27 June 2013

How to get the most from your expat experience

A new study shows that the, sometimes challenging, process of adapting to a new cultural is actually an opportunity to improve your creativity and your chances of business success. Sound good? Then read on.

Past studies show that some expats develop enhanced creativity and other attributes that contribute to business success.

However, not all expats experience these developments. Some do, and some don't.

A study released last year by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals why: It all comes down to how you, as an expat, adapt to your new culture.

Culture is a real thing. As you become involved with life in your new country you will come up against social cues, values, and expectations that are in conflict with the cultural norms of your home country.

An expat copes with this cultural conflict by managing their cultural identity in one of four ways:

Separation: Some expats will identify with the culture of their home country and psychologically dismiss the legitimacy of the new culture.

Assimilation: Expats that assimilate identify with the culture of the new country and abandon their cultural heritage.

Marginalization: Marginalized expats don't identify strongly with either the culture of their home country or the culture of the new country.

Integration: Expats who integrate identify with both the culture of their country of origin and the new culture at the same time.

The study finds that expats who “integrate” (accept and identify with two cultures at the same time) develop greater “integrative complexity” than expats who cope with a new culture by means of separation or assimilation.

Integrative complexity is the ability to accept the legitimacy of multiple points of view and to form connections between them. The expat who identifies with both cultures and works through the differences becomes bicultural - and in the process develops a more complex way of thinking.

This more elaborate thinking process carries over into your social perceptions, attitudes, and decision-making ability. It produces measurable improvements in creativity and contributes to real-life business success.

So, embrace your new culture while maintaining your identification with the culture of your origins. Learn to be of two minds. See the cultural conflicts as an interesting and worthwhile puzzle... because working at this puzzle will increase you creative development as well as the mental tools to achieve greater success.

Note: One surprise from the study is that marginalized expats also developed an increased capacity for creativity and business success.... not to the same degree as people who integrated, but significantly more than the expats who kept culturally separate or assimilated.

It turns out that many culturally marginalized expats are not alienated souls with low self esteem but are people with strong constitutions. Instead of ascribing to any cultural dictates, they pick and choose from each culture at will.

It's my opinion that what integrated and marginalized expats have in common is they both do the mental work of dealing with life between two cultures. Expats that separate or assimilate avoid the discomfort of having to deal with cultural duality... but they also miss out on an opportunity for personal growth.

The report: 
Getting the Most Out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and
Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and
Professional Success
by Carmit T. Tadmor, Adam D. Galinsky, and William W. Maddux
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

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