The author draws attention to the possible difficulties to adapt the dress code and professional practices of one’s culture of origin after having lived abroad for several years.
In this paper I will discuss the issue of „ reverse culture shock‟, meaning the problems many face when repatriating after years abroad. I will draw examples from a personal experience specifically related to the Norwegian job culture and how I felt it was difficult to find a job there after returning from years abroad. After presenting the example, I will attempt to apply it to the I2C model.
It might be somewhat expected to experience a culture shock when moving abroad or into an environment much different than your own. What might be less expected is the sense of feeling like a „foreigner‟ on repatriation – when returning back to your own environment after years abroad. The result can be feeling like a foreigner in the very same place you have spent a vast majority of one‟s life.
When returning home, you might even experience resentfulness and hostility towards the people and places once so familiar. This might happen for various reasons. Moving away from original settings and surroundings also means growing on many levels, thus on returning home, your perception of many things may have changed.
Equally, friends at home have moved on with their lives thus you no longer feel „connected‟. Spending time with people who have little or no concept of life overseas can be very difficult. Many returning expatriates wish their foreign experience to continue, and often find it very difficult to fit in, surrounded by people who have not had a similar opportunity.
Personal experience: Difficulties landing a job
In July 2005 I returned back to Norway after having spent some good seven years abroad as a result of studying in London and afterwards working in an international company in Rome. I had only had brief working spells in Norway thus my points of references with regards to working culture and studying came mostly from contexts different from what I could expect in Norway.
Nevertheless, I was convinced that my professional profile would be interesting to a wide range of employers. Since wanting to study abroad, I had taken the approach that with an academic and professional profile different from other applicants I would be more interesting.
Thus, when returning home from Italy, I was fairly confident I had developed a professional profile that would attract interest from many employers. And I was right. Most vacancies I applied for resulted in interviews. However, I found it progressively difficult to break through and actually be offered a job.
I soon discovered that most companies found my profile interesting and they were curious to know more about me. However, I also realised that many hesitated to take me on board because I had too much international experience compared to Norwegian working experience. What I thought was my strongest side became my weakest link.
Furthermore, I took the conscious approach that if one is invited to a job interview, dressing appropriately is fundamental. For me, „appropriately‟ meant a suit and a tie, very much in line with what I was used to in esthetically aware Italy. However, this proved to be perhaps the biggest „shock‟ for me. I underestimated the importance of what clothes can communicate.
Dress codes in Norway are generally extremely different from Italy. This also goes for working culture. In Norway, it is far more common to wear jeans or casual trousers and a shirt 1 whereas „business casual‟ is often a mere minimum in Italian companies. So, when invited for interviews, I was „overdressed‟ compared to the other candidates, unconsciously sending out signals that were to my disadvantage. I was out of touch with the informal Norwegian work reality. Despite sharing the same national background, my cultural reference points with regards to work culture were not the same.
My approach to the interviews had implications beyond projecting myself as someone who had simply taken on an Italian way of dressing up. Not only did I come across as too formal, I also came across as someone who perhaps had spent too many years abroad and thus would have troubles adapting to a Norwegian work setting.
Ironically, this was commented by a state-owned company affiliated with the Norwegian office for Foreign Affairs.
After being very close to landing a job in this company, I felt the need to ask for advice on what I did wrong and thus how to improve my approaches to future job interviews. The most striking piece of advice they gave me was about how I dressed. Although they had nothing to comment on my professional skills, they sensed that I would not fit into their more informal working group. My formal way of dressing for the interview was an indication on how they thought I would dress in a day-to-day situation.
They explained to me how Norwegians in general are far more informal than perhaps what is the case in central and southern Europe and how this also affects the working culture. Their advice was consequently to adapt to a more informal approach to work. “Drop the tie”, their message was.
The job searching experience in Norway proved I was experiencing a reverse culture shock and my inability to adapt to a culture which was supposed to be my own. I had to reconsider my approach to interviews and „tone down‟ my international profile. The result was a more informal way of dressing (trousers and a buttoned-down shirt). Shortly after, I landed a job.
Discussion: Reverse culture shock and the I2C model
In this part I will attempt to apply the various elements of the I2C model to the above mentioned experience. I will consider the four main elements of the model; the communication process, cultural configurations, social actors and frameworks as well as the individual aspects.
The I2C model aims to explain the complexity of intercultural communication whether it is face-to-face communication, media communication and communication involving public and private institutional actors. In this case it will be applied to a face-to-face context although the receiver also represents an institutional actor.
The “critical incident” described in the first part of the paper is a classic example of how differences in working cultures can result in miscommunication and even communication breakdown. The challenges of communication between culturally different parties in a business context were an important part of the development of Intercultural Communication, conceptualised by Edward T. Hall and others in the early 1950s. Hall‟s work for the American Foreign Service Institute dealt with micro- level behaviours of interactions between people of different cultures, specifically on diplomatic level. Hall applied much importance on Freud‟s psychoanalytic theory where acts are just as important as the spoken word. Out-of-awareness communication, what we unconsciously communicate to others, may have just as big impact as what we consciously communicate – the “communicative significance of our acts rather than our words” (Rogers, E, Hart, W & Mike Y. (2002). Freud‟s theory had an important influence on Hall‟s work, first and foremost in his book The Silent Language (1959).
The above mentioned experience regarding my job interviews is a classic example of how a 1)message (in this case my presentation of my professional skills) is compromised and interferred by 2) „elements‟ (my formal way of dressing up) because of the 3) receiver‟s (the company representative) predisposition and cultural perception of me. I was unconsciously sending out signals that interfered with my message. The communication process, in this case the dialogue between me and the company, was interfered by the disturbing element of how I was dressed, which took the attention away from my professional profile.
