An American Expat in Brazil Part 3 of 3
By Tony Quintero, Director, Accounting Services
In part one and part two of this blog series, I discussed accepting an expat assignment to help Radius open our new corporate office in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I also discussed some of the factors all expats should consider before taking on an overseas assignment. In this final post of the series, I’ll discuss some of the lesser-known considerations related to expat assignments.
Expect the Unexpected
A few days after I moved to Sao Paulo, I took a 15-minute walk from my apartment to a grocery store. After making my purchases, torrential rains hit the city, flooding the streets. Though the rains passed relatively quickly, I had to wait, groceries by my side, for nearly three hours as the knee-deep water subsided enough for me to walk home. I really miss my car.
That kind of thing rarely happens in the U.S., largely because our infrastructure is relatively well-equipped to handle such downpours. To take another example, our public transportation system in my home town of Boston — no matter how much we may complain about it — is generally more reliable than its Sao Paulo counterpart. And if you think Boston drivers are aggressive and Boston traffic frustrating, try driving in Sao Paulo; after that experience, you’ll likely emerge with a very different perspective!
You will also encounter differences at your workplace. If you’re establishing a new corporate office like I am, you’ll be confronted by challenges you may never have considered in your home-country. To take but one example: Where will you get office supplies and how will you pay for them? No matter how thoroughly you prepare yourself for an assignment — through guidebooks, websites, seminars and other means — you’ll almost certainly be surprised, and occasionally baffled, by everyday life in a new country. Rest assured, though, you’ll almost invariably encounter pleasant surprises along with the challenging ones. I’ve found, for example, that Sao Paulo has the best cuisine of any country I’ve ever visited.
When in Sao Paolo Do as the Paulistanos Do
One of the most important pieces of advice I can give expats going on a medium- or long-term overseas assignment is to learn the country’s language. This will greatly enhance not only your ability to do business with customers and interact with your locally based co-workers, it will increase your acceptance by the general population. Typically, attaining even a small grasp of the local language is a great advantage over knowing nothing. Attempting to converse in the local language shows you care about the population and are willing to make an effort to accommodate them. This will go a long way to helping you socially and in your business dealings.
That last point about learning the language is perhaps well-known. Recognizing and adapting to other, more subtle cultural differences can be no less important. For example, I’m a fan of global soccer and recently attended a game in Sao Paulo. I quickly learned that if you’re going to a game in this city, you should for your own safety avoid wearing the colors of the visiting team while sitting among the local fans. Needless to say, Brazilians take their soccer seriously, and fan-related violence is not uncommon in virtually any country.
So for your own physical and emotional wellbeing, it pays to be attuned to local culture and adapt to it as appropriate. In general, one area that is an exception to this rule is changing your work culture to accommodate local customs. For example, if the policy of your home office is to reply to emails within 24 hours, this should remain unchanged, regardless of host-country standards. Expats are of course typically sent to other countries so they can do just that — train local employees about company policies, procedures and workplace culture. It should be noted that some company policies and procedures may have to change to comply with local laws, such as local data protection and workplace harassment laws.
Embrace Differences and Don’t Assume Challenges are Insurmountable
When you meet challenges on your expat assignment, don’t assume they can’t be overcome, even after one or two failed attempts. To take a minor example, I’m a New England Patriots fan, and found that my Sao Paulo apartment didn’t have the cable TV channel that carried the Patriots’ January 10 playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens. I solved the immediate problem by finding a local Irish-themed bar that carried the game. I solved the long-term problem by calling the owner of the apartment I’m renting and asking if she wouldn’t mind adding the channel to the apartment’s cable package. I was delighted when she quickly complied.
Speaking of my apartment, I am not in fact renting in the traditional manner, but through the relatively new company Airbnb, which after research proved to provide my company with the best value and me with a desirable location. This is another example of how the world is changing globally, and there are more and more ways to overcome challenges.
If you’ve read this far, it should be clear that I am an advocate of the expat experience, even given some of its inherent costs and challenges. With proper research and planning, your company can benefit from sending an experienced home-country employee to establish an entity and/or train local employees. And you can benefit from a deeper understanding of your company’s global operations and of another country’s culture.
For information on how Radius can help you plan for an expat assignment and tackle other global mobility challenges, contact us.