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Overcoming cultural differences

Sabrina came from a macho national culture that had inflicted her with adolescent diffidence and was educated principally in Anglo-Saxon countries where she honed a steely sense of superiority. She was having a very rough time adjusting professionally to working with the French.

Despite a string of impressive higher degrees, she was frustrated, angry, disappointed, scared and on the verge of losing control in a fast-paced, competitive, well-paid finance job. She ranted against French hierarchy, frustrated not to be immediately given the trust and scope of power she felt her credentials deserved. She was sure her boss hated her and that her peers were plotting behind her back to get rid of her. She fretted that she had made the wrong career choice and was considering returning to the USA.

Before tackling cultural differences, we first explored Sabrina’s own personal values, which turned out to be conflicted and the hidden source of much of Sabrina’s present anguish – anguish that had amplified the cultural “dis-ease” with the French.

Sabrina was fraught by the so-called Ticking Clock – the potentially debilitating conflict between Motherhood and Career. In our sessions, she was visibly surprised that this was even an issue, though it is common among career women in their mid thirties. Unless it is dealt with consciously, The Ticking Clock becomes like water torture; clearly it had amplified Sabrina’s misgivings about having changed countries and starting life all over in a strange, impermeable foreign culture where she was less likely than ever to meet the man of her dreams.

In just a few sessions, we were able to address the purely cultural aspect of Sabrina’s integration in her new work milieu through an exploration of values – the visible and invisible parts of the “iceberg” – and an introduction to the Transactional Analysis model, sufficiently to reduce the daily stress of anticipating what she erroneously perceived as personal affronts.

Part of Sabrina’s homework, besides reading a few guides on French culture, was to cold-call some people I knew (whom I had prompted to respond positively to her request for a meeting) who had their own successful integration stories and advice to share. I facilitated an interview with a ministerial-level consultant in her field of activity, from whom she received the kind of collegial acknowledgement, sympathy and approval that made her feel comfortable enough to address her integration difficulties directly with her own employer. Her employer – taken aback that such a problem even existed – offered to finance her continuing coaching sessions and personally facilitated her professional integration in the company. As a result, Sabrina has now found her cruising speed in what was once perceived as a hostile environment. The Ticking Clock, which exceeded the scope of our sessions, is still ticking.

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