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From Culture Shock to Success Abroad

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Breaking Through Culture Shock by Elisabeth Marx. Nicholas Brealey, 233 pages, $25.

In this era of global competition, the career ladder in many businesses detours through one or more international postings.

Many people don't realize, according to author Marx, that the degree to which you are able to adapt to a foreign culture can determine your effectiveness as an international manager. In Breaking Through Culture Shock, Marx takes a detailed look at the causes and symptoms of culture shock and how to deal with it.

The key to overcoming culture shock is to master what she calls the "culture shock triangle" of emotions, thinking, and social skills. Adapting to a foreign culture means stabilizing your emotions (moving them from the extremes of euphoria and depression to contentment), understanding how your counterparts think, and developing effective social skills.

Goodbye Autopilot

For example, in familiar surroundings, our minds are often on autopilot. We know how to react or what is expected.

When we try to assimilate into a new culture, however, we are no longer able to take things like body language for granted, and we are exhausted by trying to figure what symbols or gestures or even words mean in a new context. Thus, we are forced to "learn new things and expand our thinking," Marx says.

Our response, according to Marx, can either be to become:

* a colonialist, who does not react at all to the new culture;

* an imperialist, who tries to impose his or her own value system on the new culture; or

* an internationalist, who is aware of the complexities of the new culture, and tries to adapt accordingly.

Checklists and Advice

In the second part of the book, "Conquering Culture Shock -- Achieving Success," Marx explains how to become an internationalist, focusing in detail on business cultures in Germany, France, U.K., U.S.A. and China. She provides checklists and practical advice on how to adapt to a new environment -- from evaluating your family's adaptability to "managing international managers."

She closes the book with a series of questions on motivation, expectations, and personality that will help you make a realistic assessment as to whether or not you could adapt to a different culture.

Breaking Through Culture Shock is a rarity: a scholarly book (Marx is a German-born psychologist with a doctorate from Oxford) that is nevertheless a valuable preparation tool for anyone whose career goals will send them abroad.

Copyright 1999, Soundview Executive Book Summaries.

Last updated: Nov 5, 1999




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