Top expat tips – cultural mistakes and how to avoid them

Top expat tips – cultural mistakes and how to avoid them

28th June, 2013

In some Asian and Eastern European cultures, food is so important that it’s considered rude to chat at mealtimes. In other countries, for example Japan, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a social event of the meal itself. In parts of the Middle East and South Africa, crossing your legs and showing the sole of your foot can be a bad omen. You shouldn’t wear yellow in Malaysia because it’s the colour of royalty. Saudi Arabians, Chinese and many Asian countries are used to less personal space than people from the West, who feel uncomfortable when someone comes too close. In some places touching is a requirement of everyday communication, even with strangers. In others, for example Britain, touching is an unspoken but powerful taboo. 

Moving to a new country is very different from simply visiting or going there on holiday. Cultural differences matter much more when you are a permanent resident, part of the complex fabric of everyday life rather than charming eccentricities holidaymakers can choose to adopt or ignore for a week or two. So how can you minimize the risk of making cultural mistakes and maximize your chances of fitting in?

Key questions to ask yourself

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of asking yourself a few key questions about the culture and traditions in your new home country, and ask the same questions every time you encounter a work or social situation you are unsure of.

What are the country’s overall cultural values and how do they differ from what you are used to? How do the people there treat timing, deadlines and schedules? Some countries expect a greater level of efficiency, others are more relaxed and laid back. When they say ‘tomorrow’ it could mean tomorrow… but it could just as easily mean ‘some time next week’.

How do people make decisions? How do they treat personal relationships? And – perhaps most importantly of all in every situation – how do they express emotions? Some places are very open, expressive and straightforward, in others being straightforward can appear rude or threatening.

Are there any differences in the way gender is treated? What about authority figures – how do people express and display power? And what is the relationship between employer and employee? Is it casual or formal?

Use the internet to its full advantage

How do you find out the best ways to communicate and act? You will find a wealth of information online about the cultural and social mores of your new country. Using the internet to its full advantage gives you a head start towards fitting in.

Talk to people at home who come from the country you are moving to

You can carry out invaluable research before you move by talking to people from your new country who live in your home country. They will be able to give excellent advice because they know their own home country well and also appreciate the differences between the two cultures from your perspective.

Chat to fellow expats once you get there

Your fellow expats will also be able to help and advise because they already live in the country and have already identified and experienced the cultural differences for themselves. You can get in touch with expat groups before you go and keep the lines of communication open once you have arrived

Don’t be afraid to ask

There’s nothing wrong with asking if you are not sure how to act. You can say something like, “In my country we would do xxx. I am new in your country – can you help me by explaining what you expect from me in this situation?”.  Whatever the culture, throwing yourself on people’s mercy is almost always disarming and they will be pleased to help.

Make friends!

The sooner you can make friends in your new home country, the better grasp you will get of the differences in the way people run their personal and working lives. It helps to join clubs, take part in events, volunteer your services and immerse yourself in the new culture from the offset.

Prepare to make mistakes and feel comfortable making amends

However much you learn about cultural differences there will probably be situations where you get it wrong, with local variations and all sorts of subtleties you will need to learn along the way. If you cause offence, apologise and explain your situation. Make it clear you are keen to learn, be genuinely interested and ask about local variations whenever you get the opportunity, demonstrating your respect. Whatever their cultural background, people are usually delighted to smooth the path for new arrivals.

Explore our expat country guides

Would you like to know more about expat living? We also produce specific Country Guides each month, full of details to help you make the most of your exciting new life.

Or why not download our free eBook, The New Expat? It goes into detail about the medical side of expat life, family matters, accommodation, financial arrangements and more.

Join the conversation

What is the biggest cultural mistake you have made as an expat? Who or what was the most helpful when you were learning about the unfamiliar society you joined? You can leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @now_health or on the Now Health Facebook page so we can share them with our readers.


Image source: chooyutshing

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Alison Massey

Group Marketing Director

Now Health International

Alison Massey is a 15-year digital marketing veteran, who has spent the last seven years using social media to help expats and soon to be expats find out what to expect from a life overseas. An expat living in Hong Kong herself, Alison is the Group Marketing Director of Now Health, the award-winning international health insurance provider.

Contact Alison Massey

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