What you need to know about The Big Five and expat adjustment

What you need to know about the Big Five and expat adjustmentI spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to be a happy, well-adjusted expat spouse. Consider for a moment the number of factors that are called into play as we find our emotional bearings in a new country: personality, motivation, life stage, marriage stability, career issues, language facility, and more. Many of these are beyond our control, which makes it even harder for the stars to line up and shower us with contentment.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a series focussing on the personality aspects of successful expat adjustment. The framework on which I’m basing these posts is the well-established taxonomy known in psychology as The Big Five. These five major personality traits are universal, but of course we don’t all possess them to the same degree. (People are rather like snowflakes, aren’t they? No two are the same, they’re lovely in small doses, and when I’m surrounded by too many of them I get terribly cranky.)

The Big Five traits have been found to be relatively stable across the life span, and are consistent in relation to sex, age, and culture. What’s interesting from an intercultural perspective is that they’re being used to predict the success of managers on expatriate assignments (and to a much lesser extent, the success of tag-along family members.)

Why should this matter to you, the expat spouse? One recent study hailed personality variables as “the strongest determinants of cultural adjustment of expatriate spouses.”1 It stands to reason that if there’s a correlation between certain personality characteristics and success in a social or cultural environment, your life will be a helluva lot easier if you’re the lucky owner of those particular traits.

The Big Five personality dimensions are:

(They’re commonly referred to by the acronym OCEAN — or, if you’re the outdoorsy type, CANOE — but I’ll be presenting them in good old-fashioned alphabetical order.)

I recently took an online test to determine where I stand in terms of these five personality traits. You can see the results for yourself, at right. (The full breakdown, including the percentiles I scored and quick definitions of the terms, is below.) I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that based on these scores, I make a pretty dismal expat. But that’s something we can explore together over the next couple of weeks.

You can take the test here, if you’re interested.

Next up: Agreeableness

Results of Big Five personality test

The breakdown of my less-than-stellar results of the Big Five Personality test.

1Ali, A., van der Zee, K. I., & Sanders, G. (2003). Determinants of intercultural adjustment among expatriate spouses. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 563–580.
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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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15 Responses to What you need to know about The Big Five and expat adjustment

  1. Livingbeyondmyself says:

    Thanks for sharing the test on your post. I just learned about OCEAN in my Lifespan development class and am very interested in it. I will look forward to taking the test and seeing where I am. I have a feeling the curve will look a lot like yours. That’s the neat thing about taking it and learning from it though. Will look forward to reading your posts on this.

    • Maria says:

      I would love to know your results. I don’t consider tests like these to be gospel, but they’re always interesting and usually have a few good insights. My results — and I say this sadly — seem pretty accurate.

  2. This sounds like it will be a very interesting series! Bravo to you for posting your scores. I’ve always thought that worrying about worrying is overrated. You either do or your don’t, and telling yourself not to doesn’t seem to work.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for the support! I am a champion worrier, even though I know it’s a waste of energy. As I’ve grown older though, I worry less about my worrying ways. As for posting my scores, I’m pretty transparent about my weaknesses on this blog. I muddled through my expat experience (just like most people do, I suspect), and I’m happy to share my mistakes if it helps other expats avoid them.

  3. This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing and being so open about it!

    I’ve lived in the U.S. for 22 years and I am well aware that I am often not a “good” expat. While I agree that we bring what we bring, we also run into circumstances far beyond our control and that will affect how we feel and behave in that country…I’m now having to fight financially through the third recession in this country in 20 years, all of which have hit me in my earning years. Not a good combination and it has definitely darkened my outlook.

    • Maria says:

      Watching expats over the years and trying to figure out why some are miserable and some flourish, I’ve decided that personality is one of the most important variables in expat success. But as you’ve pointed out, it’s not the only one. Situational factors are a big part of the equation as well. I think that in right situation, people without the “perfect” personality type can do very well overseas. And conversely, people who would normally do well can struggle in a challenging situation. There’s no formula, unfortunately.

  4. Judy says:

    All I can say is, I’m glad I didn’t take this test before I was an expat or else I definitely wouldn’t have gone! And nor would you, judging by your score. 😉 We must both have been in the “right” situation – either that or this test is a load of . . . .

    • Maria says:

      I believe I left out the disclaimer “This test is for entertainment purposes only.” And you’re right — if I’d taken this test 25 years ago, I would’ve curled up in a corner and whimpered. (Oh wait — I ended up doing exactly that on my first expat stint. Never mind…..)

      Care to share your score?

  5. naomi says:

    Here’s mine ::

    O – 41
    C – 97
    E – 86
    A – 27
    N – 11

    I would love to have known where I’d have scored BEFORE the last two years of living as an expat. I think my “A” would have been higher, for sure!!

    • Maria says:

      I’m jealous of your N score. And now I’m going to fret and obsess and worry about being jealous of your N score, which will probably increase my own N score. sigh.

  6. amblerangel says:

    Interesting test. We completed MANY moves through out the US before our first overseas move- which I may have impacted my scores?- and my experience in adjustment.
    O- 70
    C- 58
    E-74
    A- 69
    N- 5 Which given the current environment in Japan- where I currently reside- has not been viewed as positive by some….
    What I have seen is that basic personality combined with culture are two factors seem to be hard to separate in terms of importance. What do you think?

  7. Pingback: Am I fit for expatriate living? « julieannaingermany

  8. I absolutely love your blog, and most of all this post about personality and expatriate living. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve put a link to this post in my blog and then analyzed myself. My scores for conscientiousness were shockingly low, though.

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