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Determinants of expatriate adjustment – a 1985 vintage version

By Peter Muijres

What are the determinants of expatriate adjustment in a cross-cultural setting? The researchers Black, Mendenhall and Oddou suggested a ‘comprehensive’ model of international adjustment in 1991 based on a review of empirical studies on ‘overseas’ adjustment of expatriate managers by the latter two (Mendenhall & Oddou, 1985).

Eight years later, Shaffer et al. (1999) adapted the model by adding some new factors, including language fluency, and making a bunch of other changes. However, the 1985 review and the original 1991 model, displayed in the featuring image, included some useful handles that may help expats out there in their adjustment process. These individual and the ‘non-work factors’ in specific will be given full attention at the expense of all the rest.

The authors differentiated three sorts of ‘international adjustment’: (1) adjustment to work, (2) adjustment to interacting with host nationals, and (3) adjustment to the general environment. Good adjustment in one area spills over into another, as you might expect from anything having to do with people, motives and mental health.

The individual factors have been divided into a self-efficacy (self-oriented), relational skills (other-oriented) and perception skills. The self-oriented individual skill includes at least three subsets of skills:

(1) Reinforcement substitution: the ability to find replacing interests and joys.

This entails finding an alternative to fill the gap left by the loss of a cherished passtime that you cannot continue after relocation. If skiing is no longer an option, but photograpyhy is, perhaps that might develop into your new passion with a similar effect.

(2) Stress reduction: the ability to recuperate from stress.

Being exposed to an environment that is sometimes difficult to understand or predict is stressful. Some expats reduce that stress by regularly taking a time out for themselves to limit their exposure to external stressors and recuperate from stress, for example by engaging in a comforting activity like writing, yoga, or a cigarette break outside.

(3) Technical competence: on the job functionioning with good results.

Expats who are tuned into their sociocultural environment, perform better. Good performance promotes a positive attitude and successful adaptation and vice versa. However, HR people often wrongly assume that performance abroad will be as it has been at home and base the selection of future expats on their track record only.

The other-oriented individual skills has been relabelled ‘relation skills’. It involves the ability to develop new relationships and a willingness to communicate. Having host national friends (or indeed: lovers) may greatly benefit your intercultural adjustment in various ways.

Having local friends may not only enhance your opportunities to interact with host nationals, they may also introduce you to their way of life and help you to recognise, understand and appreciate the cultural differences. You might be introduced to their families or be taken to non-touristic places where you witness how things are done and people treated when undisturbed by office formalities and social expectations.

Even showing an interest in the non-expat population often earns you credits, as is learning the local language. However, beware of quick solutions and culturally insensitive approaches. Yelling local jokes out loud, reciting the tong twister of the local language (and pronunciating it wrongly), intruding into people’s breathing space and laughing hysterically at whatever one may say or do, doesn’t necessarily attract friends.

The perception based individual skills purport having a non-evaluative attitude and the ability to make correct intercultural attributions. Learned cultural differences in perceptions and evaluations of social behaviour often lead people from different cultures to misinterpret each other. Understanding the motives of host nationals also helps the foreigner to predict how their opinions and behaviour will be received.

The non-work factors affect the degree or extent of international adjustment, not how it happens. ‘Cultural novelty’, still called ‘cultural toughness’ in 1985, reflects the country specific variables that facilitate acculturation to a particular setting. Hofstede (1980) has made this dimension better known as ‘cultural distance’. Being in host countries with similar features as your home culture makes the whole process of settling in much easier.

Another non-work factor is ‘Adjustment of Family-Spouse’. Less exposure to and needs to come to terms with cultural differences make it less urgent adapt your mindset and personal life. Cultural restrictions in a male dominated society make adapting for western wives even extra challenging. Unsatisfied social and emotional needs of poorly adapted family members, and perhaps the associated consequences, may lead partners or dads to cut their assignment short and return back home.

Besides Individual and nonwork factors, also job factors, organisation culture and organisation socialization factors affect mode and/or degree of adjustment. The job dimension contain factors related to job clarity, job discretion, job novelty and job conflict. The ‘organisation culture’ dimension addresses the novelty of the organisation culture, social support and logistical help experienced by the expat. ‘Organisation socialisation’ entails tactics and content that only affects the mode, not the degree of expatriate adjustment. All these dimensions affecting in-country adjustment, are precipitated by Anticipatory adjustment factors. Intercultural training and previous experience affect ‘accurate expectations’ on an individual dimension. Selection mechanisms and criteria on an organisational level predict the mode and degree of in-country adjustment.

