Openness to Experience

Openness to ExperienceThis is Orla’s first experience with overseas living, and she’s absolutely thrilled with her expat life so far. She feels a bit like a kid in a candy store: so many things to do, see, taste, smell! She loves talking politics with the old men down at the café and honing her haggling skills in the market. Orla finds her new home deliciously romantic — just walking down the dusty streets conjures up vivid images of a bygone era, and she likes to imagine she’s a character in a movie. (When she drives, she’s James Bond!) She takes guilty pleasure in knowing she can’t get a work permit here; she always felt bored and constricted by corporate life. Plus, now she can devote more time to learning the intricate crafts the women here create so effortlessly.  She’s already wondering how she can give these traditional designs a modern twist and sell them online.

Chandra is overwhelmed by her life in this strange country. Everywhere she looks, she sees chaos. Are there no rules here? She routinely sees cars driving on the wrong side of the road — even on the sidewalks! Nobody pays any attention to traffic lights or speed limits. The women wear garish colours and always seem to be singing (if you call that bizarre noise singing.) And why does everyone say yes when they know they don’t mean it? How does anything get done here? Chandra had heard that the people in this country were strange, and now she knows it’s true.

What is Openness to Experience?

Openness to Experience is characterized by an eagerness to try new things and ideas, and a broad-minded, non-judgmental approach to life. Open people are self-aware and have a high tolerance for ambiguity. Routines bore them and they like to challenge authority. A sub-trait of Adventurousness leads them to embrace risks and seek constant change. There is some evidence that they are more creative and appreciative of the arts. Likewise, research suggests they are intelligent and original thinkers who love to solve problems and are skilled at thinking on their feet.

Closed people, in contrast, are more conventional than their open counterparts. Ambiguity unnerves them, and they prefer black and white to shades of grey. Rules and regulations make them feel safe; risk and change don’t. At work, they toe the corporate line. They tend to be linear thinkers, without a high degree of artistic sensitivity.

What does Openness to Experience mean for expats?

Results of a 2006 study show that “openness to experience is a crucial personality characteristic that is related to a person’s capability to function effectively in diverse cultural settings.” Expats who are open are curious about their surroundings and interested in the lives of local people. They understand that “different” is not automatically wrong or bad; it’s just different. They don’t pay attention to stereotypes, and they don’t judge locals for their values, beliefs, attitudes or behaviours.

They adjust relatively easily because they are interested in how things work in the here and now, and don’t get hung up on the way things are done back home. Their ability to think outside the box means they weigh the merits of each new piece of information, and aren’t alarmed when it doesn’t correlate to a similar concept in their home country. They’re keen to learn, and don’t mind making mistakes along the way.

You won’t find open people shut up in their homes, pining for their old lives. They wouldn’t want to miss anything. You’ll find them out in the souk, learning about fabrics and spices and working on their language skills. Like Orla, they’re interested in the creative energy of their new location, immersing themselves in the food, dance, fine art.

I scored a humbling 16 for this dimension. Even though I do tend to “prefer traditional and familiar experiences,” I get bored easily — how frustrating is that? Honestly, the more I examine my scores on the Big Five test, the more depressed I get. It’s a wonder I ever managed to survive 7 years in Australia, France, and Singapore, let alone build happy lives in those places. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose — if I’d seen these scores before heading off on my au pair adventure, I’d have ripped up my plane tickets and run screaming in the other direction. That’s why my wrap-up post for this series (coming Monday) will be about why the Big Five traits don’t tell the whole story.

Please remember that personality is multi-faceted, and that each of the Big Five traits is made up of many sub-traits. Focusing on a single trait without taking into account the complex interplay among the many aspects of personality can lead to a distorted impression. Also keep in mind that Orla and Chandra represent the extremes of the openness spectrum, while most of us are found somewhere in the middle. That said, scoring high or low is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — it just is.

This is Part 6 in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. Previous posts in the series are:

Reference: Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Koh, C. (2006). Personality correlates of the Four-Factor Model of Cultural Intelligence. Group & Organization Management, 31(1), 100-123.
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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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8 Responses to Openness to Experience

  1. Sine says:

    Loved your post, and also your entire series. But this one especially struck home. I often counsel other expats via my blog for expats in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it is amazing what range of different people you get. From totally scared and worried about everything to the adventurous and daring seizing every new opportunity with both hands. Generally, the latter group is the happier. Plus, I just view it as a practical matter: It’s so much easier to adapt yourself, since you’re just one person out there, than trying to change an entire culture to be more like you:-).

    • Maria says:

      Thanks! I do agree with you that the latter group is probably much happier, but I also think that with a little encouragement and guidance, the worriers could have a wonderful expat experience too.

      I just subscribed to your excellent blog, by the way. Just knowing that the City of Joburg’s trash service is called Piki Tup has absolutely made my day! :)

  2. Sine says:

    Haha! Cool name, huh? That name was one of the first indications that I’d like it here. If you have time, check out the Kulula Airlines paint jobs for more South African humor: http://www.hoax-slayer.com/flying-101.shtml. There is a corresponding email with things their flight attendants have said, but I can’t find it now.

  3. Patti Kuche says:

    As someone who falls between the two stools of being open and closed I look fwd to the wrap-up!

  4. Great post, great series. I think you’re doing a fabulous job showcasing the traits, yet making clear that people can survive, enjoy, even excel at expat living in various surroundings despite having scores that might seem at odds. We are who we are, but just being cognizant of our leanings is informative and can make a difference in attitude and action. Looking forward to your wrap-up Monday!

  5. Pingback: Ladies and Gentlemen, I Was An Expat Wife « Adventures in Expat Land

  6. Pingback: Openness to Experience | International Corporate Relocation, Moving, Expat Life, Foreign Assignment | Move One InMotion

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