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5 Questions to Ask Your Foreign Colleagues

by Nathalie V. Fairbanks

Let's assume you have a co-worker from another country on your team at work. You notice that she seems stressed out when asked to make a presentation in front of a group. You wonder what exactly are her qualifications.

If you haven't witnessed another country's education in action, it's easy to assume that everything works just like it does here. The truth is that every country has a very unique education system that is in great part a reflection of the country's culture. The fact that our education shapes how we think and work warrants a closer look at what the differences between education systems are.

Here are a few questions that will shed some light on how your colleague grew up and why she might feel uncomfortable in certain situations at work.

1. How is the education system structured in your country?

In many countries, children start with an elementary education, go on to get a degree to complete their state-required schooling and then have an option to get a higher education or to specialize in a trade.

It's almost impossible to compare the school systems in different countries. The number of hours spent at school, as well as the homework loads, vary greatly and impact how much time youngsters have left to pursue extra-curricular activities. It also affects how much they actually learn! For example, the math skills taught in American colleges are completed by French students by age 16. Conversely, presentation, debate and teamwork skills are only taught much later in Europe and Asia, if at all.

Below is a great site that compiles the education requirements for different professions for most countries around the globe. It might contain more information than you'd ever want to know. What I like about it is that it is comprehensive (most countries are represented) and that it has in-depth information about each level of education. Some of the information is only available in the target language (e.g., in French for the French education system).

European Network of Information Centres-National Academic Recognition Information Centres

Look around the website and see what you would have had to do to get to where you are if you had studied in Mexico, or another country where the language you're studying is spoken.

Then take some time to listen to your foreign colleague. Get her to explain what her teenage years were like. Find out if she had time to play sports or music, and what her typical day was like. Depending on whether she's Chinese, German or Peruvian, her answers will be very different!

2. Did you pay for your education?

What a question! Americans are often baffled when I tell them there is a very minimal registration fee at German universities, and education is essentially free.

Consequently, getting a university degree in Germany is a choice that doesn't depend on your parents' wealth or your willingness to take on loans. On the other hand, it seems that many German students don't realize the value of what they're getting. It's easy for them to take for granted that taxpayers pay for their education.

Would you have made a different choice for your education if it had been free?

3. What's your degree and what were the requirements to get it?

Degrees are often hard to compare. My German degree, abbreviated Dipl.-Kff surely doesn't mean anything to anybody outside of Germany, and neither does the name of the degree, Diplom-Kauffrau! (It's a degree that's equivalent to an M.B.A., although the way subjects are taught is so different that it's almost like comparing apples and oranges.)

To give you an idea, German exams always comprised material taught over a year, sometimes two. There was no graded homework in between, and everything depended on a single 4-5 hour exam held twice a year. We were solely responsible for getting registered for the exam and preparing for it. Those who made it learned thorough discipline and how to organize their work over a long stretch of time. Over 60% of students drop out, even though they've spent years trying to prepare for these exams. It's not exactly the most effective system!

I prefer the American system much better in that respect. The fact that attendance would be part of my grade surprised me at first. How hard could that be? Then, professors would actually look through homework--what a privilege! It's impossible to list all of the differences, just realize that there are many and that they may result in very different perspectives on what to expect from work.

So when your colleague tells you "what" she is, ask her to elaborate. Ask her what her field of study was, what she specialized in, what her grades were based on, etc.

4. How did you choose your profession?

I always find it interesting to learn how people end up in their careers. I ask what got them started, and why they chose that particular field of work. Most of us have some say in deciding what we want to do when we grow up.

In some cultures, parental directives override any talent or interest that children might have. While it's hard for Westerners to imagine, citizens of the former Eastern-block countries didn't even get to choose their line of work. Instead, the government assigned it to them according to their grades and their solidarity with the Communist Party. How's that for motivation?

5. Did your opinion matter?

This is another culturally loaded question. In the U.S. a major focus of education is on developing a critical and discerning mind. In addition, students learn how to form and express an opinion about a topic. That's not necessarily the case in other countries.

At your next team meeting with international participants, observe who's voicing an opinion, who's keeping quiet, even though you know they have strong feelings about an issue, and who seems indifferent either way, willing to implement whatever the other members of the group decide.

This little exercise might give you a clue as to how much individuality was valued in their education and if they were encouraged to express it. It might also just be a matter of personality, but you'll never know unless you start digging a little!

Understanding what makes people tick can be a tremendous asset in the workplace. Knowing where someone comes from can change the dynamics of a team and help people to work together more effectively. Get started on your conversation today!


© 2008 Nathalie V. Fairbanks

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