Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can expats be intolerant?

intolerance noticeI 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.


Tui Snider said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

From what I've observed, people often confuse patriotism with blind acceptance of their party's ideas.

I like the thought you passed along from your business-school professor about “strong beliefs, weakly held," and your summation of that as defining tolerance.

Anyway, I found your blog via NaBloPoMo and thought I would say hi, and tot ziens! (I once lived in Belgium.)


Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Tui, and thanks for the thoughts! Which part of Belgium did you live in - I confess to liking the eastern mountain regions best and get down there hiking and kayaking when weather and time permit.

I'm still on the fence about the link between patriotism and intolerance. I read an article about the concern that many conservatives have with national sovereignty and their fears that internationalism, integration, or globalization will undermine the characteristics, self-determininism, independence, and exceptionalism of the nation. I suspect that thinking is fertile ground for intolerance, especially when the country is isolated (and thus somewhat parochial) anyway.

Loyalty to home, people, institutions, and traditions are all patriotic as well, but I would think that those are of a different sort that coexists more easily with tolerance.

Chris V said...

Here's a study that just came out:

It would be interesting to ask whether they are more or less liberal or conservative after living in the Netherlands for some time.