Cross-cultural training improves skills that lead to expatriate satisfaction, including intercultural competence and effective interpersonal communication.
Intercultural training is a multidisciplinary field that emerged after the end of WWII. From the pioneering work of organizations such as the US Foreign Service Institute and the Peace Corps, to the current research emphasis on corporate training for managers on expatriate assignment, a great deal of effort has gone into improving intercultural communication skills and adjustment.
Cross-Cultural Training Encourages Realistic Expectations of Expat Life
Black and Gregersen, in “The Other Half of the Picture: Antecedents of Spouse Cross-Cultural Adjustment,” define cross-cultural adjustment as “psychological comfort with various aspects of a host country.” It comprises three dimensions: work adjustment, interaction adjustment with host country nationals, and general adjustment to the foreign culture. Although many factors affect overall expatriate adjustment in a new environment, numerous studies have suggested that cross-cultural training (CCT) can contribute significantly to adjustment in each of these dimensions.
While cross-cultural training alone cannot guarantee successful adjustment to a novel culture, the studies mentioned here (among many others) suggest that relevant, honest, and current training content generates more realistic expectations about life in the new environment. In “The Theory of Met Expectations Applied to Expatriate Adjustment: The Role of Cross-Cultural Training,” Caliguri et al warn that “if expatriates have insufficient or ambiguous information about the host country, they will use mental short cuts, such as stereotypes, to create expectations about it.”
Stereotypes are oversimplified characterizations of people based on group membership (ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, etc.) These preconceived assumptions get in the way of effective intercultural communication because they don’t take individual differences into consideration. Caligiuri et al caution that cultural stereotypes may also “create expectations which, if untrue, may lead to inaccurate evaluations of situations and to the development of an inappropriate, ineffective, and frequently harmful guide to reality.”
Black and Gregersen were surprised to find a negative correlation between number of hours of training and spouse general adjustment in their 1991 study, “The Other Half of the Picture: Antecedents of Spouse Cross-Cultural Adjustment.” However, the training was only offered to 10% of the sample and lasted just four hours, leading the authors to suggest that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” They surmise that the short duration of the training probably led to unrealistic expectations about life abroad, which caused dissatisfaction and poor adjustment among the expat spouses.
Twenty-five Years of Study Confirm the Benefits of CCT
Littrell and her colleagues examined more than seventy-five studies on the efficacy of intercultural training spanning twenty-five years. The results, published in 2006 as “Expatriate Preparation: A Critical Analysis of 25 Years of Cross-Cultural Training Research” substantiated the positive effects of CCT on expatriate adjustment. They found that cross-cultural training was positively related to:
- self-development and self-confidence;
- the establishment of personal relationships with host country nationals;
- overall feelings of well-being and satisfaction; and
- cognitive skills development with regard to perceptions of host country nationals.
Timing and Content of Intercultural Training Affect the Outcomes
Interculturalists have long debated whether CCT is most effective when it’s delivered prior to the move abroad or after arrival in the host country. Both options have their advantages: pre-departure training increases the likelihood that the expat will develop realistic expectations of international life, while post-arrival sessions are able to address concerns that are directly relevant to the individual, as they unfold.
The results of their multi-study analysis led Littrell et al to conclude that the greatest benefits are realized when intercultural training is spread over three time periods: pre-departure, post-arrival, and repatriation. Distributing the training throughout the expatriation cycle in this way allows the trainer to tailor the content and delivery mode to the expat’s specific and ever-changing needs. This focus on real-life relevance enhances the effectiveness of the learning process.
There is no such thing as a “typical” expatriate. Some are managers on international assignments, some work with NGOs, some are missionaries. Some expats live in cosmopolitan urban areas, others in rural areas without basic amenities. There are short- and long-term assignments, and some “lifers” spend their entire lives moving from one country to another. Because of the wide variety of expat circumstances, Waxin and Panaccio advise against a one-size-fits-all approach to CCT in “Cross-Cultural Training to Facilitate Expatriate Adjustment: It Works!”
“The mere existence of some kind of cross-cultural training is not sufficient,” they claim. They recommend that the training be individually designed to accommodate the particular situation as outlined above. Cultural distance – the extent to which two cultures are similar or different – should also be taken into account. The greater the cultural distance between the home and host cultures, the more necessary cross-cultural training is.
It’s clear that CCT creates favourable conditions for cross-cultural learning to occur. When it’s relevant to the expat’s situation, it makes possible the development of realistic expectations about life in the host country, and increases skills that lead to overall expatriate adjustment.