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Cultural Lessons from Living Abroad: How Different Views on Money and Time Shocked Me

Working and living abroad was never part of my plan. I couldn’t relate to my fellow hospitality majors or my colleagues at the various hotels and corporate offices where I worked when they talked about their dreams of taking their career overseas. It seemed that for some, the U.S. was just a stepping stone to the wider hospitality world. I listened to their goals and nodded along but didn’t understand why they would want to leave “home” and live—let alone work—in another country. The first 35 years of my life were spent in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, and though I had traveled extensively within the country, anything outside of that bubble felt too ‘foreign’ for me. I was not shy about sharing that I intended to spend the rest of my career on American soil.


Lynn Zwibak

So you can imagine everyone’s surprise (including mine) when I announced that I was moving to Kenya with the man who is now my husband. Due to his work as a U.S. diplomat, we are privileged to live all over the world. Our first stop was Nairobi, Kenya, which is just about as ‘foreign’ as you can get.  We spent two years with monkeys in our backyard and went on weekend safaris. This was followed by two years in Manila, Philippines, where the hot, muggy summers of Washington, DC, are a dream compared to even the ‘cool’ season. We are now 10 months into a three-year stay in El Salvador, where there are mango trees growing in my neighborhood, and I can practice my Spanish to my heart’s content.


This life is full of joys and challenges, some expected and some surprising. But the biggest surprise of all was the subtle differences in culture and communication I constantly encounter. Had I been a tourist or worked in the U.S. Embassy like many diplomat spouses, I would likely never have learned the lessons I am going to share. But I chose to work and teach in the local economy, an American out of water, unprepared for what she would find.


BTW, even the word ‘American’ is loaded. Most people living in the Western Hemisphere are ‘American’ in the truest sense of the word, living as they do on the continents of that name. Latin Americans I encounter take exception when I refer to myself as one (the preferred term is “estadounidense”), so I try to avoid it as much as possible.


When I reflect on my experiences abroad, two big themes of difference crop up: money and time.


Cultural Norms Around Money


In the three non-U.S. countries where I have lived, it is considered rude to ask customers for money. Huh? The purpose of a business is to get money from customers. While that may be true, being obvious about it is taboo. This means that you can sit in a restaurant for hours after finishing your meal and never see a check. The waitstaff is waiting for you to ask them for it; bringing it to you unrequested is out of the question. This conflicts with the American desire for efficiency, where we are annoyed if the check is not in our hand as soon as we place our napkin on the table. 


Dining aside, this has interesting implications for hotels. I was hired to introduce revenue management to an independent hotel in Kenya. One of the first things I noticed was that we had an extremely high rate of cancellations and no-shows. When I asked my reservations team if we were charging for these, they looked at me like I had three heads. It took me a while to realize we couldn’t charge them because we weren’t collecting payment information with each reservation. (Our reservations system wasn’t even able to save a credit card number without charging an immediate deposit). The only guaranteed reservations on our books came from OTAs. For the rest, we were just hoping they would show up so that we could get paid.


While it is rude to ask customers for money, the same attitude does not apply to one’s manager. I managed several teams during my time in Kenya, and on more than one occasion, a team member asked me for money. Whether it was for school fees, rent, or groceries, it always caught me completely off guard. My utter confusion and inability to hide my surprise must have complicated what appeared to be business as usual in that environment. Needless to say, I never agreed to these requests, though I did contribute to the many employee funds and other communal calls for donations.


The Perception of Time


In basically everywhere outside of the U.S., the week begins on Monday. For someone whose entire career has revolved around the calendar—first in sales, then revenue management—this is a problem. I am so used to glancing at a calendar column and knowing the day of the week being referenced (no need to check the header for me!) that I have booked more than one flight and hotel room for the day after the intended date.


But that is not the only date-related area where those from the United States differ. There is also the matter of how we write dates. We are used to the MM/DD/YY format, where October 12, 2024, is written as 10/12/24. Elsewhere, that represents December 10, 2024. This is off by more than just a day like my previous example. We are talking about an entirely different month!


The way we write dates—from any country— is so ingrained in us that even when we talk it out, we get it wrong. The independent in Kenya was converting to a soft brand with a large international chain while I was there. I was leading the undertaking and needed to get every employee set up with a system ID to complete the required training. The default password included the employee’s date of birth in the MM/DD/YY format. Even though I told the employees they needed to type the numbers in a different order, I had to reset each person’s password multiple times before I started writing it out on paper for them. Then they could just retype what they saw, rather than needing to think it through in their heads, and about half of them succeeded on the first try.


Finally, there is the matter of actual time. In the United States, time is a finite and linear thing to measure and value. But in Kenya, for example, time is fluid. Until this was explained to me, I was becoming increasingly angry when my team did not respect the deadlines I gave them or show up on time for meetings. Despite my admittedly obnoxious efforts to instill a sense of urgency, I never made it stick. While I was never able to fully turn off my American vision of responsibility and respect, I was at least able to understand that this was an ingrained metaphysical and philosophical cultural difference and not evidence of laziness, rudeness, or poor work ethic.

Lynn Zwibak
Lynn and her husband in their backyard in Kenya

Have You Lived Abroad?


Can you relate? Living abroad has taught me countless lessons about cultural differences; handling money and perceiving time are just the beginning. Have you lived abroad? Email me at lynn@zwibak.com to share your experiences. I'd love to hear your stories and insights!


Lynn Zwibak is the Founder and President of Zwibak Revenue Management, which provides revenue management training to non-revenue managers. Her mission is to educate the hotel industry on revenue management principles so that hotels can be more profitable. She is also a professor of revenue management at Virginia Tech University. Lynn has lived and worked in Kenya and the Philippines and now lives in El Salvador.    

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