During a foreign assignment, the challenges faced by expatriate managers are different from those of their spouses. The manager spends a significant portion of each day within the shelter of an organizational culture that is relatively familiar. In fact, if he chooses, the manager can be largely shielded from the realities of the host culture: support networks and social interactions are provided by colleagues, and the prevalence of English as the international language of business means that learning the local tongue is often unnecessary.
This is in stark contrast to the life of the expatriate spouse. She (despite an increase in the number of male accompanying spouses, it is usually a she) is thrown into the host culture from the very beginning. She has to create a life from scratch, seeking out friends, routines, and meaningful activities.
Expat spouses face challenges in the new culture
The expat wife is forced to build a new support system. She is unable to rely on her partner to fill this role, since his hectic travel schedule means he is often unavailable. She must learn the local language in order to carry out her daily tasks. She often has the added burden of facilitating her children’s adjustment in addition to her own. Adds the author of one recent study, “The spouse must, therefore, depend much more on his/her own skills and ingenuity.” Any expat spouse who has had to haggle in a wet market using hand gestures and facial expressions understands this implicitly.
Total immersion in the host culture means that the challenges — and rewards — of expatriate life are greater for the spouse. Expat spouses who give up careers to follow their husbands seem to be the most affected. Role displacement, identity issues and loss of professional status make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of culture shock.
Spouse’s adjustment is crucial to expat’s success
When a spouse is unable to settle in the new location, the consequences are far-reaching. Studies on expatriate assignment failure lay the blame for early return squarely on the family’s inability to adjust. Corporations are obviously aware of the spouse’s influence on the expatriate employee’s performance. “If the family unit is taken care of and settled into the host location quickly and satisfactorily, the expatriate can focus on the job,” an anonymous Human Resources manager is quoted as saying in Brookfield Global Relocation Service’s 2010 Global Relocation Trends Survey Report. “The family makes or breaks the assignment.”
The role of cross-cultural training for expat spouses
- To give expats the skills to behave in a culturally-appropriate manner in the host country.
- To provide the tools necessary to deal with the unexpected, including skills in conflict resolution.
- To establish realistic expectations of expatriate life.
It is this final point that is especially significant. “The more congruent an individual’s expectations are with reality…the greater the individual’s satisfaction and adjustment,” the study’s authors write. “It is not the experience itself that tends to drive adjustment, it is pre-departure expectations.”
Numerous studies have verified the effectiveness of intercultural training. Rachel, a Canadian expatriate who has lived in Asia, South America, and Europe, credits it with making her years of expat life such a success. The training provided her family with “excellent guidelines for preparation and acclimatization,” she says, noting that when they found themselves slipping into frustration or depression, “we were able to step back and either resolve our expectations, or change our understanding for future scenarios.”
It’s clearly in the best interests of corporations to provide the spouses of expatriate managers with the support they need in the new locale. Since spousal adjustment affects the expat employee’s adjustment, and may also affect his performance in the management role, it makes sense that cross-cultural training should be a component of every spouse’s pre-departure preparations.