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Never say this to an expert

We have all been there. Someone comes back from a 2-year assignment in an exotic location. Your interest is sparked. The first thing you ask is, “So, what was it like?” The person looks back at you and says, “It was great.” You say, “I am sure it was.” (Awkward silence.) The conversation switches to the weather.

What is going on here? A missed opportunity.

It´s me again, Sundae Schneider-Bean – intercultures consultant based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa).In this month´s contribution I want to do two things:

  • Offer specific strategies to break out of the tired scripts we use when we talk about experiences abroad.
  • Support you to further develop your global skills [1] by deepening cultural understanding and building strong business relationships.

These strategies are useful for a wide range of individuals, including Global Mobility specialists, HR managers, leaders of international teams, team members of returning expatriates and expatriates themselves.

Let´s get started by asking what can go wrong when we ask, “So, what is it like?” 

This open-ended, non-specific question puts incredible responsibility on the individual to sort through thousands of big and small life-changing moments: deep frustrations, scenes that shocked, events that inspired, just to name a few.

Honestly, when people ask me this question about Burkina Faso, I sometimes freeze. I feel like a deer who gets caught staring into the headlights. I scan my brain quickly to find something to grasp onto among the limitless possibilities. Most often I have managed to say something intelligible. Sometimes it´s might be remotely intelligent. Other times, I´ve simply burbled out something close to, “Um, well, it´s ah – hot. Yeah, it´s hot.”  

This is what I mean by missed opportunity, from both sides

Communication serves many purposes, but two important aims of communication in an intercultural context is toconnect and gain understanding. When we approach the scenario described at the beginning of this article with these purposes in mind, we change what we ask or how we respond, thus raising the potential to connect and learn. We expand the possibility for connection, cultural learning and our own development of global skills.

So if it is so easy to get caught in default scripts, what can we do to change this? Read on for some inspiration. We will focus on both sides of the conversation, starting first with the “asking” and then move on to the “answering.”

When you are asking the questions

Next time you are in a similar situation (whether it be during a casual conversation or leading an interview), consider alternatives. You might just learn more about “what it is like” where they live or work.

Here are a few ideas when talking with expats living abroad [2]:

  • I am sure life there it has its pros and cons. What do you like best about….?
  • I can imagine it´s different from here. What are the biggest differences?
  • How are you adjusting to life in…?
  • How is life there different from what you expected?
  • How did you decide to work in…?
  • How did you get interested in living there? 

If the person has repatriated (returned to their home country), these could be likewise adapted to explore their experience abroad. Here are some examples:

  • What was hardest about…?
  • What was your favorite…?
  • What will you miss about…?
  • How challenging was it to meet people?
  • What is one thing that you´ll never forget about living there?

It is important to remember that we draw from familiar scripts because it is easy and comfortable. You may feel at a loss to ask a more specific question because you simply know very little about the area. Perhaps you feel unsure where it is, or are even afraid of asking a “stupid” question. 

I have had several individuals within my professional and personal network frame their questions about life in Ouagadougou like this, “Sundae, I am sorry this may be a stupid question, but…” I applaud each person for their courage in their quest to feed their curiosity, reduce their uncertainty or expand their understanding about my current home in West Africa.

Silly question or not – asking is a small but important step forward towardconnectionand understanding.

No matter what you decide to ask, it is about being mindful of how you connect with others, expressing genuine interest in others’ experiences and taking advantage of the opportunity to deepen your understanding.

When asking a question, experiment with sharing the “why” behind your question. For example, you may say, “This may seem like a strange question, but my cousin lived in another region of West Africa and she always had trouble with the banks. I am curious if…”  This simple technique will go a long way in helping your conversation partner understand the intention or interest behind your question.

 What might normally fall under “small talk”, inquiring in a more mindful way has the potential to build global skills. First, asking better questions creates a more interesting and personal connection. This is a small yet important step forward in building strong business relationships. At the same time, better questions open the conversation by inviting the speaker to share their perspective on some of the interesting facets of life in that region.

When you are answering the questions

Communication is certainly a “two-way street.” However it is important to keep in mind that many people, although genuinely interested, simply draw from familiar scripts when they engage in conversation.  Let´s assume the person you are speaking to sticks with the script and asks, “So, what is it like there?” You still have an opportunity to create connection and deepen understanding.

This is your chance to be mindfulof how you connect, as well as an opportunity to expand awareness of the region or culture you are immersed in. 

Two simple strategies for when you are asked, “So, what is it like there?”

  • Be prepared.

In all truth – it is worth asking yourself this question. What is it like there? How do youfeel about it? What do you like about it? What is hard about it? 

Once you have answered these questions for yourself, you will have one or two “core” topic areas that will naturally come to mind the next time the conversation arises. 

  • Get resourceful.

One way I can quickly add interest and depth to what could have been a script-like conversation is to share a handful (not thousands!) of photos available on my smartphone. By doing this, you will raise confidence in asking more specific questions and literally paint a picture of where you live.

So next time you ask me “So, what it is it like in Burkina Faso?” I am going to share with you one of my personal highlights (which means telling you more about the photo in this post). Curious? See, I told you this stuff works.

Join me in the comments section of my blog to share other creative approaches, ask questions, find out where the photo was taken, or make a comment.    

Sundae Schneider-Beanis a consultant for intercultures, based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). Sundae helps individuals meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom. She supports organizations committed to building globally-skilled human capital. To learn more about these issues, check out her publications on http://sundaebean.com

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[1] Intercultures defines “global skills” as skills needed to work efficiently in global complexity.

[2] These questions serve as a starting point to get you thinking creatively. Of course, when communicating across cultures you may need to assess in what ways these questions should be adapted based on to whom you are speaking. For example, in Burkina Faso an integral part of greeting someone you have just met involves asking about the family, whereas in Switzerland this may be considered more private.

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The above article was included in our MONTH YEAR Quarterly intercultures E-Newsletter.

Photo Credit Title Photo: TBD

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