Interesting expat interview: Helping sportspeople settle into life abroad

Welcome to another post in my occasional series Interesting Expat. In this interview, I talk to a woman who has taken her own experiences of living and working abroad and turned them into a business to help others going through the same thing. She has even cornered one little niche part of the market – assisting athletes and other sportspeople taking up contracts overseas. It’s certainly an interesting angle on the expat experience, and one that has led to her writing a book as well. Please meet Suzanne Salzbrenner

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Hi and thanks for answering my questions about your life as an expat. First of all, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your family, where you are from originally, and where you live now?

Sure! We are a truly multicultural family, currently based close to Paris, France. I am originally German and met my Brazilian husband in Copenhagen, Denmark while we were both working there. We have two trilingual children, although they claim to know many more languages.

And can you tell me about where you have lived as an expat in the past– and what took you there?

I actually started my experience of cultural transitions early on without moving. Growing up in the East of Germany, I was raised partially during the communist times and then had to re-adjust to a new way of thinking. I think it added an extra pinch of curiosity for different perspectives to my approach on life.

Since then I have lived in the United States as a teenager, in Australia as a researcher, in Denmark as a consultant. After my husband searched for opportunities in his company for an international assignment, we have ventured out to China and France with our kids, and I started my journey as an entrepreneur.

 Of all the various countries you have lived in, which has been the one that you have enjoyed the most?

I enjoyed different countries for different reasons, also due to the different life stages I was in. I loved living in Australia, simply because of the life style, laid back work atmosphere and diversity of culture and natural wonders. China fascinated me culturally. But overall, I would say that I wouldn’t want to miss any of the six stations in my life, since they represented different stages in my development.

And which surprised you the most – either for positive or for negative reasons?

France was probably the most surprising. Because it is a neighbouring country to my home country, I didn’t expect as many cultural differences. We also came here with a lot of stereotypes about the country that we had gathered from short vacation trips. Many of them turned out to get in our way of integrating when they turned out to not be quite so true. We live in a rural area without a lot of foreigners. The integration process of finding friends, being forced to speak the language and jumping through many bureaucratic hoops took us a bit longer than expected.

Your experiences have led to you setting up your own company, as well as write a book – can you tell me a bit about that? Why do you think there is a need for this sort of support? Who is it aimed at, and how do you think your experience can help others?

I’ve been working in the cross-cultural consulting business as an organizational psychologist and intercultural trainer since 2008. By that time I had already moved internationally 4 times before becoming an expat spouse. Following my husband was actually quite difficult in the sense that I wasn’t in control anymore. But I figured that I had the unique opportunity to see the experience of global mobility from all sides.

While I was able to continue my training and consulting work throughout the assignments as a freelancer, I have also ventured into creating my own start-up “Fit across Cultures” that focuses on providing resources and coaching to professional athletes in their international transition and integration process, enabling them to maximize their success abroad. The book I wrote focuses on this exact group of people and is called “Play Abroad 101”. I played basketball in many of the places I lived in and always noticed a shortcoming of preparations and integration support for the foreign players that arrived. The plan for this resource existed in my head for a while, but living in France gave me the time I needed to work on it.

My experience of living and working abroad has definitely influenced my way of coaching and training others that are venturing out and often taking the leap into an unknown world. We often find things to be quite different from the guidebooks, don’t we? Whether it is an athlete, a business executive or a spouse, stepping out of that comfort zone is more of a feeling and a sensation you have than a cognitive process. Many levels of learning and development abroad happen unconsciously. Without my own experiences, I wouldn’t be able to relate and describe the process in the same way that I can now.

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Can you give any examples of how the support you are able to offer has helped someone, and how?

I’ve just recently had an example of a young family moving to France with quite typical concerns about the adjustment of their child. I offered them insights into the French day care system. When I looked up, their faces were white, mouths wide open. They were appalled, surprised, and speechless. Quite a normal reaction! Wanting “the best” for your children often stands for following what you consider “normal” in your home country. Every cultural clash, especially when it comes to child care, often creates a big emotional conflict and a gigantic step out of one’s comfort zone. For me as a trainer however, it opens up a great discussion about our values and how they influence our judgements (often without realizing it). We discussed the educational values that are behind the French system, dove into the reasons why French regard education and parenthood differently than the couple.

Talking about different ways of reaching the same goal, the couple realized that there were certain advantages of the system they could use while holding on to their own beliefs of how to raise their child. My job was to facilitate that deeper interaction with the French culture beyond what is visible and enabling them in shifting their perspective, a vital skill to success abroad.

How do you find clients – do they approach you, or you them? How do people find out about what you are doing?

I wear multiple hats throughout the day, so how I find clients changes depending on the role I have. As a freelance trainer, I work with consulting companies that hire me to provide certain services like expat training. I am also part of virtual teams, for example this initiative for an online training platform for German-speaking spouses (“How to create my life abroad”).

For my own business, I utilize the power of social media to connect and find collaboration partners, as well as potential clients. I am especially active on LinkedIn and Twitter (@fitaxcultures). I also run a podcast for athletes abroad that helps to drive visibility. Additionally, I am a freelancer writer and my work has been featured in a variety of magazines related to expat life, international business or sports, which helps me staying visible and credible in the field.

Do you think your help can translate across into other areas of expat life, or is it very specific?

My work translates into all areas of expat life. Learning about the impact of our values and cultural preferences on our behaviour, how to be more competent when working and living with different cultures, and how to treat people inclusively transcends into every aspect of our life.

If you could give your pre-expat self an advice what would it be?

What are you waiting for? Don’t just stand on the edge and observe, take the full leap and soak up this new culture to the fullest.

Make a bucket list and start working on it from day 1.

What would be your “dream” expat destination – and why?

Tough one….but probably a melting pot with a bit of Asian flavour, like Hong Kong or Singapore. These cities offer the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

And is there anywhere you would even have said a definite NO to?

Never say never! Although at this point, my husband and I have reached the point of wanting to choose a place to live by ourselves and not directed by a company’s expansion strategy 

Finally, would you prefer your children to end up living in another country to you – or would you like them to stay close?

I would like them to choose where they are happiest. As third culture kids, they will have to find a place that fits their identities.

Thank you so much Susan. What an interesting background, and it’s great that you’ve taken what you know and turned it into a business to help others.

If you think you are an “interesting expat” and would like to be interviewed for this series, please let me know!

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