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Some time ago, my wife and I decided we wanted to grow our own food. I know, food? A different kind of {grow}! Bear with me — there is a moral to this story!

To get a nice plot of land, we had to look past our homeland of The Netherlands (where the price of land is at such a premium) to just a few miles across the border into Belgium. In fact, we moved a mere 188 miles from our previous home, not really an impressive distance by U.S. standards.

I also had to get a new job in my newly-adopted country and found one in Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Not a bad looking city with a few nice quirks. One of the weirder quirks is that this region has three governments; a Regional, French-speaking and a Dutch-speaking government. Under that structure, there are 19 communes (each with its own mayor and full counsel) and on top of that the federal Belgium government and all that contained in a puny 62 square miles.

Culture shock

I’m Dutch, traveled the world, experienced many different cultures, and have an open mind. So I consider myself a wee bit enlightened. However, I was completely caught off guard by the differences in culture I faced when starting my new job in this new country — only 57 miles from the Dutch border!

Just one example; My first day at the office.

The men shook my hand; the women gave me a peck on the cheek. Now, this made me feel welcome, but this does not happen in my homeland. In Holland, we come in, wave good morning, sit down, shut up and do our work. And I was surprised when the kisses happened again on the second day.

It took me awhile to learn how to be friendly in the morning, to look your coworker in the eye. But now, this is a great way to start the day!

In the south of Belgium where I live, just 95 miles away, the men kiss too, still another surprise.

I experienced many other cultural subtleties, to. Some took me a year to figure out. The problem is, nobody will explain these to you, and some will only correct you if you break a “rule” … maybe. If you are working with people in a different country, they expect you to know their rules and abide by them … and rightfully so.

So, what’s the point of this?

We like to the think of the social web as one big community but it’s certainly not. We’re still local — very local — in our customs, habits and language.

Just because you are a “world citizen,” never assume people are just like you or that people will adapt to you. I experienced culture shock when I moved a short distance from my home. Just imagine the differences when working abroad, on another hemisphere. Even if you are immersed in the culture, it may take you years to understand a people. and in some cases, the wrong move can even be an insult.

We have such an amazing opportunity to meet and work with people from all over the world on the web. When starting a new assignment, mind how big the differences can be. Be humble, pay attention to speech and behavior, especially the subtleties. Ask, discretely, if you are in doubt. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn about the new worlds out there. People will generally be honored that you are interested.

And if you ever have a gig working in another country, read up on the cultural differences beforehand! Connect with a local, and if you are ever in Belgium or Holland, please contact me so I can help you feel welcome!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my story. Do you have a story of a new culture to share?

Illustration: Photo from Talinn, Estonia (Mark Schaefer took in 2012)