Stranger in a Strange Land


In a typical day of running errands in Jacksonville, I’ll encounter workers who have come from all over the world: Vietnam, Africa, Europe, India, and South America. I have enormous admiration for someone who chooses to locate to another country and master language, culture and new job skills. I spoke recently to an American who chose to work outside the U.S. and master those same skills.

Brenda Bautista grew up in Akron, Ohio and fell in love with the Spanish language early. She studied for years in school and decided to move to Mexico to attend La Universidad de las Americas to pursue her college degree. She earned a degree in International Relations and wound up working and living in Mexico for ten years. Brenda had prepared for years to travel to her new home and culture, and she was shocked on her first day by how – foreign –it all felt.

“I’d studied Spanish for years and was considered fluent,” she says, “but when I got off the plane, I couldn’t even ask where to catch a taxi.” Idiomatic Spanish sounded completely different than her classroom lessons and her Ohio-accented and suddenly halting Spanish failed her. That wasn’t a problem for long; she soon boarded a local bus filled with indigenous people who didn’t even speak Spanish. Brenda had experienced three very different worlds and languages since her alarm had gone off that morning; it took her a while to get over her culture lag.

She did, of course, adjust, and after graduating from college spent years working for a large U.S. company with a significant presence in Mexico City. Her job was cross-cultural training – Spanish language and Mexican cultural training for employees who frequently traveled or worked in Mexico.

Brenda says that every student in the Mexican school system begins English lessons in kindergarten, and most companies offer free foreign language classes on site before and after workers report for their shifts.  English, French or German are the most common offerings, and workers take full advantage of the classes. When Brenda left Mexico to return to Ohio, she found it hard to adjust to her native culture. “Everything, from how close people stood to you on the bus to how warmly they greeted you in stores, felt different.”

Her first appealing job offer was from Toyota – a Japanese company – working in Germany, selling automobiles to Americans. She took it, and her work in Germany gave her a front row seat to observe differences between high and low-context cultures.

The terms “high” or “low context” in reference to culture first appeared the anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s 1976 book Beyond Culture. In low context cultures, (The U.S. being one of the best examples), people say what they mean directly and with little embellishment. In high context cultures, people communicate more obliquely, letting the shared cultural experience, tone of voice and body language fill in the gaps. Arab and Asian cultures are often cited as a great examples of how subtle and complex communication can be. Rather than disagree openly with you, a high-context communicator may say, “perhaps.” If you go away happy, thinking you have won your point, you may be dismayed to find that you’ve not won your point – or your deal – later.

Brenda acknowledged how challenging it could be to move from a warm and informal culture like that in Mexico, to a structured, no-nonsense, direct culture like Germany’s. Add in the high context, formal and subtle communication style of the Japanese managers, and Brenda often felt like a stranger in a strange land. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says now. In fact, since moving to Jacksonville, she’s opened her own consulting firm to offer cross-cultural training to local companies. Find her at Window to the World: w2winstitute.com.

Next post: High and Low Context Communication.

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2 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. Candace,
    Well here is another USA worldly expat relocating to Jacksonville from Europe after nearly 30 years working in Latin America, Asia, North Africa, Puerto Rico and Europe with the likes of Coca Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Kraft and Nestle. Finished a Master in Science in International Management from the University of Lisbon, ISCTE Business School in 2008, with the thesis of “Competencies for International Managers” and I have a BS from Syracuse University in addition to an ACP from The London Business School, UK. Taking about a global family, my wife is from South Korea, we met in Buenos Aires, she is an Operating Block Nurse. We will be living at the World Golf Villages, St Augustine. Our son Lucas speaks, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean and English, which are the languages spoken in our house.

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    • What a wonderful world mashup you’ve created! I hope you’ll stay in touch. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help you find resources or work here in Northeast Florida.

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