A Cultural Shift: Lessons in Leaving the US for an Agency Abroad
Needless to say, working abroad is a whole new experience. Aside from the same spreadsheets that supervisors require, the same occasional menial task (i.e. building coat racks) the same use of business clichés in meetings (“increasing synergy, it’s all about the bottom line, let’s touch base on this later, etc.”), there are many differences to working at an agency “across the pond.”
On the first day of my internship in Brussels, I was completely oblivious that the people who were giving me my orientation were fellow interns. Interns are not called interns here. They refer to them as “stagiaires” (which I originally thought was some business buzzword for executive or supervisor). I won’t continue to make excuses for my poor awareness, but I would just like to point out that the other stagiaires are all at least four years older. With the help of much less expensive universities in Europe, my fellow stagiaires all hold (sometimes multiple) degrees and have completed their masters. It is not uncommon for Europeans to start working as interns/stagiaries after college, which is a main reason why there is a four year age difference between myself and the others. Working abroad, specifically Brussels, you quickly realize that almost everyone speaks at least two languages, fluently.
With all this facing me, I certainly felt out of my comfort zone. There was an important difference that I did not expect. My “competition” turned out to be incredibly helpful and willing to give me advice on my tasks. The “cutthroat and survival of the fittest” mentality that is often drilled into our minds in classes does not exist here. Fellow stagiaires are willing to help and are not just looking out for themselves.
Work is expected to begin at nine in the morning; however, this guideline may vary from culture to culture. It is not uncommon to arrive to work fifteen, even thirty minutes past nine. From there, the morning starts off with an espresso, socializing and catching up on emails. This routine seems to be shared across all borders.
This workplace style is often how companies do their best work. The hour lunches are one of the most useful tools — it’s how new business begins. Wining and dining prospective clientele helps build relationships on a personal level, and a working partnership can be built from there.
The rest of the workday is pretty typical — full of meetings, conference calls and looking busy. This schedule becomes amended during a very special event — the EURO Cup. This large fútbol tournament leads to offices installing large flat screens and countless betting pools. Since the majority of my fellow employees are from different countries, tensions run high when their countries play one another.
The environment in the office certainly changes: Employees volunteer to stay late. Work stops for brief moments before goals. Cheers and sobs blend together. The printer is hauntingly silent.
With all this considered, it’s understandable why some Americans are hesitant to work abroad. Employees are bound to run into completely different work dynamics, language barriers and the occasional joke at our country’s expense.
When I first began work, a common thought that ran through my head was, “What did I apply for? I should have stayed in the US.” However, I quickly realized my fears were normal in the situation. We all fear leaving our comfort zones, but the experience of learning about new lifestyles, languages, food and places is worth the small amount of discomfort I occasionally feel.
Working abroad, even for a short time, will not only look great on a résumé, but it will also provide an understanding that will allow you to look at future tasks from other perspectives. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should migrate to another country. Simply keep in mind that there are people (and jobs) all over the world in the same industry that can provide you with a variety of opportunities.
If anything has come from working alongside my fellow “stagiaires”, I feel more motivated to study other languages, consider higher education and avoid losing money on fútbol wagers.
Derek is currently interning at a consultancy in Brussels. Next fall, he will be a senior at the University of Missouri and will be working as an account executive in the upcoming National Student Advertising Competition. Aside from his profession life, he loves being outdoors, traveling and playing sports. His family lives in the Chicago area and he enjoys spending time in the city. Oh, and he's a Cubs fan (next year is the year...). Feel free to connect with him on Linkedin.