One of the challenges an expat often faces when moving abroad is the local language. In a time when you are trying to settle into a new host country and culture learning a new language might seem too much of a challenge. And when you go to, say, Denmark or the Netherlands, many also assume that they actually don’t really need the language. Why go through the trouble?
Why go through the trouble?
It is true that the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries top the list in terms of English proficiency. In fact, the Netherlands and Denmark are number 1 and 2 of the list, and both fall in the category ‘very high proficiency’. Another consideration is that Dutch and Danish are small languages that are not that much use outside of the country (though there are some unexpected benefits, like having a secret language so you can freely discuss anything and anyone without needing to worry much about who might overhear).
Making local friends
A strong argument for putting in the effort of learning the language is that it makes it easier for you to make local friends. And this is something that expats find particularly hard in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. I am currently analyzing 72 interviews I’ve done with expats across the globe, and many of them comment on the importance of learning the language. A German expat in Greece says:
If you want to make REAL friends and not only good acquaintances, then you have to have the language. If you want to win the heart of somebody, learn the language.
Speaking the language opens doors
And this is my experience as well. I have seen it both in the Netherlands and in Denmark that even though people are supposedly fluent in English, they prefer to speak their own language, especially in informal meetings – even if someone is present who doesn’t speak the language. So, if you want to be part of this social circle, better start learning the language! Even speaking a few words can open some doors – or get some laughs, as this Polish expat in France says:
I think that it shows that you are interested in their culture, in their country or whatever. This also opens doors for you. Because even if you don´t speak the language properly, even a little bit of the language opens a lot of doors. […] Even if your language is very bad, you can have a laugh from the others.
Image of language by Shawn Econo via Flickr.
Following up on my previous blog about intercultural competence, I now would like to highlight some recent research that has been published on the topic in a special issue in the European Journal of International Management.
The European context
With 259 million immigrants worldwide , workplaces and societies are internationalising and more and more people need to be able to navigate this new reality – even when not living abroad themselves. This is especially relevant in the European context with its free movement of workers. In 2017, 8.8 million EU citizens worked in another EU country; this is an increase of 61% since 2007. This international flavour is permeating not only workplaces but society in general, and we need to develop the intercultural ‘competencies that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow’ .
Measuring intercultural competence: still a challenge
Many different ways of measuring (part of) intercultural competence have been designed  and are still being developed. Many of these approaches are quantitative in nature, but more qualitative approaches are starting to be introduced as well. The article by Vas Taras focuses on measurement approaches and instruments. A valid and reliable measurement of intercultural competencies is important for empirical research, yet also for business practice, for instance, when it comes to the selection of employees. The article I contributed to (by Richter et al.) focused on the newly developed extended version of the frequently used CQ scale. Our study shows that a more fine-grained measurement instrument can help theoretical advancement.
A bicultural background
Two articles in the special issue zoomed in on individuals with a bi-cultural background. First, the article by Szymanski and Ipek analyse creativity and leadership behaviour of football (soccer) players competing in the English Premier League. They show positive effects of a bi-cultural background, but they also introduce potential negative effects, such as the stress experienced by these individuals. Second, the article by de Waal and Born focused on Third Culture Kids. TCKs are people who, in the period between 0 and 18 years of age, have lived in another culture than the passport culture of their parents . The authors compare TCKs to their non-cross-cultural counterparts in terms of multicultural personality as well as intercultural competencies and examine the effect of these on their preferred leadership style.
Future research in intercultural competence
More research is always a good idea, especially on such an important topic as intercultural competence. For inspiration, researchers – especially the ones newer to the field – can turn to the article by Yari et al. which generates an excellent overview of the research landscape, and it draws the attention to potential areas for future research.
 United Nations (2017) International Migration Report, New York.
 UNESCO (2015) Rethinking education: towards a global common good? Available online at: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000232555
 Fantini, A.E. (2009) ‘Assessing intercultural competence: issues and tools’, in Deardorff, D.K. (Ed.): The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.
