AgreeablenessEveryone 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

1 Del Barrio, V., Aluja, A. & García, L.F. (2004). Relationship between empathy and the big five personality traits in a sample of Spanish adolescents. Social Behavior and Personality, 32(7), 677-682.
2 Ramalu, S.S., Raduan, C.R. Uli, J. & Kumar, N. (2010). Personality and cross-cultural adjustment among expatriate assignees in Malaysia. International Business Research, 3(4), 96-104.

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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20 Responses to Agreeableness

  1. I certainly agree. Possessing a degree of agreeableness helps you wherever you are, but especially as an expat. The link of agreeableness to empathy is key. I recently had an experience with a disagreeable expat, and while it wasn’t pleasant, her behavior screams ‘unhappiness, self-loathing, depression’. So I’m trying to take the high road on that one.

    • Maria says:

      I always think the same thing when I meet bitter people. How awful to be that miserable! I learned early on in my expat days not to hang out with expats who are bitter about being in the host country. Listening to non-stop complaining just sucks the joy out of everything.

  2. heide says:

    Hi. I’m new to your blog but am fascinated. I started reading a few weeks ago. I am an American repatriate, married to an Australian expatriate. We moved to the US 6 years ago, after 8 years in Asia and Africa. At some point, we’ll move back to Asia or Australia, but I guess I’m a repatriate for now, since I live in the country of my birth on this assignment.

    For what it’s worth, I was a pretty successful expat. I liked living in the countries we lived in, despite living in “hardship” locations, and I found it fairly easy to make friends and find things to do. Moving to the US after 8 years abroad was very difficult, but I’ve adjusted.

    This series you’re doing on the personality aspects is really interesting because I always thought I had a pretty natural personality for expat life. I’m outgoing, able to look on the bright side and find positives wherever we are, and flexible. When I took the Big Five test, there were some surprises. The biggest one being my Agreeableness score.

    >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.

    I have to take some issue with this characterization. I scored relatively low (27) on the agreeableness scale but I certainly wouldn’t be characterized as “uncooperative, cold or bent on getting my way”. Nor am I suspicious and unfriendly. I’m very friendly and scored quite high on the extroversion scale. I also care about other people and their feelings. What I don’t do is go along to get along. I’m not afraid to say things that others might not say, in order to keep the peace. I guess I’m what some call a straight talker. I’ve learned to be more diplomatic and politically savvy, but I still open my mouth to point out a wrong when someone else might not. That doesn’t make me bitter or unhappy or self-loathing, just outspoken. I’ve had lots of cross cultural training so I try very hard not to insult my host country. My outspokenness mostly is aimed at other expats; it’s not bitterness toward the host country. I get most frustrated at people who refuse to accept that things in a different country aren’t better or worse, they’re just different.

    I do have some scores that bode well for expat life, like high E and C and low N, but I had to comment and stand up for the low A scores. It doesn’t always mean rude and bitter. You could just as easily characterize someone with a very high A score as being a doormat.

    • Maria says:

      The trouble with talking about something as complex as personality is just that: it IS very complex. The online test is just for fun, and obviously can’t delve as deeply into the myriad aspects of personality as a trained professional would. In fact, each of the Big 5 personality traits is made up of several sub-traits that can be scored separately. For Agreeableness, these include modesty, altruism, sympathy, and cooperation. (There are 2 more, but they escape me at the moment.) So I agree with you — there’s just no way that test can capture the entirety of who you are.

      If you scored low, it’s probably a reflection of your preference for straight-talking. (I mean no judgment in that — as someone with doormat-like tendencies, I admire directness so much that if you could send me a little of yours, I’d appreciate it. But in term of the Agreeableness continuum, it doesn’t rank high.) I do think you’re correct when you say that your personality is a good fit for expat life. Flexibility, in particular, is crucial. If I make it through the Big 5 series alive, I’m hoping to tackle some other traits that lead to expat success. (All suggestions welcome.)

      The characterizations (which I wrote, by the way, based on the standard traits), are meant to be caricatures of the Agreeable and Disagreeable expat. Denise, in other words, scores a 0 on the scale. I’m hoping this series will make people think about what they bring to the expat table, and how they can work with what they’ve got to make their experience better.

      Thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion. I hope to hear from you again — we’ve still got 4 more traits to go.

