Expats Abroad: What Category Do You Fall Into?

In your experiences as a foreigner abroad, you’ve probably noticed that not all expats are alike.

Some keep to themselves, some mingle with other expats on the weekends, some are entrenched in local culture.

In fact, you might see that expats fall into three general categories.

Can you identify your fellow foreigners abroad in these descriptions?

Diplomats

Diplomats country-hop, spending short stints in each country – enough time to do business and make friends, but solely with their own compatriots for the most part.

In fact, official diplomats are often this type, as most countries dissuade their diplomats from getting involved in local economics and politics.

Because of this, diplomats are moved to new countries every couple years, never truly setting down roots.

Another reason for a diplomat’s narrow circle is that their main job is to take care of their nationals in foreign countries.

Although you may not be an official diplomat, you may still fall into the diplomat category in your approach to integration if you tend not to fraternize much with the locals.

Internationals

Internationals flock together.

They’re those expats who don’t stray much from the expat community.

French, English, German (often those of Western cultures) – they are a tight-knit group, developing an international circle within whatever host country they might call home. 

If they have kids, their kids go to international private schools.

If they go to church, they attend service at their international church.

Although these mixed international expat communities are interesting and, often, welcoming, they’re not locals.

They can offer you valuable advice about the local community, practical details about settling in, and examples of cultural barriers you may face, but their views are often tainted, particularly if they’ve lived in this host culture for a long time.

With time, they’ve dealt with a myriad of cross-cultural conflicts that you might not necessarily confront, so any cautionary tales and cynicism about the culture should be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t take anyone’s subjective experience as fact, as it often comes with their own personal baggage. 

Do not discredit their experience, but refrain from holding fast to opinions before building your own.

Expat cynicism is real, so do your best to start the painting of your own cross-cultural experience with a blank canvas.

Localizers

Localizers are the category that you’ll ideally try to fit into as an expat or foreign manager.

Localizers seek out local friendships.

They intend to integrate into the local culture and build a home away from home.

Their goals are to appreciate, understand, and respect differences in culture – so much so as to adopt some of its values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Those who fall into this category tend to learn the culture more quickly than do those in the other two categories.

This is because they get their hands dirty. They rely on their own experiences and their relationships with local people to truly see and understand the culture. 

Localizers take to heart what it really means to adapt and adopt as a person of the world.

Next week, we’ll talk about strategies to becoming a localizer.

Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

Uncertainty Avoidance and Ambiguity Tolerance: Accepting Uncertainty in a Foreign Culture

For more than half a century, ambiguity tolerance has been a subject of research in various branches of psychology.

One of the premiere studies on the topic analyzed ethnic prejudices in California.

Personality, company culture, and national culture have since been measured by this variable.

One such expression of ambiguity tolerance was identified by social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research under the umbrella of “uncertainty avoidance.”

Uncertainty avoidance

We’ve discussed Hofstede’s work in this area before.

The four cultural dimensions Hofstede first identified were:

For all intents and purposes, we’ll only be discussing the dimension of uncertainty avoidance in this post.

Hofstede describes this dimension as the idea that:

“What is different is dangerous.”

He anecdotally illustrates an example of this.

An elderly American couple finds themselves babysitting their grandchildren in a small town in Italy, while the parents are temporarily located there. The grandchildren are friends with local Italian children, who all enjoy playing in the central piazza.

So, there the American grandparents are, allowing their grandchildren to run free with little restriction. Accustomed to “free play,” they don’t stand in the way of their grandchildren messing about, even if they fall down and lightly hurt themselves.

The Italian grandparents, on the other hand, are on it. Not only are their grandkids not allowed for a moment out of their sight, but any hurts that befall them are conscientiously dealt with. The child is picked up and brushed off in an instant.

This illustrates the differences in ambiguity tolerance between Americans and Italians.

In general, Americans have higher ambiguity tolerance.

Safe versus dangerous and clean versus dirty are two distinctions that an Italian child learns first during primary socialization.

The American grandparents see nothing to worry about with the dirt and danger in the piazza. In fact, they see no dirt or danger there, whatsoever.

Ambiguity Tolerance Research Evolves

Ambiguity tolerance is directly related to Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance.

Furnham and Ribchester define it in their research:

“Ambiguity tolerance refers to the way and degree to which an individual or group perceives and processes information about ambiguous situations or stimuli when confronted by an array of unfamiliar, complex, or incongruent clues.”

Ambiguous stimuli cause a person with low ambiguity tolerance to avoid, feel stress, and react hastily.

Someone with high ambiguity tolerance may seek out ambiguous stimuli, as they desire to engage with such interesting and challenging environments. 

As you might assume, entering into a foreign culture is an ambiguous enterprise. You are hit with unknown stimuli, so a high ambiguity tolerance – or your ability to develop it – is an essential attribute for a foreign manager.

We’ll talk more about how to do just that next week.

Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance next week.