I met some fellow-expats for dinner the other night: the US election was just past and the results were on everyone’s mind. It was a mixed group, Democrats feeling wounded, Republicans feeling vindicated. What surprised me was the intensity of the anti-Obama feeling among the conservatives, justified by demonstrably false beliefs about his heritage, beliefs, and intentions.
It contrasts with my usual experiences among expats: they speak knowledgeably from a wealth of experiences that cut through simple stereotypes, yet temper their beliefs with a willingness to listen and to see things through other perspectives. My business-school professor would characterize it as “strong beliefs, weakly held”.
In a word, they are tolerant.
I’ve been thinking about this for a few days; it’s not a simple association with left- or right-wing views. A committed liberal in a socially conservative country would have struggles equal to a committed conservative in a socialist country.
My guess would that intolerant people would tend to fail as expats. The literature generally bears this out:
- Black and Gregersen (HBR, 1999) cite the “Big Five” traits: drive to communicate, broad-base sociability, cultural flexibility, cosmopolitan orientation, and collaborative style as six characteristics of successful expats.
- Caligiuri (2000) found extroversion, agreeableness, emotional stability. conscientiousness, sociability, and openness to be positively correlated with local adjustment and negatively related to early repatriation.
- Grove and Hallowell (1998) predict cross-cultural success as a combination of empathy, respect, interest in local culture, tolerance (or, in some lists, "tolerance for ambiguity"), flexibility, initiative, open-mindedness, sociability, and positive self-image.
The situation may actually be more nuanced: Those who join or erect an insular environment, and those who take a stand against the human costs of authoritarian politics or lax social policies, succeed in their own terms.
But those who remain rigidly ill-informed or self-righteous, or who deny the necessity to reach out across cultures to learn and adapt, are unlikely to remain abroad for long.
And, indeed, we all did have a good exchange on whether Obama is truly a socialist or less patriotic than ‘W.