Let’s say you need a trainer on U.S. culture, fast. It may be tempting to reach for the nearest expat; after all, they come from the U.S. so they must know something. Moreover, since they are already living in your country, they are accessible. But before you make an offer, consider these key areas to ensure you hire the right one.
Do they know what you need them to know?
Just because someone is from a country doesn’t mean they automatically have the comprehensive, informed, critical, nuanced breadth or depth you require. This is especially the case in a large country with distinct regional cultures and subcultures. A lifelong New Yorker won’t necessarily know what it’s like to live and work in Eastern Tennessee and vice-versa. And if they have to guess, they may rely on assumptions, biases, and stereotypes that reflect their own vantage point more than the local culture.
Similarly, they may have limited experiences with certain industries, generations, ethnicities, religions, genders, abilities, etc. Depending on your own specific project and needs, this can mean the advice you receive is of limited value (or even set you up to fail). Additionally, depending on how long the expat has been abroad, their knowledge may be stale. If their last meaningful encounter with their passport country was decades ago, they may not have their finger on the pulse of our evolving society.
Finally, I should caution that some expats chose their lifestyle because they strongly dislike certain U.S. values, trends, or policies and can’t stand to live here anymore. This is only enhanced at a time when the U.S. is grappling with numerous intractable, pressing problems and deep partisan divides. Yet valid as their own frustrations and anger may be, a tirade about how broken and backward we are is unlikely to provide anything of value for your own context and purposes.
How to approach these issues
Of course, just like being an expat doesn’t necessarily mean someone is qualified, it doesn’t mean they aren’t, either. The key is to do your due diligence and hire the best person for the job, not just someone who happens to be nearby with the right passport.
Before interviewing a potential expat cultural expert, determine what your own cross-cultural context is. For example, are you sending an employee to manage middle-aged male miners in rural Minnesota, or are you trying to improve collaboration with a diverse group of Millennials at your start-up’s new office in San Francisco? Invite the expat to describe their areas of expertise and knowledge and limitations about your particular situation. It may be that their background really does overlap with your needs, which is perfect. Or, maybe they can outline a plan for how to learn about the areas where they are less knowledgeable. Even if it’s not a perfect fit, it can still be workable, but you’ll want to find out in advance just how much of a stretch it will be.
Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect that you will find a person with zero biases, but it’s important that the expat you choose be able to manage their own personal opinions in such a way that they don’t overwhelm or pollute the training. You can ask them whether there are any personal issues or views that could obstruct their message or end up giving your employees an incomplete or strongly biased opinion. If so, have them explain how they would work around this so you can be sure you’ll get what you need.
Also, an expat does not necessarily need to be representative of their entire home culture. But, if they are the exception to the rule, the important thing is that they still understand the rules enough that they can explain what they are and how they work. It also may not be a deal-breaker if they have been out of the country for a considerable amount of time. Ask them to explain how they have kept apace not only with the news and TV shows, but daily life and cultural trends on the ground. For example, what stands out to them, how certain are they that they have a good grasp of today’s U.S., and how do they know what they know? Ask them to give you examples or anecdotes that would be relevant to the training they’d provide so that you can put your mind at ease.
Do they know how to train?
Finally, you’ll want to make sure that they not only know about U.S. culture, but can effectively train on it. Remember: training is about more than just talking at a room full of people, it is a matter of distilling information and delivering it in such a way that it is engaging, meaningful, and impactful. When hiring an expat trainer, it’s important to inquire into their experience and their style. You’ll want to make sure their approach will be professional, effective, and appropriate for your specific context. (Also, be sure to give them any necessary background about your own organization, team, or leadership).
Expats often have a unique vantage point on their home country. Often, being a step removed from everyday life allows them to reflect and think critically in a way that is difficult for those who are immersed in their home country every day. On the other hand, simply being from a country doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re qualified to teach others about it, particularly because their own life experience and opinions may not be instructive for your employees, who need to learn how to function in the U.S. Before reaching for the nearest expat, be sure that you hire the right one. It may take a bit longer, but it will be worth your while, not only for your current project, but for the long run.