19 Mar Expat In Belgrade: The Importance of Bridging the Culture Gap
‘So you are here,
too foreign for home,
too foreign for here,
never enough for both.’
– Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada
SO I’M HERE…
I joined Nordeus and moved to Belgrade, Serbia in December, 2017. I’ve always been lucky enough to travel a lot, but I have lived my whole life in the UK. For the last 11 years I lived in London, I had my closest friends on my doorstep, and my family nearby in Sussex. So why did I leave? Well, I had an innate desire to make a change in my life, to challenge myself, to experience something new. But was I expecting the gaps in both values and culture…
Nordeus has a dedicated Engagement team to help expats move to Belgrade and provide us with the support to settle in. They really do take the stress out of the move. But there will always be a primal instinct to want to explore and find things out on your own. However, in doing so, you will always have questions.
Why do people stand right by the door when I’m trying to get on the bus, can’t they just move down?! Why does everyone walk so slowly?! Why do I always have to reserve a table?! Why are you driving on the sidewalk?!
The simplest of things can begin to niggle at you when you have no idea why they are happening. Add to that trying to remember names you can’t pronounce, learning a new job, and Google Translate becoming your best friend. Very quickly these things can lead to questioning… have I made the right choice (the answer is ‘yes’ BTW).
The Engagement team at Nordeus, alongside local company Friends and Culture, have specially designed a Cultural Onboarding program. The goal is to help expats (and families) integrate into their new surroundings, and to bridge the gaps in culture that you may come across when you first move over here. It’s really looking to drive understanding and to help you adapt to different values, communication styles and social etiquette. To say it has been a godsend is an understatement.
TOO FOREIGN FOR HOME…
First things first, completion of the Hofstede report – a comparison service designed to highlight and prepare you for dealing with situations and potential pain points in values and the culture of your new home. This threw up that I was culturally aligned with Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark, more so than the UK! That resonated with me somewhat. When I joined Nordeus, I was leaving London in search of finding something new, and learning a new culture.
Having spent a considerable amount of time in Gothenburg and Stockholm during the last two years at my previous company, Sweden always felt like a place that I connected with. So these results weren’t really a surprise to me, but apparently when your home country comes in fourth… they’re a little unusual!
Above are my Serbia vs UK results, and rather than bore you with the details in this blog, you can find an explanation of the comparison here. But, in four out of the six areas that the survey measures, I was the opposite end of the spectrum to the values of Serbia… pain points afoot.
I met Ana from Friends and Culture for the first time at our office, and we went through the Hofstede results… it turned out that a lot of my concerns were borne out of not understanding why the things that frustrated me, were happening. Ana has herself been an expat in Germany, so she’s experienced the shock of moving abroad, understands what to expect, and how to deal with it – this made her insights even more valuable for me.
TOO FOREIGN FOR HERE…
Cultural Onboarding Session 1: Therapy. We delved into the results, and anything I wanted to ask about. I say therapy with a pinch of sarcasm – you don’t need to ask me if I’m ok, I am – but it had been around three months since I’d moved to Belgrade and I had started to feel a little overwhelmed.
I had moved over on my own with no immediate family support network. There’s a few of us at Nordeus who were going through the same situation, but until you get to grips with everything and really start to find your feet, it is tricky to instantly feel at home somewhere new.
I learned so much from that meeting, it was the first honest conversation I’d had with anyone about how I was really feeling, I started to get answers for why things were happening, how to really look at the move, what I was going through, and what I need to personally do for myself without comparing myself to others and how they are coping. Everyone is an individual, and one size never fits all.
Why do people stand right by the door when I’m trying to get on the bus, can’t they just move down?! “Traditionally, Serbians are very risk averse (Uncertainty Avoidance)… they don’t want to miss their stop.”
Why does everyone walk so slowly?! “With an Individualistic society (the UK), people are looking out for themselves, and quite often ‘time is money’. Serbian as a collective society, it’s more relaxed, and time spent with friends and family is more valuable. Time is a luxury that you should enjoy.”
Why do I have to reserve a table everywhere?! “Being risk averse again, fear of missing out on a good spot at their favourite place.”
Why are you driving on the sidewalk?! This one I still don’t know the answer to… NO ONE DOES!
The next few sessions were purely driven by my interests and what I had experienced since the previous meeting. From learning about symbols, history and traditions, to Ana attempting to teach me useful phrases, and the rules of dating in Serbia… the less said about that the better!
NEVER ENOUGH FOR BOTH…
I learnt so much throughout the whole Cultural Onboarding, stuff that would have taken me months to figure out had it not been for the program. It’s no wonder that the expats who have gone through it all sing its praises. Over time, I’m sure everything I’ve mentioned above would have come good, and I would have learnt by myself. But when you’ve moved abroad and started a new job, to be able to have someone or something enable you to speedily overcome things in a meaningful way, makes a world of difference.
Will I ever feel completely at home here? We’ll see. Would I feel at home back in the UK? I don’t know. Reverse culture shock is a thing too, and more and more I consider myself European instead of British. Serbian culture and values have started to rub off on me already, and some British values seem a distant memory, especially in light of the current political climate. But what I do know, is that by bridging the gap between the values I’ve grown up with, and what I can now learn from those around me, it will only benefit me to grow as a person.
So I’m here,
too foreign for the UK,
too foreign for Serbia,
but I’m sure going to have fun exploring it.