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  • Writer's pictureRegina Reinhardt

Lost (and Found) in Translation

Many articles have been written on the experience of culture stress (also called culture shock). The following real-life example showcases just how unexpectedly this phenomenon can turn up - even for the most knowledgeable among us.

The other day, I met with a colleague. Anna, working on her fourth career, is a global citizen who lives in two countries throughout the year and has mastered three work languages to proficiency level. Due to her multicultural upbringing, she appreciates and feels comfortable in diverse environments, and has worked most of her life within multicultural teams and organizations. So, I was rather surprised when she started our discussion by saying, ‘I’m feeling very culturally stressed!’ Although she had grown up in the country where we were meeting, and felt comfortable in the local language, she confessed: ‘I get very stressed out doing business with the locals, feeling like an imbecile at least once a day.’ She went on to share episodes where she’d been unable to make herself understood.

I listened with ears wide open. She wasn’t complaining. Anna, who knew all about culture stress theory - and has coached expatriates on this subject for nearly two decades - was going through the experience itself.

How could this happen? Anna had fond memories of the country in which she was raised. She decided to start a company there, hoping to create opportunities to give back and show gratitude for this place. Anna understood that building connections is essential to this culture, so she planned to invest most of her time meeting in person (and in the local language) with like-minded business people. She was also aware that the particularities of the laws, market size and business approach in this region could become a hurdle, but her risk-taking, entrepreneurial character made her strong and confident. Through her vast national and international business networks, she was introduced to the local entrepreneurial community, and within just a few weeks, she had a first major client interested in collaborating with her.

Then something completely unexpected happened. Anna realized her communication with local business people wasn’t working at all. Although she was fluent in their language and successful at arranging meetings, she was getting no results. For all her talk, people seemed to have no interest in doing business, or gave mixed messages. Anna felt completely lost - culture stress had gotten to her.

What is culture stress?

In an article on culture shock (the more common label for the phenomenon), G. Hofstede notes, ‘Living abroad and experiencing all the newness of a society, combined with absence of people who can support, might cause various degrees of anxiety. This type of anxiety is called cultural shock or cultural stress, and everyone deals with some degree of it…’

Most of us would expect culture stress to happen when working abroad, in cultures far away from our own. But when relocating to a country where the language spoken is close to one’s own mother tongue (for example, moving from one Spanish-speaking country to another), culture stress may present itself in highly unexpected, and therefore even more intense, ways. Sometimes changing organizations within the same country can cause culture stress. It can appear when changing from the public sector to the private, or going from a financial business to an NGO. Change causes stress, because we cannot rely on behaviors and language developed over the years. New, different behavior and language are required.

Back to Anna. It’s important to note that she is a cosmopolitan, both because of her life style (living in two countries) and her international business culture (working with expats). Why does this matter? Andy Molinsky answers this question in his HBR column Cultural Differences Are More Complicated Than What Country You Are From: ’It would […] be useful to know if the people you are interacting with are locals, born and raised in that particular setting and without extensive [international business] experience, or if they are cosmopolitans, with extensive [international business] backgrounds. Locals are much more likely to reflect the norms of the immediate region you are in, whereas cosmopolitans are likely to be open to a wider range of […] behaviors’. If cosmopolitans are unfamiliar with local accents, gestures and choice of abbreviati