There has been a definite increase in the number of South Africans contacting Holistan to support them in finding work overseas. We here at Holistan are fortunate enough to have a number of contacts, specifically abroad. Thus the perceptions we describe below are predominantly from a European perspective. Although South Africans have got a fantastic reputation when it comes to our work ethic, there are a number of uncomfortable faux paus’ we commit – mostly not even knowing it. Below is an outline of what you need to be aware of – especially if you are seeking employment abroad – or if you have just started a position.
***Disclaimer: We take no responsibility for the offence that may caused to our readers. The content of this post are opinion only, based on our experience in the business world.
Faux paus #1 – We come across as arrogant
The Gini coefficient is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income or wealth inequality within a nation. South Africa’s Gini coefficient ranges from about 0.660 to 0.696, making us a country with one of the largest disparities between rich and poor. One simply has to take a drive through the township Alexandra in Johannesburg, and within minutes you have entered what is referred to as “the richest square mile in Africa” – or Sandton.
Socially, psychologically, and economically, South Africans appear to be very conscious of where they fit on the spectrum of wealth. Job titles that are within the mid to senior management band inherit a certain degree of prestige. One can mimic affluence with the brands we wear, the vehicles we drive and the homes we reside in.
The Nordic and Central Eastern European countries are among the most equal. In 2018 I visited The Netherlands, and from a face value perspective, there was absolutely no shame in many jobs that South Africans would look down on pitifully. The garbage collector or delivery personnel installing my best friend’s new washing machine had an air of confidence that was almost palatable. Of course the collateral of such was that at no time did I feel that I was being “served” by the waitress in the restaurant (in fact I had to go and find her to order another drink). In South Africa, we are lucky enough to enjoy fairly good customer service – but is this at the cost of our wealth disparity?
The point I am trying to make is that as South Africans, we may have the perception that with our years of management experience, we should logically simply ‘walk’ into a job of similar (dare I say) prestige. What we need to understand is that even in such a sought-after role, there is little disparity between what that management position would command in salary, and what your local grocer is earning.
Moral of the story? Eat some humble pie, and be open to starting a few steps down on the corporate ladder – ESPECIALLY if you do not have international work experience.
Faux paus #2 We are hardworking… but then risk getting lazy
South Africans are one of the hardest working nations in the world. It is not uncommon to work 50 hours a week or more. So it comes as a surprise to us that in some countries, being expected to work only 3-4 days a week is completely foreign. When I was in the United Kingdom earlier this year, I observed that employers often advertise shared roles, where the position is shared amongst two individuals, resulting in the successful incumbent only being expected to work half the week (and thus sharing the role with her colleague).
South Africans have appeared to have created a reputation of being incredibly hard-working during the first few months into their role. In time, we are perceived as becoming somewhat lazy. Obviously, this is not true for everyone, but it makes sense that after years of hard-work, some may become a bit too relaxed with their new-found freedom.
At the end of the day, we need to ensure the impression we make in the beginning is the reputation we maintain. Do not be over-eager and over-committed to projects and tasks in the beginning. Stick to what is expected, work hard, and do not slack off!
Faux paus #3 Say what you mean, mean what you say
Perhaps linked to the above point, South Africans aim to impress. A large proportion feel a need to prove our worth, being expats in our new country. The risk here is that, in a bid to make an impression, we bite off more than we can chew. We accept tasks that we are unsure of, and we say yes to everything. The irony is that we risk disappointment, as we miss deadlines and produce sub-standard work.
The culture in Europe is to be very firm about what you can and cannot take on. South Africans may perceive this as our colleagues being “rude” or overly direct, but this is the language they speak – and we need to adapt to that.
Say what you mean, mean what you say, and do not be afraid to say no, committing to what you know you can realistically achieve.
Faux paus #4 We are inappropriately polite
South Africans are known as one of the friendliest nations in the world. And it is a trait to certainly be proud of. However, in the business arena, there is little time for nicities, social banter and compliments.
We need to be cognisant of being overly loud, expressive, or complimentary. For our European colleagues, it is professionally inappropriate and plain weird.
Faux paus #5 We complain about our home-country
Almost all South Africans are guilty of this: we do not stop moaning about our beloved country. We talk about the crime, the corruption, and how our country is “down the toilet”. We risk coming across as entitled, racist and “just another type of refugee”.
Of course many of us have suffered terrible atrocities and trauma having being robbed, or burgled, or possibly worse. Our European counterparts do not have the frame of reference we have – and we cannot blame them. Be especially cognisant of who you moan to – because it does not do your personal brand or reputation as a South African any favours.
Being an expat in a foreign country is difficult for anyone – not just South Africans. Wherever you choose to venture to, it is highly probable that there WILL be a South African community where you choose to settle. It is human nature to want to connect with people who share Africa in their blood, the same culture, frame of reference, and accent. However, to truly find happiness and acceptance in your new home, be prepared to fully immerse yourself in your new country’s history, culture, and way of doing things. If not socially, then at the very least, professionally.
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- Written by Marzenna Almendro
Our contributors collectively boast a wealth of experience in assessments, HR, organisational development, change management and more!