I moved to France to start a new job in October 2012 and I was instantly faced with two challenges: I had to learn new language to be able to survive and had to adapt to a new work culture.
Now, let me tell you a little about living and working in France.Work is leisure, relationships is important, you need to take long lunch breaks and talk with your colleagues about things not related to work, you don’t really have hard deadlines and you work is not measured by how long you work but my how much you get done.You are required to speak French and if you don’t, you won’t really enjoy life here. The best answer to any question is ‘it depends’.I like this last one.
However, for me, the idea of spending so much time on lunch breaks and not having real deadlines was absurd.I instantly found myself struggling, learning French was strange enough with all the rules and a lot of exception in the French grammar, but I think more importantly, I wasn’t really interested. Mind you, it wasn’t my first time working abroad.I had worked in The Netherlands before moving to France.
What was going on? I generally consider myself a fairly smart person and someone who can adapt, how come I am not learning this French as fast as I could and how come I wasn’t adapting to this new work culture?
Not long ago, I was observing a couple of kids and how they learn. Suddenly I had an epiphany! Watching those kids pick up French and learn new things, it was instantly clear to me what I was doing wrong. I was approaching this experience with preconceived notions, judgements and smugness. What I knew or what I thought I knew was affecting what I needed to learn. According to Robert Greene in his book Mastery: “What prevents people from learning…., is not the subject itself… but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older.These include a sense of smugness and superiority whenever we encounter something alien to our ways, as well as rigid ideas about what is real or true,often indoctrinated in us by schooling or family”.
Kids don’t have this problem.They approach everything as a new experience, they are curious,not afraid of making mistakes or scared someone would laugh at their misuse of a verb.These qualities makes it easy for kids to learn anything. I had all those problems. Even the little French I had learnt, I could not bring myself to use it because I was scared I was going to say the wrong thing.In my new job, I approached it from high horse, after all, I was smart that was why they hired me. I wasn’t paying attention to the cultural cues, my unwillingness to adapt made it difficult for me in those first months to fully appreciate working in a new cultural environment.
Writing about it now, I have learnt my lessons. And I also know there a lot of people out there who find themselves in similar situations. We start a new job and we find ourselves with a temptation to prove ourselves not observing, watching and learning the language,the rules and the pattern of this new environment.
In the end, it seems what we know might be the greatest obstacle to what we need to learn.And the first step to learning something new or adapting to a new culture might be to unlearn what we already know and approach the experience like kids.