Stepping Outside Cultural Norms

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Stepping Outside Cultural Norms

Some friends were concerned with my international choices. They told me that this was not the right career track for a bright, goal-oriented person. Some people told me I was a fool for choosing international division work. They argued that I should just travel on vacation to Europe because it’s exotic and interesting, but it is not a place to work. They told me I would be doing myself a disservice. Some people even said I was un-American to choose to live in other places, as if there was something more valuable there. The prevailing attitude was that America was where the action was. In some ways that was true, but I was drawn to a more global life, and I wanted to understand people from other cultures. As I envisioned my future, I was hopeful of becoming a manager in a global company.

At that time in the 1960’s,  many major corporations were based in the U.S. and operated an international division. Many times the Americans who worked abroad were given the CEO or top management position in a foreign branch of the company as a reward at the end of their careers, not because they had a desire to understand and work in a foreign location. The same was happening in the U.K. for British executives, and in France for French executives. All developed nations had successful large companies with international operations.

Because these foreign locations were considered a hardship for the American executives working there, Americans expected to be compensated at a high level to afford them the same lifestyle abroad as they had enjoyed in the U.S.. This added significant expense to the international division. There were indices for calculating the cost of living differential, using New York as a base. For instance, if London was 130% of the cost of living in New York, the executive would receive an additional 30% cost of living differential. In addition, there were major moving costs associated with working in foreign locations, and payment of extra benefits, such as private schooling for the executive’s children. Such expatriate benefit packages continue to exist in many companies. However, there are fewer companies today that compensate expatriates in this way.

On a humorous note, I recall that one executive in the mid 1960’s shipped dozens of cartons of toilet paper to his new home in Switzerland, fearing that he could not obtain toilet paper there. We had little knowledge of how many people lived, what they thought, and what they valued; and sadly, many Americans did not care.

I had a wonderful experience working in the Swiss insurance company. The German they spoke in the office was quite different from traditional German, so I picked up fluency in another German dialect. By this time I had lived in Austria, two locations in Germany, and now was living in Zurich, learning three different dialects of the German language, and somewhat different cultures. I also travelled to many other European countries, so I started to understand that people from different countries, even in Western Europe, had different ideas about what’s important in life.

The position I had with the Swiss insurance company was office manager for an international division. My boss was an American man from Pasadena, California, who had lived in Switzerland for several years. His division of the company arranged and sold employee benefit plans, mostly to international companies based in Europe. Since my boss did not speak German, I was able to work between him and key Swiss executives. Since the operations spanned across Europe, I began to see how other international companies operated. I could also see that my future would be in international business.

2019-01-08T22:07:00+00:00