Can previous expat experience help with adjustment?

Can previous expat experience help with adjustment?Remember the first time you moved overseas? You probably faced a pretty steep learning curve as you struggled to adapt to a society that operated quite differently from what you were used to. You had to figure out new codes of conduct, internalize new habits, acclimate to a new climate, and possibly learn a new language. That’s a lot of new.

Two, maybe three years later, when the time came to move on, you assumed your learning days were over. “Been there, done that!” you said to yourself. “I’ve conquered it once, so the next time will be easy-peasy.”

Ha! I fell for that when I moved to France in 2006. I’d already lived in Australia and Singapore — for crying out loud, I’d already lived in France — so I thought it would be a snap. [shakes head sadly]

Does prior expat experience affect adjustment in later overseas assignments? I’ve met people who swear up and down that once you’ve got one overseas stint under your belt, you’re set for life. “The framework is the same,” one woman told me. “It’s just the details that are different.”

Try telling that to Heide. Although this serial expat thrived in Kazakhstan and Angola, Papua New Guinea was a different story. “I thought I had all the cross-cultural stuff figured out, as far as ‘things aren’t better or worse, they’re just different,’” she says, “but the cultural foundation was completely different in PNG and I had a really hard time with that.”

“I had come from a former Soviet republic with a strong cultural foundation of looking out for your neighbours, even if you don’t know them. In PNG, people are obligated to their families and their clans but that’s where it stops. If you don’t have a personal connection with someone, you’re completely on your own.”

Heide had adapted so well to the communal orientation in Kazakhstan that Papua New Guineans’ negative attitude toward outsiders unsettled her — to the point that she feared for her safety. It wasn’t until she moved to Angola that she began to feel at ease again. After 13 years and five international moves, she is sure of one thing: “All countries are different, and you really can’t translate your experience in one country to another.”

How our brains work

Our brains are constantly scoping out the physical and social landscape in which we find ourselves, trying to place it into context based on our existing knowledge. If the environment is unfamiliar, the brain quickly takes steps to make us feel more comfortable.

Say, for example, you’ve just arrived in a new country, and your neighbour comes to your house to welcome you. Your brain automatically reacts in three ways:

  1. Noting the way your neighbour is dressed and the way she greets you, it identifies the situation as new.
  2. It tries to reduce the uncertainty you now face by scanning its databank for information to explain and predict her behaviour as well as yours.
  3. It tries to find ways to lessen the anxiety that springs from the possibility that this interaction will end badly.

This sequence is repeated over and over until the perception of constant novelty fades, at which point you’re well on your way to adjusting to the new culture.

Is there a shortcut to adjustment?

Buying baskets in Toulouse

Buying baskets in a Toulouse market.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could bypass some of that uncertainty and anxiety, and jump straight into the adjustment part? Some interculturalists think you can. They claim that it’s possible to experience “anticipatory adjustment” to an unfamiliar culture before you even step off the plane. This is the rationale for cross-cultural training: knowing what to expect should make adjusting to a new environment faster and less painful. This is also why we assume previous expat experience will make each subsequent sojourn easier to adjust to.

But is this actually so? A quick look at the literature shows that opinion is divided. Several studies claim a positive relationship between prior expatriate experience and adjustment. Others have found no connection whatsoever. At least one has found an inverse relationship. It’s enough to make your head spin.

Here’s my feeling on the subject:

I think that attempting to take the culture-specific knowledge (values, attitudes, behaviours) gained in one place and apply it to another is usually just as useless as attempting to shoehorn the norms of your home culture into a different cultural environment.

What I see as the great benefit of previous expat experience is the broader knowledge it provides:

  • Culture-general knowledge. Once you’ve been an expatriate, you become aware of the power of culture, and you respond accordingly. You know that in order to function effectively, you have to suspend judgment, accept difference, and show a little flexibility in your behaviour. That’s knowledge that crosses cultures and will serve you wherever you go. For example, knowing that the Japanese value a turn-taking conversational style won’t necessarily help you in Brazil, but being aware that differences in conversational style exist will make it easier for you figure out what the norm is.
  • Self-knowledge. You’ve figured out how you (and other family members) react to stress, and how culture shock affects you physically as well as mentally. You’ve discovered what your hot buttons are and how to avoid them. “I’ve learned to accept that it takes me a certain amount of time to absorb and settle in before I’m ready to jump into the social whirl. For me, that’s about 2-3 months,” Heide says.

The great benefit of prior experience is that it fosters more realistic expectations regarding international living. You have more confidence in your ability to adjust to a new environment. You’re more forgiving of your lapses, because you’re aware that the journey to integration is often a bumpy one. In other words, it’s the process that matters, not the specific details. Much of what’s involved in adapting to a new culture is skill-based, and the legacy of the time you spent in other locales is your ability to build on the intercultural skills you have, instead of reinventing the wheel with every new assignment.


