Profession: CEO at Internations
Languages: German, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French
Interview: Malte Zeck is a passionate traveller, he loves different cultures and communication. He is the kind of person who turns a weakness into an opportunity. His experience living as an expat in countries like Brazil, Switzerland or India inspired him to create the social network InterNations, which has 2.8 million members, and where those who live in a different culture can find a virtual space to socialize and share experiences. We’ve spoken with him about the importance of languages in order to be involved in a culture, the differences between socializing with locals and with other expats and about his project InterNations, of course.
How would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Malte Zeeck, I am 39 years old and live in the beautiful capital of Bavaria, Munich. However, I was born in Kiel, right on the shore of the Baltic Sea in the north of Germany, and grew up in Bonn. I have a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, and additionally studied at Bocconi University in Milan, Fundação Getúlio Vargas in São Paulo, and Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie in Berlin.
Who is Malte Zeeck? We have read that you have lived in so many different countries, what can you highlight from those experiences?
I have always had a true passion for travel, different cultures, and getting to know new people. My personal experience abroad started while I was growing up, when I did a high school exchange in Syracuse, New York for one year. Following this, I did my military service in Budel, Holland and in Sardinia, Italy. My decision to enrol in an MBA programme took me to the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, where I also had the opportunity of taking part in two exchange semesters at Bocconi University in Milan and at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Sao Paulo. During this time, I also worked as a flight attendant for Lufthansa which allowed me to travel the world further. After my studies, I worked as a correspondent and television reporter for international broadcasters such as CNN International, N24, n-tv, and ARD. While reporting from various countries, including India and Brazil, I experienced many of the challenges related to being an expat.
Would you explain your project, InterNations, to those who don’t know what it’s about?
With about 2.8 million members in 390 cities around the world, InterNations is the largest global network and information site for people who live and work abroad. It strives to make life easier for expats by helping them feel at home abroad, meet people, and find information about their new environment. The big advantage of InterNations is that we offer global and local networking both online and face-to-face. Members have the opportunity to meet, network, and socialize at regular local official events and activities. Our platform also includes a forum for online discussions, as well as expat guides that provide valuable information on many popular destinations around the world.
Why did you decide to found InterNations? From what we’ve read, it’s a result of your own experience.
Being an expat myself in countries that were completely foreign to me made me realize how very time consuming it was to gather all the necessary information needed to prepare for life abroad. This is how my friends, who had made similar experiences as consultants, and I came up with the idea to create an online platform, where people who are in the same situation can share their experiences, meet new people, and learn about the cultures of the different countries and cities they move to.
Our main goal was to make life for expatriates much easier than we found it while living abroad ourselves. With the help of InterNations, expats are able to quickly rebuild their social and professional network in many different ways.
What’s the difference between establishing contact with an expat from another country and with a local person? Is there a different cultural barrier?
That is a very interesting question, which we also ask in our annual Expat Insider survey. With about 13,000 respondents, it is one of the most extensive expat studies worldwide. In 2017, all the survey respondents who stated that they are mainly friends with other expats were asked what they thought possible reasons for this are: 44 percent did in fact cite a cultural issue, making it the largest barrier to making local friends. Other reasons are that their colleagues at work are mainly expats as well (39%) and the language barrier (36%).
What is more, local residents tend to already have fully established social circles. Expats, meanwhile, might not know anybody in their new country of residence, making them more interested in finding new friends. In fact, the Expat Insider 2017 survey shows that 72 percent of expats move to a country where none of their friends or relatives were already living. That might lead to a feeling of being “in the same boat” so to speak: the shared experience of being a stranger in a new land might help to establish contact with other expats.
Most of our collaborators are expats living in Spain, do you think there are some professions (like journalist or translator) that require more mobility?
With global mobility increasing, more and more people want to live abroad: today, there are an estimated 56 to 57 million expats worldwide. Based on our Expat Insider 2017 survey, we know that expats mainly work in education (15%), IT (9%), and finance (8%). Only two percent state they work in the language industry and another two percent in the media.
How can languages affect personal relationships?
As I mentioned earlier, the language barrier is among the top 3 reasons why expats find it hard to make friends among local residents. And even if the language in an expat’s new home is the same as their mother tongue, there are many different ways of using language and regional characteristics of what you can say and what you should avoid. As Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
How can we manage the risk of becoming part of a kind of expat ghetto in the new communities where we live?
Sometimes, expats tend to get into an “expat bubble”. Though it is wonderful to have a ready-made and supportive community of other expats to bond with and ask for help, if you only hang out with other expats, you’ll miss out on a lot. So, my recommendation is to not be shy and try to leave your comfort zone once in a while: join local clubs to keep practicing your hobby, do volunteer work, and don’t say no to any invitation. If you move to a country where you don’t speak the language, learning it is of course the first step in becoming part of the local community.
Making it easier for expats to meet local residents in their new country of residence is also one of the reasons why we invite locals to join InterNations. Each InterNations Community contains about 70 percent expats and 30 percent local residents, that we call “global minds” — people who have previously lived or worked abroad or those who have a strong interest in traveling and other cultures. We believe that it is important to encourage local involvement as these are individuals with the most understanding of the local community and country and therefore are an ideal go-to person for expats who have recently moved or are in need of assistance upon their arrival or for the duration of their stay in that country.
Have you ever required the services of a translation agency, a translator, an interpreter, etc.?
InterNations has a growing team of more than 100 employees, currently representing 36 nationalities and speaking 34 different languages. This allows us to do any required translations in-house.
Do you have any anecdotes related to languages that have happened to you?
While visiting many of our communities around the world, I realized that the expression “now” can be interpreted very differently. For example, if we say, “I’ll do this now” as a German, we actually mean that we will start the task right away and get it done. In many other countries, however, “now” can be everything from actually now to sometime in the next weeks. This has already led to a couple misunderstandings in terms of deadlines.