When I first entered this field, I wish somebody would have warned me about the various lions dens I would be entering. Of course, I was naive not to consider the politics of a foreign education system.

Many people begin teaching in schools where they forget about how long their coworkers may have been teaching there. Some teachers have been there as long as 20, 30, even 40 years. Furthermore, as in most cultures, the majority of these teachers are women who have been sharing an office, possibly for too long.

They drink coffee, discuss work matters, gossip about one another, and rest assured, they gossip about their new foreign staff who are starting on a higher salary and are likely to be less experienced then themselves in education. The foreign staff might unknowingly become pawns in a grudge between the teachers residing in these offices who have now found an opportunity to settle scores, and thus jeopardize the foreigners’ work comfort level, and even their job security.

“Don’t listen to Mrs. Rujapong, he doesn’t like foreigners” one might tell a teacher. This might not be the case at all, this teacher just doesn’t want the foreign staff to trust or help Mrs. Rujapong as a means to make her life difficult and get back at her for some spat they had years ago. My coworkers and I experienced this in an office of 25 women, most of them nearing middle age, as they had a power struggle over the proper way to run an English department in a school of 5000 students. The head of the English department made it clear that we should trust her over everyone as she and her cohorts threw us in the middle of personal squabbles they had with the other staff members. Not a pleasant experience, especially once you finally become aware of the situation.

Another thing I was not warned about was how fragile my situation could be. Bear in mind that some of these people might not have the patience with somebody slightly ignorant about their cultural do’s and don’t’s. In other words, one could easily offend another by doing something completely acceptable in his or her own culture, but not in the current country of residence.

For example, many Asian cultures consider it extremely offensive to point with one’s foot. Let’s say a teacher comes to you and asks where Mrs. Rujapong went. The teacher points towards to her with a foot because his or her hands are full. While this Asian teacher might not enlighten the foreigner of such ignorance, the Asian teacher will now have a grudge with the foreign teacher that he or she won’t even know about for several months. Retribution will come in the forms of passive aggressive behavior and a lack of assistance in the future. The “when in Rome” lessons are hard learned if somebody does not take the time to learn them before starting a new job in a different culture.

Office politics are office politics and they occur all over the world. One should be mindful of the surrounding cultures and keep his or her head down. That is, if comfort in the workplace is important to such an individual.

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