Overseas born professionals have a hard time landing their dream job in Australia. It’s one thing to find a job in a highly technical role where the tools and skills required are pretty much the same all over the world. Selenium is Selenium for software testers. C++ is C++ for embedded software developers. AutoCAD is AutoCAD, and so on. First round interviews for such roles are often purely technical. However, client facing roles – Business Development, Sales & Marketing, Account Management, Pre/Post-Sales Support, Public Accounting – are a much harder nut to crack.
In a client-facing role, you are the face of the company. Your employer needs to have confidence in your ability to portray the right image. Whether you can clinch a deal or keep existing customers happy will depend largely on your ability to win customers over with your expertise, excellent service and charm – not so easy if you’re operating in a new culture where English is not your first language. So let’s break this down into the factors that make interactions with clients such a difficult task in a new culture. And what can you do about it?
You may have been speaking English for many years but it is unlikely that your proficiency is equal to that of a native speaker. Do you think in English? Do you sing in English? Do you dream in English? To truly express yourself is always easier in your first language because it is part of you. Do you have trouble finding the precise word to explain a situation or are you substituting with an approximation? That is, a word that ‘does the job’, conveys the general meaning but perhaps a word that you overuse because of your relatively shallow vocabulary. In professional-level interactions, you are usually required to demonstrate greater subtly in your use of language and need a deeper vocabulary from which to draw.
- Speak, speak, speak. Put yourself into as many different social situations as possible, with people from all walks of life.
- Interact with people who use the type of language you would like to use. For example, if you work in a factory for many years, you will start to speak like those around you. They are your language models, and whether you know it or not you are emulating them when you speak. I meet many taxi drivers who overuse the word ‘mate’ and use it in inappropriate situations – professional job interviews, for example. Now there is nothing wrong with the word ‘mate’; I use it frequently, but it has to be in the right context. If you are only operating in one context, it is difficult to know where its use is appropriate. We call this ‘register’, in the language game. For example, the way you speak to your husband/wife is different from the way you speak to your manager – because the register is different. Your vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation will be influenced by the people with whom you interact.
- Get out of the house, get off Seek.com and other job sites.
- Do voluntary (or paid) work. The language you use in a work environment is situational and is great for building vocabulary, learning idioms and slang, and honing your ear for the Australian accent. An English class is NOT the best place to learn spoken English; it’s the place that you go when you don’t have a real environment in which to communicate.
- Language is about communication, so don’t expect to improve quickly purely by listening to radio and watching TV. However, it is important to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world, so you may as well watch/listen to programs that you can use as language models. The ABC has several programs that are useful for overseas born professionals – Q&A, Lateline and The Business, are excellent options for knowing what’s going on in business, politics and in Australian society in general.
- Sometimes speakers of English as an additional language have trouble finding the right tone, making you sound abrupt or rude. Using indirect language and question forms are common ways of expressing what you want in professional environments. If you are an account manager, the last thing management will want is for you to sound pushy and too direct. There are simple techniques and expressions you can learn to ‘tone down’ your language while remaining assertive and polite.
- The great language plateau. It is reasonable to assume that if you are reading this blog your English language proficiency has gone beyond the ‘survival’ stage. When we are learning a new language we feel rapid improvement in the initial stages because the results are easy to see. We can ask for things and participate in transactions where we were unable to previously. However, once you go beyond the survival stage, the incremental improvement in your language development may be less noticeable. You begin to acquire an understanding of nuance which is less measureable but critical in developing a profound understanding of the language and culture; you become linguistically nimble in a variety of situations.
A person’s language will be dense with cultural reference to the country of origin. Australians may use idioms or references that have their roots in television shows, sporting parlance or other cultural influences. These devices are used unconsciously and lubricate communication, sometimes merely through body language or initial greeting, forming the foundation for a sense of, ‘we are the same’. I know of a car dealership that has sales people from Vietnam & China who deal only with customers from their respective countries. It is not purely for the convenience of using first language; we can often ‘read’ people from our own culture more easily, and we project the right signs too, without thinking. It’s much easier to tell if someone is being honest/dishonest, sincere/insincere or respectful/disrespectful when operating in a common culture. We can misread people from other countries which can cause misunderstanding and confusion at times. What may be taken as a sign of timidity or lack of confidence in one country can be seen as showing respect in another. There are numerous examples of how confusion occurs because of differences in body language.
Get out into the world and mix with all sorts of people. Read, listen and speak as much as possible. Be inquisitive. Immerse yourself in the new culture – people, music, sport, food, television, literature and rituals. This doesn’t mean giving up your first culture, but it does mean making space for the new one, which may require you to move out of your comfort zone.
Using humour when dealing with clients is common in Australia, almost expected if you want to create a warm feeling with your client. That doesn’t mean you have to have a joke prepared for your customer; it may just be the subtle use of irony (very common in Australia) in conversation. Unfortunately, humour often doesn’t translate well – what is funny in one language may not be in another. It is tough to be funny in a second language, as it requires good command of language and cultural nuance. Australian humour can come across as crude, immature and sarcastic to those from outside the culture. It is important to remain open-minded, even if you do feel a level of discomfort. Interactions at work can seem very informal, even between management and juniors. What may appear as disrespectful behaviour may just be friendly banter.
Scene – a large manufacturing company, 10am on a Monday morning in the office, a conversation between a process engineer (St.Kilda supporter) and his manager (Essendon supporter), have worked together for a couple of years, St.Kilda just defeated Essendon by 110 points.
Process Engineer: Did you see the Essendon – St.Kilda match on the weekend. (He wants to gloat about the win, and tease his boss.)
Manager: No, I don’t follow the footy any more. (A humorous response. He still follows the football, but because his team is doing so badly, he makes fun of the situation, and supposed lack of interest.)
Process Engineer: Looks like the drugs have finally worn off. (A comment referring to recent performance-enhancing drug scandal Essendon has been facing for the past two years. The case is before WADA and is still hanging over the club’s head.)
Manager: How many flags (championships) have you guys won? Oh, that’s right, one! When was it? 1966, that’s right. Black & white TV, I seem to remember. (A sarcastic comment about St. Kilda’s historical lack of success. Essendon is one of the most successful AFL clubs historically – they are just going through a bad patch.)
Process Engineer: We’re on the rebuild. Good bunch of kids… will be superstars in a couple of years. (St.Kilda has a promising bunch of young, talented players. People are expecting them to be strong again in a few years.)
Manager: I’ve heard that before. I’ll just sit back and watch you guys implode as you usually do. (St.Kilda has history of failure, even when things look like they are in their favour.)
This conversation demonstrates a high level of familiarity between the two colleagues. On the surface, to someone unfamiliar with the culture, the content of this conversation may appear adversarial, even nasty. This type of teasing or use of sarcasm & irony is common in Australia, and is often a sign of endearment, not acrimony. Such situations can be easily misread, particularly if you are involved and the discussion becomes personal. Just be prepared to have a laugh, and don’t forget to smile.
The OBP Australia Workplace Communications workshops address such scenarios and can be an opportunity for you to learn about the nuance of interactions in the workplace.
There may be times when you are the victim of prejudice*. That is, you are not selected for the job because the cultural barriers seem too strong and it is an easier option for the employer to go with someone who can navigate the culture with ease. Take heart in the fact that Australia is a multicultural country and there will be many people from your cultural background who hold responsible positions in companies/organisations, even in client-facing roles.
Do all you can to improve your interactions in the new culture and to stay positive. I have seen far too many success stories to be anything but optimistic about the future of overseas born professionals.
(*If you feel you are the victim of racial discrimination, there are avenues you can pursue. Discrimination in Australia is illegal.)