This leads us to the cultural configurations, that is to say the cultural elements that come into play in an intercultural communication. I have already mentioned the issues of dress code and how it may differ significantly between Norway and Italy, but I have not discussed the aspect of identity and above all the representation of myself.
During the interview, I wanted to project myself as someone who had international experience with skills and experience that could be interesting to Norwegian companies. As was the case, the companies saw it almost the opposite way; my international profile and habits represented a potential handicap when working in a Norwegian context because I was out of touch with the Norwegian working culture. As Amartya Sen notes, “even when we are clear about how we want to see ourselves, we may still have difficulty in being able to persuade others to see us just that way” (Sen, 2006: 6). I was trapped in an identity dilemma: all efforts to accumulate international experience became my Achilles heel yet it was my most important sales pitch when applying for jobs. The result was a reverse culture shock: I felt a stranger in my own „home‟.
As Hofstede (2004) points out, our background provides us with a certain culture. My academic and professional background had provided me with a professional identity different to the ones I wanted to work for. We shared the same reference points with regards to national cultures, however we differed on levels of occupational culture.
With all fairness, my experience with such different organisational practices as the Italian work culture, were seen as positive aspects of my profile. I had a proven ability to adapt to a working culture quite different from the Norwegian one, however, the question was whether I had adapted too much...
The individual realities and psychological mechanisms that come into play during a job interview are interesting to consider in relation to the I2C model. A job interview is a conversation (both formal and informal) to establish whether a person is appropriate and suitable for a position within a company. It is the job candidate‟s opportunity to elaborate what he or she has written in the job application just as much as it is the potential employer‟s opportunity to see if the candidate its the job description beyond what is written in the application.
Consequently, affective aspects such as the candidate‟s behaviour during an interview are considered quite extensively. Behaviour includes our body language and how we react to the different questions posed during an interview. Do we come across as motivated and competent or stressed and uncomfortable about the situation? How well do we manage to adapt to an interview situation? Strong motivation and well-documented competence may be overshadowed by stress and discomfort simply because attending a job interview can be considered an intimidating experience. A candidate can have an excellent professional profile but have problems expressing it during an interview because he or she feels „interrogated‟ accompanied with a constant worry of not giving the „right‟ answers.
Furthermore, our motivation, as an affective aspect of our behaviour, is an important element during a job interview. How motivated am I about this job and how motivated is the potential employer about considering me for this job? I can be as motivated as the next candidate in wanting the job, however, it is ultimately the company that decides your faith. Interviewing several candidates is an ongoing process of comparing. You can get close, but there will be no cigar.
Motivation is a key aspect of intercultural communication. How well do we manage to cope with intercultural challenges such as socio-economic (e.g. immigration), social (e.g. tension between different social groups), ideological-political (e.g. inter-religious conflicts) and cultural differences?
Motivation with regards to IC means expressing interest in understanding (and solving) intercultural challenges. If we apply this interest to a job seeking process, there are quite serious socio-economic issues that arise. Examples of discrimination when choosing candidates for a job position is omnipresent, with the consequence that individuals from minority groups (e.g. financially limited groups, religious groups, immigrant groups) have fewer chances of landing a good job compared to someone from a majority group (e.g. white middle class) despite being academically and professionally qualified for the job.
Finally, social actors and frameworks are the „social space‟ where communication takes place. It is in this „space‟ where “cultural configurations emerge and where individuals develop and evolve” (Poglia, 2007).
For the case study used in this paper, the social space is in a company or in a work related situation. As is the purpose of an interview, it is here differences and configurations emerge. It is during an interview one can establish whether there are grounds for further communication which may or may not result in a job offer. As much as a written job application gives an overview of someone‟s professional profile it does not give a sufficient impression of the candidate‟s social character. Equally, a job ad does not give a sufficient impression of a work place and the tasks related to the job.
The framework of an interview is based on a communication setting where the two parties have the same desired outcome (filling a vacancy) but where the power relation is different. It is ultimately the company that decides whether the candidate will be offered a job or not, based on his/hers presentation of him/her. A successful outcome of an interview from a candidate‟s point of view is to be offered the job.
But whether or not the candidate is pleased with his/hers presentation is indifferent if the company thinks otherwise. Similarly, for my situation, it did not matter how well prepared and pleased I was with my presentation when ultimately the company thought it differently. As much as I strived to convince them of the opposite, the projection of myself, including the unconscious physical presentation of myself, projected an image of someone who they believed would not fit into their social/corporate space. Communication from my point of view had failed because they perceived me differently from what I wanted.
In this paper I have attempted to show how the four elements of the I2C model can be applied to explain intercultural difficulties when applying for jobs together with the challenges of reverse culture shock. I have used an example of personal experiences when applying for jobs in Norway. I have attempted to show how my difficulties with re-adapting to a Norwegian job culture coincide with the challenges of reverse culture shock.
A job interview is an intense exchange of impressions and ideas. Based on a short dialogue a company must decide whether the candidate is fit to be offered what is often a long-term investment for the company. Equally, the candidate must “hit all the right buttons” in order to land the job. This not only means prove competent for the job but also adaptive to the organisation culture of the company. The impression the candidate leaves the company, very much includes his/hers „silent language‟. The candidate is vigorously observed during an interview and several factors beyond the candidate‟s control are considered. As in all communication processes, the candidate can decide what to communicate, but not how it will be interpreted. The importance of what the candidate unconsciously communicates through the aspects of non-verbal communication is left to the recipient to decide and sometimes a tie and a jacket can make a difference.