Thursday, March 25, 2010

Expat personality types

French_Foreign_Legion3Why do people seek out expatriate opportunities?

I think that there are a lot of positive reasons: surveys often cite people wanting to experience foreign cultures, expand their travel opportunities, further their career or academic development, or just seeking novelty and adventure.  A substantial number have married foreign nationals.

Still, I have a nagging suspicion that people firmly attached to their home communities or satisfied with their lives are unlikely to make the break to expatriate living.  Does this imply that we’re more likely to feel alienated or dissatisfied with life prior to leaving?

  “I was left with a feeling – a restlessness, a yearning for a place to call home…which could be the homeland we long for and which lies truly nowhere, or elsewhere, or everywhere, or perhaps only somewhere deep within ourselves.”

Natasha Gunn, Expatica Netherlands

   “I need to throw away my cup of sorrows and forget: and the best way to do that, apparently, is to join the French Foreign Legion.”

all1rog, The Experience Project

The literature isn’t very helpful.  Studies of successful expatriate managers (Jordan 1998) and behavioral inventories (Costello 2005) focus on adaptability rather than motivations.:

Expatriate managers

Expat Inventory

Caligiuri (2000) has recently studied expatriate adjustment using the “Big Five” personality traits (Goldberg, 1993 defines them as those which account for a majority of the variance in personality measures):

  • Extroversion:  The degree to which a person is talkative and sociable and enjoys social gatherings.
  • Agreeableness:  The tendency of a person to be interpersonally altruistic and co-operative.
  • Conscientiousness:  The degree to which a person is strong-willed, determined and attentive.
  • Neuroticism:  Negative emotional stability, showing characteristics of nervousness, moodiness and a temperamental nature.
  • Openness to experience:  The extent to which a person is
    aesthetically sensitive and aware of inner feelings and has an active imagination

Caligiuri’s results suggest that Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability are traits most positively related to expatriate success.  Yet I would think that they would also be those most related to success in the home environment.

So, my question remains:

  What are the personality traits that distinguish those who sojourn from those who stay at home?

In the Big Five context, are they people who are more dissatisfied (neurotic, perhaps, but wouldn’t that also make them less successful abroad?), or people who might have the easiest transition (openness, but why would they leave home?) .

Or perhaps some secondary characteristic, like confidence and curiosity, that isn’t part of the Big Five? 

Or perhaps it’s determined by social context rather than personality type?

Note: If you want to read further, Rutgers maintains a public archive of Dr. Caligiuri’s papers and other related HR topics.


Anita said...

Hi there ! Very nice post. I'd say that to be a successful expatriate you should have two major forces: one of REPULSION (you really dislike or is disappointed with certain aspects of your home country) and another one of ATTRACTION (there are concrete things/goals/qualities,studies & work you are wishing to attract with all your heart for your life in the new country). If you wish to emigrate to another land just to experience vague emotions or goals forget it : it is not going to work out properly. Being a successful expatriate is a tough job and demands a lot of mental capacity.

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Anita, you may be right...I had been taking it as more of an either/or, and mainly from teh perspective of motivations in preparing to leave my home country.

I don't think we really know much about our host country until we've lived in it at least a year and have had to wrestle, unaided, with the local customs, language, procedures, and people. You're right, I absolutely had the romantic view of life in Europe and among the Dutch when I left to move here. But I don't feel like I had a realistic view until I'd been here for some time.

The romantic and realistic view still overlap; that evolution and balance is interesting to think about for a future post.

Nicole said...

This is interesting. I'm trying to work out what my skills are exactly, so I can be a bit more detailed than just "did PhD overseas", and this gives me some ideas on what interviewers might expect and how I can explain my experiences.

However, it also explains why I've had such a tough time -- I'm definitely not an extrovert (although I am managing my introversion a lot better) and I thought I was strong-willed, but have let myself be walked over by my Dutch/other colleagues because I didn't want to put others out or be seen as an arrogant Aussie.

It's been a learning experience, and I'm eager to get home and put some of what I've learned into practice.

- Nicole

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Nicole, and thanks for your comment. Knowing when to be aggressive or when to be passive about a situation is among the hardest things to gauge as an expat. None of us want to be seen as Ugly Americans (or fill in the nationality), but there arer times (banks, telephone companies) when it's hard not to feel taken advantage of. I have tended to check with Dutch friends to determine the cultural norm (and to enlist help when someone is being difficult).

On the other hand, there is no substitute for extroversion and adaptability: you will have a double-dose of self-confidence by the ttime you get back to Australia.