“It’s History” – or Is It?


Moving abroad for work can be an extremely exciting – and informative – experience for both the international assignee and their family.

However, amid all the planning – finding a place to live, arranging for school for the children, learning about the transport system and currency – there is one thing many international assignees overlook: local cultural orientations. There are myriad cultural gaps that an international assignee can encounter while abroad, both in the work and social context. If the assignee attempts to understand the driving forces behind a particular value or behavior, they can better learn how to get things done in their new culture.

One example is learning how history impacts the cultural values of a country and in turn how that manifests itself in local behaviors. This phenomenon is represented by the past-future continuum on the Cultural Orientations Model.

In the US there is a saying, “it’s history.” People use the expression to mean that something is old and no longer relevant. As a young country, the United States is very future-orientated, and people in the US do not have the same historical perspective as those in older countries. In line with their future orientation, US Americans tend to focus on short-term results and the demands of the situation at hand.

However, in places like France, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and China – to name a few – people tend to place emphasis on historical references and traditional ways of doing things. In these cultures, people plan by observing the past.

This cultural gap – between the past and future orientations – can have great consequences for individuals working in a culture with opposite preferences from their own.

For example, the operators of a factory in a past-oriented culture may not wish to adopt the safety practices of their manufacturing partners from a future-oriented culture because they have successfully operated without them in the past. As another example, people from a past-oriented culture may be more comfortable adopting a new system if there is a person from a previously successful iteration of that system on the implementation team. Past-oriented people may also wish to conduct more robust research than their future-oriented colleagues before signing onto change.

Understanding how perspectives – such as that of the importance of history in decision-making – impact business can help international assignees better navigate the cultures they are entering. By learning about other cultures’ preferences before departing, assignees can lay the groundwork for a positive working relationship – and start making history.