 Pollock, D.C., Van Ruth, E.R. and Van Reken, R.E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds, Nicholas Brealey Pub
Content list of the special issue
Nicole Franziska Richter, Marian van Bakel, Christopher Schlaegel and Jeanette Lemmergaard
- Cultural intelligence, global mindset, and cross-cultural competencies: a systematic review using bibliometric methods
Nooria Yari, Erik Lankut, Ilan Alon and Nicole Franziska Richter
- Bridging the determinist-interpretivist divide in intercultural competence research
Julie Emontspool and Kristian Rune Hansen
- Conceptualising and measuring cultural intelligence: important unanswered questions
- Moderators and mediators of cross-cultural training effectiveness: literature review and development of a conceptual model
Christina Kempf and Dirk Holtbrügge
- Growing up among cultures: intercultural competences, personality, and leadership styles of third culture kids
Monika F. de Waal and Marise Ph. Born
- The better, the worse, and the bicultural: examining bicultural competence and bicultural liability in elite football teams
Mike Szymanski and Ebru Ipek
- The expanded model of cultural intelligence and its explanatory power in the context of expatriation intention
Nicole Franziska Richter, Christopher Schlaegel, Marian van Bakel and Robert L. Engle
Map of Europe by Stuart Rankin and the table by Helge V. Keitel via Flickr.
Last month, I attended Træfpunkt HR 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Annually organized for nearly two decades by The Association of Danish HR Professionals, the exhibition displayed services from 150 companies and was attended by over 2000 HR and personnel professionals. As a student with a focus in Human Resources, I was interested to see what trends or themes I would encounter at one of the largest gatherings of human resource professionals in Denmark. Here are three topics that stood out to me.
Soft skills, creativity, and imagination as a competitive advantage
One of the first presentations I attended was a keynote address by Paolo Gallo. As an executive coach, author, and former chief human resources officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva he had many insights into the future job market and the role of ethical leadership during the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. Interestingly, Gallo pinpointed that while skills such as analytical thinking and innovation will continue to be in extremely high demand, soft skills and human-specific emotional intelligence traits such as compassion, team coordination, and creative critical problem solving will be the most sought-after humanistic skills in the future job market.
Gallo’s reasoning for this viewpoint is that while optimizable jobs and skills will begin to be filtered out of the human workforce by artificial intelligence, more refined humanistic capabilities such as imagination will come into demand to counterbalance these AI (artificial intelligence) processes. This shift has the potential to create an incredible opportunity for human resource managers as they will be responsible for identifying and developing employees who possess these skills and/or have the potential to learn these skills.
While it may be easy to view this concept simply as a future possibility, there is already rapid change in the growth of artificial intelligence implementation in workplaces. In 2018, the World Economic Forum Jobs Report stated that while 71% of total task hours (in WEF studied industries) were performed by humans, that average is expected to decrease to 58% by 2022 due directly to artificial intelligence processes being implemented. Also included in the report, the 2022 Skills Outlook listed analytical thinking, active learning, and creativity/originality as the top three ‘growing skills’ needed for future employment .
While it is impossible to know exactly what the future holds, Gallo may be on to something.
While exploring the different products and services presented at the event, I was interested to see the strong emphasis on innovative employee learning products. There were several companies that focused on customized learning games designed to develop employees’ knowledge and critical problem-solving skills. Although the concept of gamification can appear to mostly target training and development, there is research to show that while training and development are positively impacted by gamification, employee engagement can be equally, if not more so, positively impacted . It was fascinating to see this emergence of innovative gamification in the workplace and the competitive possibilities that can be explored with effective employee learning.
David Ulrich – Understanding the ‘value’ of Human Resources
Perhaps the most anticipated speaker of Træfpunkt 2019 was the renowned professor and author, Dr. David Ulrich. His presentation focused on how human resource departments create value for organizations. One of the most prominent concepts in his presentation was the importance of recognizing the proactive role that human resources must take in successfully adapting to external market conditions. “HR is not about HR, but value created for others” was a consistent reminder by Ulrich made to emphasize that by becoming an organization that succeeds in creating business value, organizational capabilities will grow, thereby growing employee well-being. Additionally, Ulrich very skillfully illustrated the importance of talent development within an organization and the value of creating balanced environments where individual talent is used effectively to drive team production while simultaneously developing individual skill sets.
