Traveling between cultures
Working and living in a foreign culture is never easy at first. But as two ING colleagues who have moved around the globe report, the experience has made them smarter and more resilient. Meet Aakanksha Aggarwal, who went from east to west, and Catalina Hascu, who ventured from west to east.
East goes west: Aakanksha
My parents always encouraged me to study abroad as they thought it would open more opportunities for me. I had a chance to study in Australia, but I pulled back because I was scared of moving to a new country at the age of 17. Instead, I did my bachelor’s in New Delhi, a one-hour metro journey from my home in Gurgaon. After that I moved to Mumbai for my first job.
Mumbai was a stepping stone. After one year there, and a brief period back home, I decided I wanted to pursue a master’s degree abroad. I chose the University of Amsterdam. While studying, I networked extensively as I knew I should look for a job early in the process. But I didn’t speak fluent Dutch and when I was five months into my master’s, the pandemic hit. After many job rejections, I was almost ready to pack my bags and go back to India when I got an offer for the traineeship programme at ING. That’s what started my permanent journey outside India.
One sentence says everything
I immediately faced cultural differences in the workplace. In my experience, Dutch say what they are thinking. One sentence says everything you need to know, whereas in India you sometimes have to navigate your way through multiple sentences to understand the message. At ING, my manager was giving me concrete responses. This directness is the best thing that has happened to my career because I knew exactly where I stood, what was expected of me, and what I needed to do. Another cultural difference is that junior people in India tend not to get up and go to lunch, they wait for the manager to go first. My manager in Amsterdam, a managing director, might be on a call and say, “you guys go ahead.” Or, if I was still busy, he’d ask if he could get something for me from the cafeteria. Later he’d ask, “How was the soup I brought for you?” That was a big surprise to me!
It’s been almost two months since I moved to London, working in the same team as in Amsterdam. Again, the work culture is quite different here. Many teams here eat at their desks. Personally, I need a change of view to recharge. Also, I thrive on social interactions. I’m on a first-name basis with every person in the office canteen in London. That’s me. The great thing about the London office is that a lot of colleagues have worked in different locations, so I try to have coffee or lunches with them to learn more about cultural adjustment.
Having all these different experiences makes you more equipped to adapt to situations that come your way. I also learned that sometimes you have to adapt to the culture of the environment you’re in, but not to the extent that you ignore everything that you are.
I know people who’ve left India and changed their names to make them sound more western or ‘easier’ to pronounce. I would never do that. My name is my identity, me being an Indian is an identity. The way I look, the way I am, the kind of food I eat.Staying true to my roots is very important to me.
West goes east: Catalina
I’m from eastern Romania, a wine-making region. After getting my bachelor’s degree in language and literature in Bucharest, I worked as a teacher and private language tutor for expats working in Romania. Then I decided I wanted to do something different. So I moved to Greece to manage a project for an NGO [AIESEC]. I was 23 and it was the first time I’d ever left Romania.
In that project I had to work closely with colleagues from Greece, India and China. There were challenges. As a lead for the social projects department, I started off trying to push my targets to the teams working on the ground – very unsuccessfully I must say. At some point, I said: “Forget what I said, put down on paper what you think you can deliver to the project and then we’ll discuss it together.” This way we ended up with a higher goal than what was initially projected, because now this had become their goal and not only mine.
Heart, not facts
It was a first lesson in managing cultural diversity. In Greece, I learnt to build a personal relationship with people to get things done, whereas in Romania I could be more transactional with my colleagues. I learned to talk with my heart.
After a year in Greece, I wanted to stay abroad to keep on discovering new horizons and cultures. I applied to a few companies and signed on with ING for a one-year assignment in Global HR in Amsterdam.
It was a big transition. I was immediately confronted with a different, more direct way of communicating. My first manager back then was very clear, saying that I had six months to deliver visible results, if not the project I was responsible for would be cancelled.
While being in the Netherlands, I worked with lots of people from other cultures too – Swedes, Americans, French, Italians, British. This made me enhance my cultural awareness further. It helped me decipher and test first-hand the preferred collaboration and feedback style of different cultures. Dutch colleagues encouraged me to always speak up, a great lesson.
Adjusting my style
After almost seven years in Amsterdam, it was time for something new. I’m now working in the Philippines as an HR business partner. The first six months were hard, if only because I’m the only non-Filipino in the entire [HR] team. Again, I had to flex my communication style. With time and practice, I found out that in the Philippines you have to give more space for people and invite them to contribute and offer their opinion – quite different from what I was used to working with my Dutch colleagues.
One of the biggest cultural shocks is the vast inequity in society. The gap between the rich and poor was very confronting for me. However, everyone you meet here is happy to help and usually they do that with a smile.
My advice? Don’t ever assume things about people. The biggest problems always come from making assumptions. Especially when you’re in a new multicultural context, you need to fight that natural instinct of making fast decisions or jumping to conclusions. Take the time to ask questions and to discern how things really are and how people really think and live.
About the World Day for Cultural Diversity for
Dialogue and Development
The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity was adopted by UNESCO in 2001. In 2002, the UN General Assembly declared 21 May to be the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. The day is an opportunity to improve our understanding of the value of cultural diversity and highlight the contribution culture makes to sustainable development. “Bridging the gap between cultures is urgent and necessary for peace, stability and development,” says the UN.