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:
- Noting the way your neighbour is dressed and the way she greets you, it identifies the situation as new.
- 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.
- 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?
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?