Culture Shock in the Workplace

Kaitlyn Stahl – Class of 2015

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 1.05.21 AM (1) This semester, I have been working as an editorial intern at Cultureshock Media in London. Cultureshock is a company that specializes in both print and online publishing, and their clients typically pertain to culture such as museums, music venues, or fashion companies. The first half of my semester in the United Kingdom was spent taking classes, but as soon as November came, my schedule shifted into working three full days out of the week. Since then I have worked with clients like British Airways, the British Council, and Sotheby’s magazine. I’ve written newsletter and magazine content, researched cultural events, and created posts for Cultureshock’s art review website (http://www.culturecritic.co.uk). As someone who wants to go into the publishing industry, this internship felt like the perfect placement.

Still, there were challenges in the beginning as I adjusted to a British workplace. Although everyone speaks English, it still might be hard to interpret what someone really means. If you’ll excuse the wordplay, I definitely experienced culture shock at Cultureshock.

I’ve narrowed my experience to a few aspects that stood out the most to me – both because I wasn’t expecting them and because they’re so prominent.

Food and Drink: Both are very important in British culture. It’s often a topic of conversation and is essential to bonding. First, if someone asks if you want the last biscuit*, you say no. By asking other people in this manner, the person is actually saying that they want it. Knowing this helped me understand their politeness and roundabout way of asking for things, which would definitely help me later. More stereotypically, the British love tea. Instead of the clichéd ‘interns fetching coffee’, you should anticipate learning how to make tea. Whenever someone gets up to make a hot drink, they are expected to ask everyone else if they’d like something as well. Both food and drink come into play at the pub, where the entire office might head on Friday nights. This is a great place to get to know your coworkers on a friendly level and ends up strengthening your working relationship as well.

Office Layout: I’ve been at Cultureshock for a few weeks and I’m still confused as to the company’s hierarchy. This is because the office has an open layout. In a British office, the CEO could be sitting next to an intern, and everyone mingles with each other casually. Our office is an old apartment building, so aside from a separation between upstairs and downstairs, there aren’t any divisions between departments. Making it even harder to differentiate hierarchy, British offices tend to be very young. Age doesn’t necessarily denote seniority.

Receiving Direction: If your supervisor casually suggests you do something by saying “Oh, you might see if you can work on this before tomorrow” or “perhaps it would be a good idea to work on this before tomorrow,” it actually means you need to do it before tomorrow. Similar to the indirect way of asking for the biscuit, the British don’t tend to give specific direction. It is up to the employee to interpret what they want and manage their time well enough to get it done.

Writing: Surprisingly, writing hasn’t been that different. The biggest thing I’ve come across is spelling. In British English, many words with an ‘or’ at the end have a ‘u’ in it, such as humour, rumour, or colour. Also, words with the suffix in ‘ize’ or ‘izing’ are spelled with an ‘s,’ such as traumatising or capitalise. Working with culture, I personally need to remember theater is spelled theatre over here.

These are only a few of the cultural aspects of an international workplace. Although seemingly random, understanding each helped me understand my coworkers better and thus get more out of my internship. By building a relationship through food and drink, I felt more comfortable asking questions to people I wouldn’t have spoken with otherwise. They then became more willing to share some of their expertise with me. The open office also helped foster relationship building and department integration. I am lucky enough to sit next to my supervisor so if I am ever in need of specific direction, I can ask her face-to-face. Furthermore, I’ve been able to improve my communication skills by learning how to interpret her indirectness. Overall, it’s been interesting to see both the differences and the similarities.

*Biscuit is cookie over here.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 12, 2015 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    I can definitely relate to a lot of your cultural experiences in England. I went to London for Winter Term, and I encountered a surprising amount of language barriers, despite the fact that we were all speaking English. A man we met at a museum told us that England and America are often “two countries separated by the same language.”

    I find the way that you’re being given directions very interesting. I like how you said that with your boss, you’re “learning how to interpret her indirectness,” and that that’s improving your communication skills. Great post!

  2. Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Because you experienced an internship in a different country, there were many more difficulties to overcome than would be found in a more familiar workplace setting. However, I think in any internship, you are placed in an unfamiliar situation that must be adapted to. Even if you have had internship experience, no company will be run exactly like another. I think it’s great that you’ve had this experience; it can only make you more aware and prepare you to adapt to your next job!

  3. Posted April 22, 2015 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could hear more about experiences like this because I think they are so important to Elon’s focus on global education. If I wanted to know about working internationally, these experiences would be something I want to know about. One of my questions though is how much of the culture shock was due to the British work environment as a whole or due to how that specific office was run.