the company a fortune. I believe the absence of training for Jack’s family was a significant factor in these failures.

On the other hand, Michelle’s husband was assigned to Seoul, South Korea. With twin toddlers in tow, it made for an intimidating move. Michelle, a world traveler, was excited, but she also had lots of apprehension. Moving with children was something they had never done. She decided to request cultural training from the employer, which granted it.

The training Michelle and her family received had an immediate payoff. Michelle was able to remain calm and controlled upon landing at the airport while locals grabbed her blond, blue-eyed children to show them to their Korean relatives. The children were photographed and given candies while the parents watched, amused. Without cultural training, Michelle confessed she would have been all BUT amused. She would have panicked and probably requested the next flight back to the States. Informed, she knew her toddlers would be a huge attraction, and she had been made aware that the risk of being kidnapped or poisoned was close to non-existent. Michelle and her family loved living in South Korea and are eagerly awaiting their next international assignment.

While it may not appear worthwhile to invest in cross-cultural training to executives who have never experienced culture shock, these examples show the difference it makes.

Here’s an example of a training module for expatriate adaptation:

Assess participants’ own Cultural DNA with regard to the different cultural dimensions(based on the work of Geert Hofstede and Solomon & Schell):

  • Egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Group vs. individual focus
  • Relation or transaction oriented
  • Direct or indirect communication style
  • Time orientation: linear or circular
  • Change tolerance: easy or difficult
  • Motivation/work-life balance

Expose participants to the model of “Cultural Sensitivity” of Milton Bennet (ethnocentrism vs. ethnorelativism):

  • Denial of difference
  • Defense against difference
  • Minimization of differences
  • Acceptance of differences
  • Adaptation to differences
  • Integration of differences

Learn about ways to build trust in the host culture:

  • Focus on intention instead of behavior

Seek partnership from a multicultural point of view:

  • Encourage dialog and kaleidoscopic vision of a situation

Learn about the precise culture of the host country:

Example of cross-cultural training for expatriate moving to South Korea:

  • Values: Confucius and how his doctrine influenced the Korean culture.
  • History: The many invasions Koreans endured and its complicated relationships with China and Japan.
  • Geopolitics: North Korea and the pitfalls to avoid when talking to Koreans.
  • Gastronomy and the concept of “home”: Food and its meaning, home invitation.
  • Language: What to know before you go, and where to take classes once in Seoul.
  • Medical care: The protocol of hospitals and pediatricians, the role of herbal medicine in Korean culture
  • Education: What to expect of international and foreign schools.
  • The expat community: Your choices on where to live, play, and make friends.
  • Travel: Korea by train or air with young (blond) children; what to see in the region.
  • Family support: How to hire a nanny and home staff.
  • A reading list of Korean and foreign writers who recount experiences of daily life.

With more than 15 years of international business development experience as a dual citizen of Switzerland and the United States, Valérie Berset-Price is an experienced consultant, cross-cultural educator, speaker, and trainer. She offers practical insights on the essential tools necessary to achieve meaningful and profitable business results internationally. Over the last 15 years, Berset-Price has worked for Swiss, Taiwanese, South African, French, Brazilian, and U.S. companies; she specializes in international troubleshooting, cross-cultural mediation, intercultural communication, and international strategies for management executives. Berset-Price is a member of the North American Small Business International Trade Educators (NASBITE). Through her “Professional Passport: Work Anywhere with Confidence” curriculum, she provides training that brings the global business world into focus, bridging cultures to succeed in today’s global marketplace. She is also a certified image consultant and the upcoming VP of International Relations for the Association of Image Consultants International, an international association that specializes in global non-verbal communication through effective image management. For more information, visit

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