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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Why Knowing About the World Can Help Your Career

With Turkish citizens taking to the streets for another day of protests, I’m excited to get back there and document this historical moment firsthand. But, when I tell people I’m headed back to Turkey, they often respond with, “Wow! What’s going on there?”

I flinch a bit each time this happens. But I am also aware that despite having more access to information at our fingertips, the average American still doesn’t know much about what’s happening outside the States. And it’s not just important events about other countries that get overlooked—a host of basic political and social issues are missing from our overall knowledge of the world. I also often get asked questions such as, “Wait, is Darfur not a country?” or “Thailand! That is where the drink Mai Tai is from, right?”

There are a number of reasons why we aren’t fully informed about global issues: an isolated geography, a lack of global news networks on U.S. television, general apathy, and perhaps the fact that we’re all trying to juggle our busy lives and still have some time for ourselves. But this puts us at a grave disadvantage to our colleagues in the rest of the world, who generally have a strong foundation in global issues.

Yes, it’s impossible to know everything going on in the world, but it will help you immensely to know the most important events of the day or take on a regional interest. Here are just a few reasons why knowing about global issues will benefit your professional life and help you connect with others in a meaningful way.

Sit at the Table

We’ve all been there, caught in a conversation we feel left out of. For me, comparing neighborhoods and rental price of apartments makes me ready to mosey on to the next table—for some of my friends, the moment when they want to escape is when the talk turns to global news.

But when it comes to global issues, sticking around to offer your insight and hear what others have to say can help you “sit at the table” for important conversations and position you as informed and knowledgeable among your colleagues. It’s one of the few times that whether you are an intern or a manager, you can share your opinions and thoughts on an equal playing field, exercise strong arguments about a topic, and also have a great opportunity to ask questions.

In particular, you want to be informed about how the events happening in another country impact your own work. For example, the recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangledesh has spawned a news trend about working conditions and safety in the garment industry. If you work in fashion or merchandising, you might find your company being pressured to improve policies on wages and safety. And you may find yourself answering some serious questions about your company’s international outlook.

Identifying the global connection can help you network, be taken seriously, and understand your company’s relationship to the world.

Understand Business Culture

At a major Turkish corporation, a colleague of mine pointed to a large portrait on the wall and asked, “Is that your CEO?” The company representative replied, “That is our leader and founder of the Turkish republic, Ataturk.”

While we were able to put a positive spin on it, it was an embarrassing moment—how could she miss this major fact about Turkey?

No matter what field you’re in, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself traveling abroad for business or working with someone from another culture at some point. And in order to successfully conduct business, it’s important to know the basics of the country and what the culture values. For example, if you are visiting Greece, it’s important to know the impacts of the economic crisis on business culture and that most employees are just trying to keep their jobs in a time of economic turmoil.

What’s more, in places like East Asia, you are expected to discuss politics, world issues, and basically serve as an ambassador for your host country when you have a business dinner (before you go out and sing karaoke with your colleagues, of course).

When you are doing business at home or abroad, being globally aware will help you make the most of the opportunity—not to mention avoid some serious mishaps—in everything from discussing politics to paying for dinner.

Acknowledge Your Relationship to the World

I have a friend who says, “I don’t care what’s happening in the rest of the world, I care what happens here in our own country.” But, honestly, what happens in the rest of the world is directly related to what happens here—especially in the professional environment.

To people who say that other places don’t matter, I always ask them to check the tag on the back of their shirt. Where it is from? Typically, Honduras, Nicaragua, or Cambodia. And if you were to check your printer, iPhone, or laptop, you would find similar origins. As you go through your work day, note of how many things you use come from another country—and you’ll find that our offices couldn’t function without the rest of the world.

Then, make note of the people you talk to who originate from somewhere else. It’s much easier to communicate and connect when you have some background knowledge about the person’s origins to share or discuss. And it could mean the difference between winning over that business deal or promotion or not—or truly connecting with someone on a genuine level.

In the professional environment, we are truly interdependent on the rest of the world—and the more you know about what’s going on in the world, the more you’ll truly understand that.

Take Action

The good news is, it’s very simple to get started consuming news that helps you become more aware of global events. Try doing something as simple as setting your homepage to a world news site like BBC, Al Jazeera, or Foreign Policy magazine. Or, try having the world news in the background as you get ready for work.

If you’re interested in carrying the discussion further, you could join an organization like Young Professionals in Foreign Policy or the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. Or, just simply organize some friends for cocktails and discussion.

And, most importantly, the next time you’re at happy hour and the conversation turns to Syria or the Congo, stick around for a while. It will help you in the long run, and you might be able to contribute your unique ideas about the world, too.

Photo of man reading news courtesy of Shutterstock.