If you ever visit Chile, you’ll realize immediately that your textbook Spanish won’t get you far. Though most of Latin America boasts their own regional slang, Chileans take creative language to the next level. You’ll hear words like “cachai?” (you know?) and “weon” (dude), more than anything you learned from the Royal Spanish Academy. Although this can frustrate the university-educated language learner, if you adjust quickly to the colloquial language and incorporate these words, Chileans rapidly become more accommodating and friendly. You’re speaking their language.
Understanding how to adapt and adjust to a new cultural context—changing your language, your demeanor, and your expectations—is a life skill that will serve you well in all contexts, including professional ones. Managers seek out employees who are agile and versatile, people who will try new things even if it means getting out of their comfort zone. Success in the professional world means learning which language resonates most with your client, co-workers, and managers. Success demands tenacity and a willingness to test out different strategies. Success comes from professionals who know how adjust their approach and attitude depending on the people they’re dealing with. Few life experiences test those skills like an internship abroad.
Going abroad tests more than your ability to learn and adjust to language. Each country, each city, and each neighborhood operates differently. You must figure out how to get from point a to point b—sometimes that means riding the bus, sometimes the metro, sometimes a cab, or a shared car. If you’re walking, you realize which streets have the most lighting, which are well-frequented and you adjust. You figure out which supermarket offers the products you need, which have the shortest lines and when they are least busy. You realize when certain stores open and close and adjust your behavior to make sure you don’t miss your chance to buy toilet paper or milk. People who go abroad for the first time are often surprised at how simple tasks can feel so much more difficult because they’re learning all the new rules of this new place. It can be exhausting and energizing at the same time. You realize how little thought and effort these tasks required previously—suddenly, you’re mindful of each small step it takes to withdraw cash or order a pizza. Adjusting to these new challenges isn’t difficult, but it requires patience and an open mind, much like the obstacles we face in professional settings.
The advantage of interning abroad, as opposed to merely studying or traveling, is that you’re getting a cultural immersion experience in the most practical of places—the office. Just as you’re forced to adjust your expectations and approaches on the street, at work you’ll have to see how you can be most effective through trial and error. Each country and each office has established its own pace. Some offices are laid back about deadlines and coming in on time—others prioritize punctuality above everything else. While interning abroad, you’re forced to be more explicit about the expectations of you, you shouldn’t make assumptions. You’ll also have to really observe the behavior of the rest of the office— what are other people wearing? What’s appropriate lunchroom conversation? Does my boss prefer e-mail or in-person communication? It’s important to be sensitive to the culture of the office and adjust accordingly. At the same time, people will recognize that you’re an outsider and give you more time to make adjustments.
Beyond what’s mentioned previously, there are many intangible ways we adjust when we’re living in another country and immerse ourselves in another culture. It can be hard to measure all the tiny interactions we have and how we change our behavior and our expectations. We make a lot of adjustments without really thinking, though interning abroad is an excellent way to make this implicit skill more explicit. With a raised awareness of the need to adapt, we work on improving that ability in a deliberate and significant manner.
NACE college members will find a student-directed version, Mastering the Art of Adaptation With an Internship Abroad, they can share.