- World Economic Forum. (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018. World Economic Forum Center for the New Economy and Society. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2018.pdf
- Robson, Karen & Plangger, Kirk & Kietzmann, Jan & McCarthy, Ian & Pitt, Leyland. (2015). Game on: Engaging customers and employees through gamification. Business Horizons. 59.
Picture of lightbulb by Greg Westfall, and board tokens by Marco Verch, via Flickr.
Workplaces have become increasingly intercultural (1), and more and more people need to be able to navigate this new reality – even when not living abroad themselves. Research shows that to be successful in intercultural contexts, people need intercultural competencies (2). What is intercultural competence (3) and how can you develop it?
What is intercultural competence?
In short, intercultural competence can be seen as the ability or capacity “to interact effectively and appropriately with members of different cultures” (4). The emphasis here lies not only with to what extent you reach your goals (effectiveness) but also the way in which you do this (appropriateness). Studies also show that you need three components to be interculturally competent: knowledge, motivation, and skills (5). While this gives some idea of what intercultural competence is, there is still a lot of discussion on what exactly constitutes intercultural competence with different streams of research feeding into it (from intercultural communication and international business to international education). The last word is not yet said about this topic.
How can you develop intercultural competence?
An obvious way to develop intercultural competence is through cross-cultural training, which has often been used to prepare expatriates for their international assignment. When designing such training, it is important to keep the experiential rigour in mind – the more participants are actively engaged with the material, the more they will learn (6). Another important way to develop intercultural competence is to interact with people from other cultural backgrounds. For expatriates, this can be host country nationals, who can be an important source of information about the host culture. Such contacts might push you out of your comfort zone; this is all the better because that is when you learn the most.
Where to start?
An important starting point is the affective dimension of intercultural competence – also called attitude or motivation. Open-mindedness is defined as ‘an open and unprejudiced attitude towards outgroup members and towards different cultural norms and values’ (7) and this is very important when encountering people with a different cultural background. One exercise I would recommend is Attend to Judgment, which is an exercise from the Personal Leadership approach (8), where for the space of 20 minutes you keep track of your (automatic) judgments towards yourself and others, both positive and negative. This simple exercise helps you to become aware of your judgments, which is the first step towards being able to act differently than you normally would. Examining our judgments can also be a great way to learn a lot about our own values. Try it out, and see what you learn from it!
- The United Nations International Migration Report (2017) estimates the number of immigrants worldwide at 259 million.
- g. Bird, A., Mendenhall, M., Stevens, M. J., & Oddou, G. (2010). Defining the content domain of intercultural competence for global leaders. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 25(8), 810-828 or Johnson, J. P., Lenartowicz, T., & Apud, S. (2006). Cross-cultural competence in international business: Toward a definition and a model. Journal of International Business Studies, 37(4), 525-543.
- Many different terms are used to denote a similar ability to navigate intercultural situations, such as cultural intelligence, global mindset, and cross-cultural competence.
- Wiseman, R. (2002). Intercultural communication competence. In W. Gudykunst & B. Mody (Eds.), Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication (2nd ed., pp. 207-224). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, p. 208
- Spitzberg, B. H., & Changnon, G. (2009). Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence. In D. K. Deardorff (Ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (pp. 2-52). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, p. 35).
- Mendenhall, M., Osland, J. S., Bird, A., Oddou, G., Maznevski, M., Stevens, M., & Stahl, G. (2013). Global Leadership: Research, Practice, and Development (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Van der Zee, K. I., & Van Oudenhoven, J. P. (2000). The Multicultural Personality Questionnaire: A multidimensional instrument of multicultural effectiveness. European Journal of Personality, 14, p. 294
- Schaetti, B., Ramsey, S., & Watanabe, G. (2008). Personal Leadership: Making a World of Difference: A Methodology of Two Principles and Six Practices. FlyingKite Publications
Picture of the bridge is made during my travels to Hawaii.
