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The Unspoken Rules of Expatriation: Lessons from France and Italy

Embarking on the expatriation journey is both challenging and rewarding, but it requires high doses of self-awareness, communication, and compassion.

  • October 2021

The expatriate population has been growing at record rates, with an estimated 87.5 million people globally. This trend makes sense as our highly globalized world also faces a skill shortage. On the one hand, companies are tapping into foreign talent to fill in crucial positions. On the other, professionals – and, in many cases, their entire families – embark on a watershed journey that comes with challenges and rewards.

So how can leaders successfully navigate expatriate assignments and make a difference in their companies? Egon Zehnder gathered a dozen top expat managers in France and Italy to share their experiences on cultural diversity, integrating into a new professional setting, managing expectations, building relationships, and the role of allyship in this pivotal career moment.

What follows are the key insights from the conversation.

How can I decrypt the “unspoken rules” of behavior in the new country?

“The main frustration for me was to understand, beyond the language, the codes of behavior and the unspoken rules. An integration plan would have been very helpful in acquiring those codes. Everything would have been simpler!” Top manager in the banking sector expatriate in France.

“At first I saw it as a waste of time to have more informal relationships besides the ‘real’ job, but I have learned that in fact this kind of approach is fundamental.” Top manager in the food industry expatriate in Italy.

“In my first days in Italy, I didn’t spend time chatting with colleagues on non-work-related matters, but I soon understood that this could help create a good working place. Overall, this experience has helped me strengthen my inclusive leadership style and problem-solving mindset. “ Top manager in the insurance sector expatriate in Italy.

  • Food for thought: Regardless of the country we come from, expatriation exposes us to a brand new set of personal styles and perspectives: Keep in mind that each person brings their unique background and approach. 
  • Hint: It can be useful to set aside some free time to meet your new colleagues in a more informal and relaxed setting, such as lunch or a football match. Building these relationships will never be a waste of time.


“I was very lucky when I arrived: very caring colleagues helped and supported me in my early days, explaining to me the unwritten rules of working relationships. One thing I have learned is that the so-called cultural proximity between France and Italy is not so obvious, and therefore having local allies is fundamental.” Top Manager in the banking sector expatriate in Italy.

  • Food for thought: While some ways of doing things seem obvious, it may take some time to understand other, more intangible elements. In particular, it is easier to understand what “can be done” than what “cannot be done”.
  • Hint: Finding an “ally” or mentor who can help you decrypt the unwritten codes of behavior of the new culture, could be very useful for integrating in your new work environment.


“In France, if there is something wrong, we show our irritation more openly, whereas in Italy we are very polite and available even if we are upset.” Top manager in the insurance sector expatriate in Italy.

“I understood that this difference in our interpersonal approach is related to the way people approach the work environment itself in both countries. There is much more turnover in France, so the manager/employee relationship is more dynamic and direct. In Italy, on the other hand, people often act as if they had celebrated a “professional wedding” with the company they work for. For this reason, they will have a much more conciliatory attitude throughout their career.” Top manager in the Media sector expatriate in France.

  • Hint: Literature and resources about different management styles and cultural codes are more widely available. Hiring a cultural coach or getting informed through other outlets can be useful to integrating and learning the “dos” and “don’ts” of the new culture.

French planning and Italian spontaneity: how to overcome stereotypes and benefit from cultural diversity?

“In France, I had the impression that each meeting was very structured and well prepared ahead, no matter the subject discussed. In Italy, it’s the opposite: there is a little too much improvisation. I opted for the French planning method and spirit, because it makes work easier and more productive, even if you must be careful not to sacrifice the Italian creativity. A balance between the two aspects would probably be the answer.” Top manager in the Media sector expatriate in France.

“I fully agree. The best takeaway one can acquire after an experience as an Italian manager in France is a good balance between flexibility and method.” Top manager in the banking sector expatriate in France.

  • Food for thought: People carry certain personal characteristics, which are frequently associated with one nationality or another. It is true that some elements are the result of proven cultural aspects (which justify the fascination of cultural exchanges). At the same time, please bear in mind that clichés tend to resurface in a more intense – and negative – way in situations of dispute and pressure. Justifying such behaviors through a stereotypical and biased lens could prevent you from understanding the real cause of such behavior.
  • Hint: The real challenge in a new workplace, whether in Italy or in France, is to recognize and take advantage of the positive aspects both cultures have, without being caught in stereotypes. Being honestly interested in the customs and traditions of the country in which we live, noticing the differences without judging them, can help us build awareness and benefit from them. Likewise, it is just as important to be aware of the stereotypes our new colleagues may have on us and our country of origin.

How to overcome the negative image of the “Headquarter Manager” at the local level?

“It is important to bring the headquarter and its subsidiaries closer. There are no internal divisions or opposites when it comes to working in the same group, but this is not always easy to understand, especially for those who have always worked at HQ.” Top manager in the banking sector expatriate in France.

“The French tend to think everyone else should work like them, but this is certainly not possible. It is necessary to adapt, and not to impose, the approach of the headquarter to its local realities. My role was to use an “adaptative” leadership style of mediation between the two levels, by making obvious the constraints on each side and then seeking balance”. Top manager in the insurance sector expatriate in Italy.

“My experience was similar, but on the opposite side: I was the only foreigner in an Italian SME. Diversity is a value, but it is not always easy to accept it and change your perspective by doing things differently. You have to embark on a long journey of (self)awareness”. Top manager in the food industry expatriate in Italy.

  • Food for thought: Expatriation often occurs when a company offers its managers the opportunity to work locally in a subsidiary of the group, often following an acquisition. The objective is generally to standardize corporate culture and harmonize practices. However, the arrival of this new person sent by the headquarter can be seen as an attempt to establish control and unilaterally impose the main office’s way of doing things. The mission of the “headquarter manager” is critical, because his/her success will create the cooperation and synergies necessary to make the business profitable. In an acquisition, indeed, the fact that not everyone is aligned with the group’s objectives - or that they are only partially aligned - is one of the main pitfalls.
  • Hint: It is important to understand the real stakes of your mission, i.e., the objectives of the group, the perception of your role at local level, and the expectations your new colleagues may have on you. Being aware of what is at stake is key to go beyond appearances. It will help you face potential disagreements in the best possible way. This state of mind also creates the conditions for mutual understanding, empathy and trust: fundamental elements to accept the group’s standards at the local level for the best possible outcomes. Avoid the direct opposition between “us” and “you” and opt for a more empathetic and adaptative leadership style, embracing your new colleagues’ perspectives.

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