Everyone who meets Anna is struck by her warm and caring nature. She never has an unpleasant word to say about anyone. Because she’s good at bridging differences between people, she has become a den mother of sorts at her club, smoothing ruffled feathers and mediating minor disagreements in her usual low-key manner. Known as a good listener, Anna has become a shoulder to cry on for many of her friends, expat and local alike. Her compassion for the suffering of others led her to a volunteer job with one of the local charities — work at which she excels. She has embraced her new culture wholeheartedly, and is happy to be a mentor and guide to newly-arrived expats.
Denise used to be a member of Anna’s club, but was asked to leave because she couldn’t get along with the other members. She refused to work on any of the committees and insulted the Chair of the volunteer committee by loudly proclaiming that “working for free is for suckers.” She constantly finds fault with her host country and is very vocal about why her passport country is so much better. Everyone gives her a wide berth.
What is Agreeableness?
Like the other Big Five character traits, Agreeableness exists on a continuum. At the high end, it describes a tendency toward friendliness and a preference for harmony in social situations. The agreeable person — in this case, Anna — brims with compassion and will go out of her way to help someone in need. She is courteous and easygoing, values cooperation, and is willing to compromise to reach a mutually beneficial resolution. Her desire to get along with everyone means she rarely shows negative emotions such as anger.
A 2004 study1 on Spanish teenagers found that agreeableness is strongly linked to empathy (the ability to understand and share the emotions of others.) Agreeable people are strongly attuned to other people’s feelings, and thrive in supportive, nurturing roles. They tend to see the best in people.
Disagreeableness, at the other end of the spectrum, describes a tendency towards antagonism and distrust. Disagreeable people such as Denise have little empathy; instead, they are uncooperative, cold, and bent on getting their own way. They are suspicious and unfriendly, and have no qualms about throwing their weight around to achieve their desired outcome.
What does Agreeableness mean for expats?
Which facet of this character trait do you think leads to a fuller, happier expat experience? No prizes for guessing that Anna is the big winner here. Agreeable people generally do well socially: most of us are drawn to people who show a genuine interest in who we are and what we have to say.
A 2010 study2 confirmed the results of prior research by determining that agreeableness is positively related to greater interaction adjustment (the degree to which expats feel comfortable interacting with local people.) This is a big deal because being comfortable with the locals leads to better intercultural communication, which leads to a greater likelihood of making local friends, which in turn may lessen the stress of adjusting to a new culture.
Very few people actually exist at the extremes of the Agreeableness continuum. (Off the top of my head, I can think of two: One is a perfectly vile expat woman I once had the misfortunate of sitting next to at a school coffee morning. The other is Mother Theresa.)
If you recall from Monday’s kickoff post on the Big Five and expat adjustment, I scored 69% for agreeableness — a little on the high side. As the only one of my five scores that bodes well for expatriate adjustment, agreeableness is my saving grace. (Hold onto your hats — it’s all downhill from here!)
Of course, there are many factors that influence expatriate adjustment; this is just one ingredient in the mix. Don’t despair if you tip the scales on the dis- side of the dimension. Your expat life isn’t necessarily doomed just because you don’t score off-the-charts on agreeableness. Conversely, if you do score high, don’t assume adjustment will automatically be a cakewalk.
And if you happen to come across that woman I met at the school, do yourself a favour: run like hell and don’t look back.
This is Part 2 in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. The previous post in the series is:
Next up: Conscientiousness