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Traveling Abroad For Work? Go Forth And Conquer!

Posted: May 19, 2014

Travelling abroad for work can be uncomfortable for Indian women who grew up in protected environments. Here’s how to make the transition easier and more fruitful.

A few years ago, I was in transit at Dubai airport when I found myself seated next to a woman who, like me, seemed to be travelling abroad alone. A laptop bag placed carefully on the seat beside her, and the furtive glances she kept sending all around told me that she was on a business trip that was probably her first overseas.

Bored as I already was, I decided to make small talk. Past the introductions and some polite conversation, she burst out and asked, “Will I get idlis and dosas in New York? They eat those horrible burgers right? They should be eating good food like ours! I need idlis, I won’t eat, otherwise!” I went blank for a moment. Before I could collect myself and respond, she continued “I cannot take it if they cook veg and non-veg in the same kitchen. I will ask them to make it separately for me.”

The insecurity that I saw on her face then was one that I continued to see on the faces of many women travelling abroad through the coming years, but in different forms. These faces belonged to perfectly educated women who harboured an intellect that set new benchmarks when it came to the work they did. However, the confidence that I saw when they addressed their day-to-day work would go missing when it came to traveling onsite.

…the confidence that I saw when they addressed their day-to-day work would go missing when it came to traveling onsite.

As I continued to interact with women traveling abroad for the first time, I realized that one common reason for such behaviour was the sheltered upbringing that many women grew up under; be it the food they ate or the dress they wore, the style of communication they were used to or the lack of interaction with males outside of family. Many were not sensitized to the larger world outside. Expecting them to shed all inhibitions, take that maiden flight and start living in a different culture was definitely too much to ask for.

So when the woman at the airport sought the comfort of idlis, it was but perfectly understandable. Traveling abroad for the first time, if it was not the food, dress code or the weather that troubled them, then the prospect of conversing with strangers from a completely different culture would give them the jitters.

At times, women traveling abroad displayed apprehension; at others, they behaved in the opposite way. Their inhibitions came out in the form of rude and brash behaviour with the teams and customer alike. Despite knowing the reasons, I would wonder why it was not possible for women of our generation to adapt to the different situations thrown at them.Why could they not open their minds and accept that cultures across the world would be different and cannot be expected to be the same as home?

Why could they not open their minds and accept that cultures across the world would be different and cannot be expected to be the same as home?

Do women lose out on opportunities abroad due to this fear?

How much ever one might understand the basis of conservative behaviour or ignore rudeness, we all have to understand, that the corporate world, like life, is not an even playing field. Many women asked to travel abroad for the first time, decline such opportunities altogether. Others, who do take them, face issues at professional as well as personal levels. Those who refuse the opportunities, miss out on client-facing roles thus losing out on experience, and professional growth. When it comes to their performance appraisals, the lack of client facing experience stands out like a sore thumb.

As for those who do take them up – some shed their prejudices but those who do not, feel challenged by the change in environment, the companionship of mostly male colleagues, and the cultural differences. This brings to mind an incident that took place some time ago at a client location in New York.

One woman from my team had traveled on work for a few weeks with some male colleagues. She refused to contribute to the brain storming discussions they would have or accompany the guys to the cafeteria for lunch. Bread and butter made up her meals on most days. She would stay mute in meetings with customers, thus making them question her presence in the team. It led to a lot of discomfort, and reached a point where team members were no longer willing to work with her.

 It led to a lot of discomfort, and reached a point where team members were no longer willing to work with her.

The issue escalated to a level where had it not been just a matter of a few weeks, she would have been asked to return home. The team managed with her minimal contribution. Travelling abroad for the first time, another female colleague gave us a different experience. Seeming confident, she had traveled onsite for her maiden client-facing role, where all she did was behave brashly, and act loud and overbearing with the customer, with a complete disregard for their culture and way of living.

Limited or unhealthy involvement in team activities and the alienation caused with the team and customer directly impacts the overall performance onsite. This unwillingness to adjust and adapt gets perceived as a characteristic not favourable for taking on larger roles and higher responsibilities where such interactions become a must. It also reflects poorly on the person’s ability to manage larger teams where a lot of open mindedness is required to handle different personalities and behaviours within the group.

How to equip yourself before traveling abroad

The situation can change and this change can be brought in, by both the organization as well as by us. Managers and HR can identify employees who require help and assist by

  • Involving them in organizational activities that provide exposure to teams and people from different backgrounds
  • Making them part of teams which have a healthy mix of male as well as female colleagues
  • Providing culture specific training as and when required.

From the organization standpoint, they can facilitate change with such initiatives. But the real transformation can happen only if we put in the effort.  When we realize that there is a need to change, half the battle is won. To overcome the rest, a few simple tips can help:

  • Interact. With male colleagues at work. Conversing with your colleagues during meetings and otherwise will make you comfortable to hold conversations with any team you are a part of.
  • Involve. Proactively involve yourself in client visits to your offshore (India) offices. When customers visit your office, it is a golden opportunity to interact with them and be exposed to their thought process and working styles
  • Read. About the different countries and cultures where you might potentially have to travel. The knowledge of the place works wonders in building a comfort level with its people
  • Experiment. The next time you go out for dinner, instead of a masala dosa or chola bhatura try continental, Mexican, Lebanese or Italian. You will be surprised by the options available; it will also help you acquire new tastes.
  • Believe. In yourself and your ability to distinguish between what is right or wrong. Between what can work and what cannot. Continuously assess your behaviour and reactions to interactions with colleagues and customers.

And finally realize, that adapting to something new or different does not mean letting go of what has always been inherent to us. But it does mean that we are open and mature enough to make place for newer learning which will only help shape us as individuals and professionals.

Pic credit: Doug (Used under a CC license)

Seeta Bodke is a Business Consultant and Senior Manager from the IT sector. After spending

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