It was 2007 when I took the biggest risk of my life by leaving a promising career in news and moving across the world to a little country called Oman. I’ve found that many people can’t locate Oman on a map. In fact, most people think I’m saying Amman (as in capital of Jordan). Even my news colleagues didn’t know much about the country, except that it was bordered by Yemen (which made them very nervous).
Oman is a quiet but powerful player in the Arab Gulf. Located near the Strait of Hormuz, it has location, oil money, and a history of diplomacy with the West.
I took the assignment (and, what some well-meaning people told me was a “stupid crazy risk”) for the opportunity to build a strategic public relations plan for an American company trying to get its bearings in the Gulf. Truthfully, as a single woman in my twenties, I faced barriers in doing business in the Middle East. It was a hard, sometimes painful journey. But I made it. Not only that, I consider my time in Oman as a life-shaping experience.
So for anyone considering an oversees assignment to places unknown, let me share a few tips of how I “leaned in” and pulled up a seat at the table, even when that seat happened to be in the desert.
- Know your culture: It’s like “know your audience.” Obviously the culture of Oman is incredibly different from the southern culture that I grew up in (though we do both share a love of hospitality). Oman’s society is based on a system of honor and shame. Per the culture, my dress and demeanor could cause shame if not carefully considered. Everything is based on this system. Since family is central to Omani way of life, it would be shaming to begin a meeting without giving a proper greeting first (“How’s your family, your health, your farm?”). For many of my clients, I was also the first woman they had ever worked with. If I didn’t have a solid grasp on the culture surrounding me, I would have shamed them, myself and my company.
- Look up: As a Western woman, I became accustomed to being stared at like some sort of anomaly. My gut reaction was to look at the ground when in public because I thought if I looked down, I would somehow become invisible and men wouldn’t notice me. It took me a year to realize two things: 1) Looking at the ground did not make me disappear. 2) It just made me look scared and unconfident. I was neither of these things, so I stopped looking at the ground and began to look up.
- It’s ok to stomp, cry and throw a fit (in private): There was a moment during the triple-digit Omani summer when I lost my marbles. Between the 130-degree heat, Muscat’s “fun” rolling blackouts and an unfortunate plumbing issue, my patience evaporated. All I wanted to do was cry, particularly when dealing with a difficult client who insisted on trying to barter the contract we had agreed upon weeks prior. I didn’t tell anyone — not my boss or coworkers — but I believed strongly that I was failing at my job because I felt so overwhelmed. Here’s what I learned: You will not make it far into your career if you believe that feeling frustrated, sad, angry and exhausted mean you’re failing. You will always have a combination of these feelings. Let yourself be angry; let yourself cry. Have a moment privately and then pick yourself up and walk into that meeting room with dry eyes and a calm(er) demeanor.
- Do not mistake fear as a stop sign: Moving to Oman and entering its workforce is perhaps the scariest thing I’ve ever done. When I was deciding whether to take the job, fear was consuming. But here’s the thing: those opportunities that shape us, those are the ones that are terrifying and risky. As I was deciding whether or not to take the leap, I was reminded that we will never make waves without the possibility of going under. Saying yes to the opportunity and no to fear was one of the best decisions I ever made.
If you are considering an overseas assignment, it will no doubt change your life. It will be frustrating, lonely and overwhelming at times. But the truth is that to sit at the table, you will sometimes have to drag your chair for miles. And that chair might just be located across the ocean.
Paige Bennett leads internal communications for Dell’s Corporate Responsibility programs. After beginning her career as a news producer, Paige moved to Oman, where she developed communications strategies with government and private business sectors throughout the Gulf. She speaks Arabic (with a bit of a Southern accent) and recently relocated from Austin to San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @paigenomadgirl.Tags: Business,Leadership,Productivity