Job interview skills for Expats: leveraging cultural differences

As an expat interviewing for a job in a foreign country, you will experience a whole new layer of pressure of uncertainty. The reason? Cultural differences – and how you handle them can make or break your interview performance.  

No matter what country you are from or what job you are applying for, the hiring manager needs to know that you are capable of performing the tasks and also that you will be a good addition to the team. 

Don’t be intimidated because you don’t think you have all the skills that are wanted in the job specification. Most businesses will teach you as you go, so lacking a certain skill will not mean you can’t get the job. If you do lack certain skills or experience, you need to work twice as hard in your interview to portray what you do have that you can bring this job. 

It is a myth to think that the most skilled person will get the job. When it comes to hiring the right person, it is about the overall package – skills, personality, confidence and also the passion you show in your interview. 

The interview process

Typically the majority of job interviews will follow the same path. Ice-breaking question, followed by general questions before the tough part of the interview which are the behavioural based interview questions. Most interviews will finish with the interviewer asking the standard question “Do you have any questions to ask me?”

Although this is the standard path, as an expat it is important to understand cultural differences relating to the country and the company in order to answer the questions and behave in the right way. Nine out of 10 times this boils down to research. Common sense also plays a major role in the interview and being able to read the personality of the interviewer. For example if you are being interviewed in Australia by a laid-back hiring manager your approach needs to be different than if you are being interviewed in the UK or USA by a more formal, interviewer (or vice versa) 

Ask questions or not?

In many western countries, it is recommended to ask direct and inquisitive questions during the interview. It shows your initiative, confidence and curiosity. For example, a fantastic question to ask the interviewer is about their background and why they decided to join the business.  After all, from your point of view as the interviewee you want to know about the current employees and their background. However this type of approach in Asian countries would be generally be discouraged as many local managers would experience this type of questioning as disrespectful or even rude. 

Social hierarchies

Social structure is also very different in certain countries and as an interviewee you need to be aware of these differences. In China for example the social structure can be more hierarchical than in the west. Where in the USA it is more common to see those of mixed social levels socializing one is less likely to see this occurring in China. It also means you should bow slightly to your interviewer in an Asian context to convey respect, while behaving similarly in a western context would be absurd. 

Cultural differences

Ignoring culture differences can get an unsuspecting person into trouble. For example in western countries it is encouraged to speak about your achievements and your success. A friend of mine travelled to Sweden with the hope of finding employment. Having come from a background in investment banking and having worked in the USA he spoke freely about the money he his success and achievements. After five failed interviews he came across the idea of Jante's Law, which in Scandinavian culture is the concept of a value of sameness, and a dislike for bragging about achievements. By not having an understanding the culture he was coming across as boastful and arrogant. 

Arriving on time

Punctuality for in interview is standard interview behaviour, however in certain countries such as Korea ensure that you are not just on time but you are early! It is considered extremely rude to arrive late to a job interview in Korea. Remember in many Asian countries, culture dictates that personal contact is not encouraged and extending a hand for shaking can be seen as a sign of rudeness. 

Dress right

Formality and manners is another area of difference between countries and by understanding the relevant culture you can best avoid any problematic issues when interviewing. As in most countries, different industries require certain dress codes. In France for example, the higher the position within a larger organisation, the more formal the dress code with formal suit and tie being worn. However, the further south you travel in France the more informal business dress becomes. Similarly, when interviewing for an advertising agency position, wearing a formal black suit could blow you out the water right away. 

Religion and tradition

A countries religious affiliation and traditional values will also play a major role in your job interview. In countries such as Dubai despite being seen as modern tourist destinations its people are still conservative in many different ways. As a foreign expat you need to wear conservative and appropriate clothing as not to offend anyone. 

The overall message is when you are interviewing in the global environment; research and preparation of the cultural differences are the keys to interview success.

Go the extra mile

Here is a true story to illustrate the importance of preparation. A candidate of mine was applying for a job at one of the large investment banks. Out of 150 candidates the hiring manager had selected the top 10 best resumes to choose first-round interviewees. Every interview was 15-20 minutes long. The final question the hiring manager asked to each of the candidates was “Tell me something about the company.” Nine out of 10 of the candidates rattled off information they had read from the company’s “about us page”, but one candidate stood out. After reading about the company’s strategic purchase of a new acquisition, the candidate was able to impress the hiring manager with his (somewhat different) knowledge. 

The hiring manager later offered this candidate the role not because he was the smartest candidate, but because he showed his dedication by going the extra step in his interview preparation. 

Remember one last tip: Always follow up after your job interview with a thank you email. No matter where in the world you are, a thank you email or letter will enhance your chances of getting hired.

by Gavin Redelman, founder of  RedStarResume Publications ( and renowned as a master of “Achievement Based” resume writing. Recognised as an expert in the field of resume writing and also as a prolific blogger, Gavin and his team of writers are passionate about providing every customer with the ultimate first class-treatment and ensuring that their new resume will open doors and opportunities for their clients.

Views: 408

Comment by Gavin Redelman on April 12, 2011 at 7:13pm

What other cultural differences have people noticed?

Please add to the list 

Comment by Bethany Stanford on April 13, 2011 at 10:22pm
I think a person should be very aware of different meanings behind physical gestures. A nod in the US means yes but in China it means that they simply understand.
Comment by Gavin Redelman on April 14, 2011 at 1:59am
It's so true - I was reading that in some Latin American countries and West African countries the thumbs-up basically means the same as the middle finger!


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