Cultural Challenges- From Iceland to Jamaica

“It’s 30 years since I went on a student exchange to Canada.  I was a fiercely independent and opinionated teenager about to experience a new culture and new language, through living with a Canadian family and attend local high school.  On the face of it, one would not think it would be such a cultural clash;  Iceland and Canada are both 1st world countries with western democratic values.  However, it was to be a cultural challenge which I almost failed to complete.”

By Inga Hjartardottir

Icelanders, like their fellow Nordic neighbours, are straight to the point and not known as excessive users of pleasantries such as please, thank you, nor apologising for the smallest error or bump against you in the street.  That’s not to say they are rude, but they don’t scatter these pleasantries like confetti. To outsiders, this can appear abrupt and graceless whereas to us Nordics, it’s about being to the point.  We are also very informal, everyone is on a first name basis. If I bumped into the Prime Minister at the coffee shop, I would address her by her first name. Using Madam Prime Minister would provoke a look of astonishment.

With the arrogance of youth, the teenage me didn’t take too seriously to these nuances in cultural differences.  However, an immediate cultural adaptation was in addressing non-peers in a more formal manner. I had to address aunt & uncles in the host family with the pre-fix Aunt and Uncle before their first name. I was also addressing my teachers, the parents of friends and friends of the family as Mr/Miss/Mrs So & so.  I recall feeling frustrated by this, it felt awkward and old fashioned. It was months before I respected and paid proper attention to the importance of inserting “please”, “thank you”, “would you mind” etc. into my daily conversations with the family and teachers.  It took a stern talking to by my host parents about common curtesy and cultural norms. If I couldn’t adapt, I would not be able to complete my year of the exchange.  There was no way I was going to suffer the humiliation of being sent home early. So, I started to pay attention to the communication styles of those around me and to adapt and emulate their style. 

“No one called me Miss Hjartardottir and I wasn’t expected to address anyone as Mr/Mrs/Miss. I felt immediately on a much more equal footing with colleagues at all levels, and therefore more relaxed to focus on my actual work.”

These cultural differences were not what I had focused on in my preparation for the student exchange, but was a big take-away from the year.  It was the start of me developing a self-awareness of how I communicate and adapt to my environment.

Six years later, I moved to England and I felt well prepared on the cultural front.  In the intervening years, I had spent time working in Sweden, back-packed solo around Australia as well as starting my hospitality career, all of which enhanced my awareness of cultural differences.  In England, I was expecting formality in the work place and in general outside the immediate circle of family and friends.  Again, the environment surprised me.  At work it was more informal than I expected.  No one called me Miss Hjartardottir and I wasn’t expected to address anyone as Mr/Mrs/Miss.  I felt immediately on a much more equal footing with colleagues at all levels, and therefore more relaxed to focus on my actual work.  It probably helped that initially; I worked in creative industries: media, design, marketing.  I’m sure it would have been more formal if I had been in insurance or banking.  By now, I appreciated that the formality, where appropriate, created a useful barrier for overfamiliarity in the client/service provider environment. 

Since my first sojourn in England, I’ve done business across the Middle East, Europe and the USA as well as live & study in Switzerland.  It’s been a smooth cultural adaptation until I moved to Jamaica four years ago.  Many who know me were certain the more laid-back environment would frustrate me because I’m known to do things at a brisk pace, whether at work or play.  Did I have concerns about the move? Yes, a little but I wanted to experience a different culture and being on the edge of my comfort zone is where I thrive. 

“What has my experience taught me? Often, the focus is on the more visual cultural differences; food, language, arts, music etc. However, it’s those invisible but important communication differences that can inadvertently trip us up, especially in the workplace.”

In preparation for the move, I spoke to former as well as current Jamaica based expats.  Their feedback focused on the challenges of moving from a first world environment, where everything is always available, to one that’s in the developmental phase and thus the retail and service choices are more limited.   No one mentioned the cultural difference concerning hierarchy inside or outside the work place.  While the communication with 3rd parties like the bank, tax office etc. was the same as in the UK, I was floored by the formality within the office.  I had never worked in an office where individuals were referred to by their title or by their last name instead of a first name basis.  To confuse me even more, some individuals who were older than me but junior in respect of their job title were often referred to by the prefix Miss/Mr and then their first name.  There was no organisation chart to help me figure out who to address by what job title/last name / first name.  Yet another challenge came when some people told me to address them by first name but if I then referred to them in that manner to junior employees, I was occasionally corrected and told to refer to them more formally.  My head was spinning with trying to figure how to address people as I really didn’t want to give offence.  People often asked me how to pronounce my last name and I always said, “just call me Inga”.  Some were OK with that, but others told me they were not comfortable doing so and as a compromise, they called me “Miss Inga”.  Over time, I got better at figuring out who to address in what manner and if I was unsure, I tended to take the safe route of going formal: Miss/Mr/Mrs but it took a while for it not to feel stiff and awkward to the straight-talking Icelander that I am.  In comparison, the other challenges of living & working in Jamaica were easy. 

What has my experience taught me? Often, the focus is on the more visual cultural differences; food, language, arts, music etc.   However, it’s those invisible but important communication differences that can inadvertently trip us up, especially in the workplace.  While the saying goes “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, it’s important to pay attention, as it will smooth the way in a new cultural environment.  People will make allowances for our faux-pas if they feel we are trying but we want them to focus on our work rather than be distracted by a cultural slight. I don’t believe enough attention is paid to these cultural differences when new employees join an organisation. Even if they are not joining from overseas but in the same country or city, there can be important differences.  Often, it takes someone from outside to see it and when they raise the point, I hope people pay attention.