  3. I’m really finding this discussion very interesting. Heide raises an interesting point about extremes: it’s (theoretically) possible to be ‘too’ extroverted (loud, pushy), ‘too’ agreeable (dormat-ish) and so on. So perhaps the key lies in the level a person possesses of each factor, and also the interplay of the factors. Or both!

    • Maria says:

      Yes, and I also wonder if we can add host culture into the mix. Maybe some traits are valued more highly in some cultures than in others. I think “too extroverted” would mean very different things in the US and in Thailand, for example.

  4. I think that’s another great point: the intersection of the host country culture and that of the expat. It’s conceivable that expats from certain cultures might be predisposed to being a ‘better’ fit in certain host cultures, and not as good a fit in others. I’m thinking there’s possibly a continuum in there. Oh boy, you’re going to have your work cut out for you! (But really worthwhile)

    • Maria says:

      I’d love to hear others’ experiences of that. I remember being a little intimidated the first time I moved to France, when I would smile or say hello to people I passed on the street and they’d just look and me and walk on. Smiling at strangers (which I think falls very neatly under the heading “extroversion”) was obviously a no-no. I think I was probably being seen as “too extroverted” — ironic, really, considering my Extroversion score of 37. 🙂

  5. heide says:

    Sorry if I sounded critical, I just meant to raise a point. I’d love to join the community here. It really is interesting and I love that you’re continuing your connection to the expat community through this.

    It’s conceivable that expats from certain cultures might be predisposed to being a ‘better’ fit in certain host cultures, and not as good a fit in others. I’m thinking there’s possibly a continuum in there.

    I’m sure this is true. My first expat country was Kazakhstan. I pretty easily adapted there, but when I moved from there to Papua New Guinea, I struggled quite a bit at first because the culture in Papua New Guinea is so different from Kazakhstan. I could deal with it being different from my home culture, but I was a bit lost navigating the change from one “different” culture to another “different” culture. After PNG, we moved to Angola, which had some similarities to Kazakhstan, on some level, so it was a bit easier for me. I still think PNG was the most difficult place I’ve lived.

    • Maria says:

      You didn’t sound critical, Heide — you were just sticking up for the Low A’s. 🙂 I’m glad you’re here, and every point you made was valid. In fact, now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t think to incorporate the “doormat” concept into my characterization of Anna.

      I’m especially glad that you mentioned your difficulties in moving to PNG. Can I email you some questions about that for another post?

  6. heide says:

    That middle paragraph was meant to be a quote from Linda. I don’t know how to make quotes here, I guess.

  7. heide says:

    Great, thanks! And yes, you can email me about PNG.

  8. Pingback: How Agreeable Are You? | Tiny Island

  9. naomi says:

    Loving this series …

    I think that for those that score high on the Agreeable marks, it should be mentioned that in an expat situation, it can be QUITE exhausting to be the cheerleader and den mother!

    I think I would suggest to new expats who are naturally major agreeable personalities, that they guard themselves carefully when walking into a new country, situation … as it can end up sucking the LIFE outta ya (and then turning you into a very DIS-agreeable person!)

    Anywho I wont get up on my soapbox any further, but looking forward to the next installment in the series!

    • Maria says:

      I would agree with you up to a point. I think maybe that depends on where the Agreeable expat falls on the extroversion scale. As an introvert, yes, I would find that exhausting. But extroverts, who are energized by social contact, might not find it so. Does that make sense?

      • naomi says:

        Yep — it does make sense.

        I would have definitely characterized myself as an extrovert BEFORE moving to Delhi .. but since, feel myself more energized when engaging with just ONE person (or staying at home by myself!!). Not sure if that means I’m less of an extrovert, or just responding to the host culture, situations, etc?

      • Maria says:

        Hmmm. Could it be that context enhances or dampens certain aspects of our personality? Perhaps the cognitive overload of adjusting to a new culture affects your need to be with people. At home, socializing doesn’t require a lot of conscious thought, whereas in India, you might be constantly checking to make sure your behaviour is being appropriate. (I don’t know if that’s true or not — I’m just making this up as I go along. 🙂 )

  10. Laurel says:

    Very interesting article, I had never thought about how being agreeable makes expat life easier, but it makes sense. Having said that when I was asked to use a bed pan in public during a recent hospital stay, I was less than agreeable to that 🙂

  11. Agreeableness… It is hard to top Mother Theresa but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

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

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