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Expat Interview Skills: Overcoming Cultural Differences

Updated 20 Apr 2011

As an expat interviewing for a job in a foreign country, you'll most likely experience a whole new level of pressure. The reason? Cultural differences – how you handle them can make or break your interview performance. 

No matter where you're from or what job you're applying for, the hiring manager needs to know that you're capable of performing the tasks in question, and also that you'll be a good addition to the team.

Don’t be intimidated because you don’t think you have all the skills detailed in the job specification. Most businesses will teach you as you go, so lacking a certain skill will not mean you can’t get the job. If you do lack certain skills or experience, you need to work twice as hard in your interview to impress the hiring manager and to illustrate what you can bring to the job.

It's a myth to think that the most skilled person will get the job. When it comes to hiring the right person, it is about the overall package – skills, personality, confidence and also the passion you show in your interview.

The interview process

Typically the majority of job interviews will follow the same path. Ice-breaking question, followed by general questions before the tough parts of the interview which are the behavioural based interview questions. Most interviews will finish with the interviewer asking the standard question “Do you have any questions to ask me?”

Although this is the standard path, as an expat it is important to understand cultural differences relating to the country and the company in order to answer the questions and behave in the right way. Nine out of 10 times this boils down to research. Common sense and being able to read the personality of the interviewer also plays a major role in the interview. For example, if you are being interviewed in Australia by a laid-back hiring manager your approach needs to be different than if you are being interviewed in the UK or USA by a more formal interviewer (or vice versa).

Ask questions or not?

In many Western countries, it is recommended to ask direct and inquisitive questions during the interview. It shows your initiative, confidence and curiosity. For example, it's fantastic to ask the interviewer about their background and why they decided to join the business. After all, as the interviewee it's in your best interest to know about the current employees and their background. However, this type of approach in Asian countries would generally be discouraged as many local managers would consider this type of questioning disrespectful or even rude.

Social hierarchies

Social structure is also very different in certain countries and as an interviewee, you need to be aware of these differences. In China, for example, the social structure can be more hierarchical than in the West. Where in the USA it is more common to see those of mixed social levels socialising, it is less likely to see this occurring in China. It also means you should bow slightly to your interviewer in an Asian context to convey respect, while behaving similarly in a Western context would be absurd.

Cultural differences

Ignoring culture differences can get an unsuspecting person into trouble. For example, in Western countries it is encouraged to speak about your achievements and your success; but in other countries, this action may lead the interviewer to believe you are self-important and egotistical.

An example to illustrate this: An American expat travelled to Sweden with the hope of finding employment. Having come from a background in investment banking and having worked in the USA he spoke freely about his success and achievements. After five failed interviews he came across the idea of Jante's Law, which in Scandinavian culture is the concept of egalitarianism, which translates to an appreciation for sameness and a dislike for bragging about achievements. By not having an understanding of the culture, he came across as boastful and arrogant.

Arriving on time

Punctuality for an interview is standard interview behaviour; however, in certain countries, such as South Korea, ensure that you are not just on time but you are early. It is considered extremely rude to arrive late to a job interview in South Korea. Remember in many Asian countries culture dictates that personal contact is not encouraged, and extending a hand for shaking can be seen as a sign of rudeness.

Dress right

Formality and manners are another area of difference between countries. By understanding the relevant culture you can best avoid any problematic issues with clothing and appearance.

As in most countries, different industries require certain dress codes. In France, for example, the higher the position within a larger organisation, the more formal the dress code. However, the further south you travel in France the more informal business dress becomes. Similarly, when interviewing for an advertising agency position, wearing a formal black suit could take you out of the running straight away.

Religion and tradition

A country's religious affiliation and traditional values will also play a major role in your job interview. In countries like the UAE and Bahrain, despite being seen as modern tourist destinations, their locals are still conservative in many different ways. As a foreign expat you need to not only dress, but also act, conservatively and appropriately so as not to offend anyone.

The overall message is when you are interviewing in the global environment research and preparation are the keys to interview success.

Go the extra mile

Here is a true story to illustrate the importance of preparation. A candidate was applying for a job at one of the large investment banks. Out of 150 candidates the hiring manager had selected the top 10 best resumes to choose first-round interviewees. Every interview was 15 to 20 minutes long. The final question the hiring manager asked to each of the candidates was “Tell me something about the company.” Nine out of 10 of the candidates rattled off information they had read from the company’s “About Us" page, but one candidate stood out. After reading about the company’s strategic purchase of a new acquisition, the candidate was able to impress the hiring manager with his (somewhat different) knowledge.

The hiring manager later offered this candidate the role not because he was the smartest candidate, but because he showed his dedication by going the extra step in his interview preparation.

Remember one last tip: Always follow up after your job interview with a thank you email. No matter where in the world you are, a thank you email or letter will enhance your chances of getting hired.

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