Guest blog post by Anna Szabolcs
International business travellers (IBTs) are often used as a cost-effective way for multinational corporations to take care of international business, without having to relocate an employee. Small and medium-sized enterprises increasingly join in the global competition and are making use of IBTs. However, very little research has focused on IBTs in this specific context. The current blog post introduces five main recommendations to manage IBTs in small and medium sized enterprises. These are based on my Master thesis, which was conducted in the context of Odense Robotics cluster in Denmark, taking both the employees´ and the employers´ perspective into account with interviews and a survey.
Recruitment and selection
Setting realistic expectations and fostering self-selection should guide the recruitment process of IBTs. International business travel can be an attractive part of a job for some candidates, but undesirable for others. Moreover, having the right technical skills does not equal to performing well in an international environment. Therefore, using personality assessments and tests aiming to screen the candidates´ cultural awareness is essential to ensure strong performance. These practices will allow the organization to attract the most suitable candidates and eliminate the threat of having to repeat the expensive recruitment process over and over again.
Training and development
IBTs often lack appropriate training and development opportunities. One reason is the nature of their job, which leaves little room for planned preparation or training. On-the-job training is a good way to overcome this issue. It could be done in the form of mentoring, where the mentee can accompany the mentor – for instance, a senior employee – on his/her trip to acquire new skills. Furthermore, as IBTs need to adjust to different cultures continuously and promptly, cultural awareness training should be incorporated into their work routine.
Contingent pay and reward
IBTs’ compensation can be a tricky question for the organisation as their working hours are very different from the 9 to 5 office hours. They usually work while in transit and also in the evenings at their hotel room. Consequently, companies shouldn’t just offer base salary that incorporates the expected amount of travel or pay overtime. They should offer a detailed compensation package to help IBTs understand how they are rewarded for their extra effort. Furthermore, companies should aim to govern the employment relationships of IBTs with a contract that sets out the clear terms and conditions of the employment. It is important to clarify the obligations and rewards to foster the IBTs’ commitment to achieve the businesses’ goals. However, monetary compensation is not the only option. IBT lifestyle can take a toll on one´s personal life. Allowing some reasonable time off after a longer period away could be a good alternative to paying overtime. It can also prevent burnout and reduce work-related stress. Furthermore, intrinsic incentives can be an effective way to increase commitment and create a work environment where people feel inspired to put their best effort forward.
In small and medium-sized organisations performance management can be considered unnecessary since the size of the company allows closer working relationships, where feedback can be given on a daily basis. However, a formal performance appraisal system that is specifically developed to evaluate IBTs can help to shape the attributes needed for them to successfully perform their job. It can also help to understand the costs and benefits of the IBT assignments and reinforce the organisation´s goals.
Travel management is one of the most important and essential ways an organisation can offer support to IBTs. Taking care of travel logistics frees up time that the employees can then spend on the job. Using an external company could be one (cost-effective) solution to take care of the organisation´s travel management needs. In connection to the travel itself, companies should consider allowing an upgrade to business class, especially in the case of long-distance flights, to enable IBTs to be ready to work right after getting off the plane. Providing decent accommodation where IBTs can enjoy a good night sleep is also important to facilitate high performance.
IBTs could also benefit from support with their workload and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. It is recommended to set up a deputy system when possible, to help IBTs with their daily tasks while they are away. State-of-the-art equipment should be provided to enable IBTs to complete work on the road and keep contact with their home office and their family during the business trips. Furthermore, companies should offer flexible working hours, family-friendly practices and in general pay attention to their employees´ work well-being to help IBTs deal with the potentially stressful traveling lifestyle.
SMEs can use these five recommendations as a guide and choose what to implement based on individual needs. It can provide start-ups with some useful ideas to think about their HRM practices regarding IBTs as well as help more established organisations reconsider their existing practices, and potentially make them more effective.
Szabolcs, A. Z. (2019). Managing Flexpatriate Assignments in Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. Master thesis, University of Southern Denmark.
Picture of Boeing 747 by Rene Ehrhardt , and keyboard by www.gotcredit.com, via Flickr.