What’s your take on the value of previous expatriate experience?


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 Can previous expat experience help with adjustment?

  1. I think you’ve really nailed this, Maria. I really do believe it’s what you’ve learned about the process that is vital. The specifics can and do change depending on the cultures you’ve lived in and are moving to, your own base or ‘home’ culture, and lots of other variables. Your summary paragraph is fantastic. Kudos!

  2. Sine says:

    Amen to that! I agree with you one hundred percent. Every country is different and you pretty much start from scratch every time in terms of cultural differences, but as you say, being aware that they’re there helps you be more relaxed and unprejudiced (or less prejudiced at least). Our first expat assignment was in Singapore and I still recall how upset I was every time things didn’t happen as quickly or nicely as in the U.S. This time around in South Africa, I’ve learned to shrug my shoulders and say “welcome to Africa” like everyone else does, and I’ve become so much more relaxed, although there is almost nothing similar between the two countries. So I think it does help to have been an expat previously, but not as much as you would expect, just like having moved households once doesn’t make the next time that much less painful.

  3. expatriababy says:

    I think one aspect that is key to a successful adjustment is to not have any expectations, or at least try to keep them in check (i.e. low). When I moved from China to Japan, I was certain that I would love my new home: the orderliness, the cleanliness; the lack of public urination; the efficiency; the good shopping. As it turned out, my expectations were out of whack: orderliness and cleanliness seemed overly fastidious and annoying; public urination followed me; efficiencies were better in China, as was the shopping. And, to my surprise, I missed the chaos and frenzy. So, the lesson I learned was to expect little and be surprised with what you find.

    That being said, previous expat experience can help temper your expectations, can teach you coping strategies, and help you see that wherever you go, there are good points and bad. That is important for making the adjustment a positive one.

  4. anna says:

    Maria, I thought this was an excellent piece with a balanced look at the pros and cons of prior expat experience. And it hit close to home. I also thought (erroneously) that my previous experience living in 9 countries and traveling the world for two years meant that moving to Norway would be a breeze. How wrong I was! Each culture is specific and I believe that preparation and managing expectations are key. I agree that cross-cultural training may not always have all the answers and can’t be generalized to cover all countries, but I still think that it’s vital. But you need specific training to create awareness about your destination culture. Then even if it’s foreign and challenging for you (and SO different than your last destination), you are at least conscious about the existence of those cultural differences. I think this is a very important topic to bring up. Thanks for putting it out there!

  5. anna says:

    Now I’ve blogged about your piece as well. See: With so much good material, I’d better start following you on Twitter too. Now at least I’m getting your newsletter!

  6. Anna Whitney says:

    I definitely agree with your concluding statements about cultural-general knowledge and expatriababy’s about not having expectations. I’ve only lived in France for three weeks, but I feel like in that time I have realized that certain cultures do certain things differently that I never would have imagined (for example, I was very surprised when I saw my first multi-stall unisex bathroom in France, but if I were to move to another country, I would definitely not expect all public restrooms to be the same!). Do you think having a support system in a foreign country also aids cultural adjustment? I’m in France with a study abroad group that has resources in France to help us, and we’ve met French students as well, and I think this is helping us adjust more quickly than those without a support system would.

    • Maria says:

      Cultural mentors absolutely help with adjustment. Having someone who knows the ins and outs of a culture can save a lot of the frustration that comes from trying to figure everything out for yourself. It’s especially useful if you don’t speak the language well. Also, as I’m sure you’re finding out, being invited into the lives of local people means you’re no longer on the outside looking in — you’re experiencing life as the French do. Good luck with your studies in France!

  7. Anna Whitney says:

    Definitely, being invited into the lives of local people is an invaluable experience and I’m glad I’ve been able to experience some of that. Thank you very much! I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  8. Pingback: Operating in a State of Flux « Adventures in Expat Land

  9. Kim says:

    Hi Anna

    I enjoyed your post. We have had several postings and I have found each easier than the last. I would agree with your reasoning that previous expat experience does help us set our expectations at a realistic level.

    My most difficult posting was to the US. We had finished two years in Shanghai and then moved to NJ. I now consider NJ to be one of my homes as we were there four years but it took me anlong while to feel comfortable there as there was no expat network to help pave my way. I am Australian and thought the US would be easy since Imknow so much about the culture from all the media we receive. I was very wrong. I did learn to love NJ and made some fast friends … Being allowed into others lives was what made the experience a brilliant one.


  10. wordgeyser says:

    Hi Maria, definitely thought provoking! I agree previous experience does help if only to understand the transitional phases of settling and how we personally react to those changes. Knowing things will get easier and having established proven coping strategies help to reduce stress and raise (if only slightly!) confidence levels. There will always be the unexpected, the curve balls but I think you build emotional resilience over time without being aware of it.

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