Defying Brexit – the rise of global citizenship in international business

 Benedict Slonecki argues that the rise of global working opportunities is changing our attitudes to national identity bringing international cultures together despite isolationist politics 

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the recent 71st anniversary of the United Nations has prompted a debate about national identity and how we position ourselves on the international stage – and the business community has its own interesting take on the topic.

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At the same time that Britain is talking about Brexit and how to protect national identity, the talk in the global mobility industry has been about a new breed of culturally-skilled international workers who identify themselves as ‘global citizens’ and developing strategies to support them.

So, how do we marry up the two?

There’s no doubt that in many ways the world is getting ‘smaller’ and so much has changed since the United Nations first came into force in 1945 with a mission to bring the world together through intercultural communication, understanding and collaboration. Moreover, advances in technology and transportation, have made the entire world ‘connected’, increasing our awareness of other cultures.

This has resulted in the opportunity for businesspeople, in increasing numbers, to experience working and living abroad, often in a variety of countries.

‘Global citizen’ is a buzzword that has been circulating for several years now and can be loosely defined as an individual who no longer feels they belong to a specific nation or cultural group regardless of what their passport says – normally as a result of living and working abroad for an extensive period of time.

A study by GlobeScan and BBC World Service in April 2016 found that one in two people (49 per cent) surveyed from emerging economic countries identify more as a global citizen than as a citizen from their own country.

It’s an interesting concept and one worth bringing into focus at a time when the UK has been battling so hard with questions of identity. Are we British? Are we European? Are we citizens of the world?

Geography plays a big part in the UK’s debate about identity because as an island nation we are isolated from the rest of the European continent and this physical detachment resonates in our culture and identity to some degree.

Another aspect of Britain, however, are the thousands of British expats who work and live abroad (myself included), many on assignment for a global corporation, and some who are experiencing a cultural shift that is starting to change the way they think and how they identity themselves.

I currently live and work in Hong Kong and speak with other expatriates from European countries on a daily basis – and what I’ve discovered is that there are so many similarities between Britons and our European counterparts.

We both get passionate and expressive about topics, are individualistic in nature both inside and outside the workplace, are open to risk and are quick to take accountability for actions – attributes that are not seen comparatively in Asian cultures.

There are however certainly shared characteristics between the predominant cultural groups of the EU – Anglo, Romance, Germanic and Slavic cultures. Characteristics that are found in every part of the EU and could even be called European when comparing to other cultural and global regions.

Additionally, I’ve also met plenty of people who have become so immersed in a variety of cultures that they now feel like a global citizen.

One of my colleagues, Debbie is also from the UK but is currently based in Thailand and has lived in Germany, St Vincent, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan and Singapore; so her viewpoint is interesting to say the least.

“Being abroad makes you a part of something bigger and in return it makes you less wedded to national identity,” she said. “I would define myself as a Global Citizen. I’ve spent the majority of my life overseas and have lost my home base even though I was born in the UK.”

Taking myself as another example, I was born and raised in London in an English-Polish household and I grew up with two cultures and a British passport, never really questioning my own identity. Fast forward a few years, I am now living for the second time in Asia – first in Japan and currently in Hong Kong. Years away have influenced my perspective and how I view the world, shifting the way I think, act, speak and, ultimately, my own identity.

This has been reflected in cultural profile tests where I incline to be more East Asian in ways of thinking rather than from a Western perspective. I still feel British but perhaps with more years away I will become more influenced by other ways of thinking.

There’s no doubt that experiencing an assignment abroad can change you. Before an assignment individuals are often ethno-centric – they only view things from their innate home cultural viewpoint. No surprise really as you only know what you know!

The time abroad encourages the individual to develop an ethno-relative skill set. Ethno-relativism is the concept of being empathetic to different cultures and knowing how to adapt and assimilate in order to thrive in whichever culture you find yourself in.

It is an interesting development and Shân Norman, who is vice president, Client Services, at Crown World Mobility, believes there could be benefits for big business in the rise of the global citizen in a world where so many companies are ‘international’.

She said: “To me it means someone who is not rooted in one country but sees the world through a global lens and has lived outside their home country.

“I think global citizens are more attractive to employ, they bring diversity of opinions and a wider, open outlook,” she said. “If we were all global citizens there would be less conflict, fewer borders and more understanding and openness.”

In an increasingly globalised world, one where many expatriates go on consecutive assignments, perhaps more and more will recognise their own cultural shift and identify as a global citizen. A Brexit doesn’t have to mean we are drifting culturally apart.

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