Although expatriate adjustment wasn’t much of a concern until the late 1970s and the research still in a very early phase in 1985, the research tradition has never changed much. Many different models of intercultural adjustment have been offered during the last four decades. Just like people or eras in time, each has its own pros, cons and particularities. Mostly, attention is paid to how individuals move around as actively processing centers of awareness, but less to the parts played in multiple systems. The transcultural dynamics involving the locally available social groups, the home front and virtual communities for example, as well as the adaptation process as an often emotion based process that takes time do not always receive the attention they deserve. | Training and Development

Culture Class provides training in personal effectiveness, culture and communication skills

The importance of intercultural training for expats

 By Peter Muijres – Culture Class

Increased global activity has led companies around the world to seek new markets for their products, new sources of raw materials, as well as new, more cost-effective locations for manufacturing. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit in 2006, transnational collaboration will be of decisive importance in an increasingly global competition. Expatriates are employed for reasons such as transfer of expertise, facilitating entry into new markets, or development of international management competencies.

Some of these foreign ventures succeed, but many do not. A high percentage of expats fails to meet expected standards of performance abroad. Studies have found that as much as 40 to 55% of expats ‘fail’ to adjust to living and working abroad and many cut their assignment short. Out of the American expats who stay at their international assignments, approximately 30 to 50% are considered ineffective or marginally effective by their firms and do more harm than good.

The costs of expatriate ineffectiveness and turnover are intimidating. Studies on American companies have shown that every early return of a manager costs companies as much as $250,000 to $1 million per individual, depending on the level of the manager and the urgency of their replacement. The direct costs of failed expatriate assignments to U.S. firms are estimated at over $2 billion a year, the costs of psychological suffering, damaged corporate reputations and lost business opportunities not taken into account.

The multiple and sudden losses and challenges that expats are faced with make them a particularly vulnerable group. Challenges may include a loss of language, social support network, possessions, knowledge of laws and rules, and of geographical orientation. Expats who feel out of touch with local customs and conduct, and who are unaware of culturally accepted styles of communication and problem solving may feel unable to prevent embarrassing or frustrating incidents with host nationals whilst living and working abroad. The inability of expats to adjust to the demands of an international business environment has been identified as a primary cause of international business failures.

Intercultural training addresses the demand for an interculturally competent workforce. It makes sure that expats set off and return with realistic expectations and it provides them with the knowledge, skills and attitude they need to develop rewarding collaborative relationships and to meet standards of functioning abroad.

Various independent studies have confirmed the effectiveness of intercultural training. Empirical evidence has shown that intercultural training helps expats to develop important intercultural skills, to facilitate intercultural adjustment, and it improves their professional performance and their well-being. Intercultural training is an indispensable prerequisite for the return on investment that organisations increasingly seek in international ventures and an expatration of their staff and provides a bedrock they can rely on in times of global opportunities and change.

Culture Class develops and provides intercultural training and coaching for expats

What’s in a word: Culture in context.

Written by Peter Muijres –

The last blog post was about the question how the availability of words in different languages facilitates people to express things. Right now, this emphasis will shift towards the question whether a language is able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications this would have for cross-cultural communication. ‘Intranslatable’ foreign words are often quoted and explained to show there is nothing special about the culture that generated them.

The Swedish word Mångata, is popular for example, meaning: the road-like reflection of the moon on the water. Next one; the Spanish sobremesa is the leisurely time spent at the table together after people have finished eating. Easy. Next, one: utepils means enjoying a beer outside in the sun. Next one in line is the Japanese Komorebi. English language might need several words to describe the effect of sunlight filtering through leaves where the Japanese need only one, but in the end we are talking about the same thing, aren’t we?

That remains the question. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that words that exist only in one language expresses an unique experience particular to that culture, because the meaning of words determines what we are capable of thinking of. At the other hand, the structuralist approach in linguistics, proposes that the words in a language are like the holes in a fishing net. Each language group throws the fishing net in its own way over a surface, which represents reality. Although the net and the holes will always fall differently, and different words cover different aspects and dimensions, the reality underneath stays basically the same. The methaphor is used to illustrate that people all have a similar experience of reality, although the words they use to catch this reality may differ.

What does this mean to cross-cultural communication? Structuralists might argue: ‘communication between cultures is possible because people understand the words they use in the same way‘. Cultural differences are superficial and no experience is exclusive to people in one culture, the structuralist view holds. At the other hand, cultural relativists, like Sapir and Whorf, might argue that ‘communication between cultures goes wrong all the time, because people understanding the words they use in different ways’. The latter suggests that people from different cultures make sense of reality differently and should therefore be understood in their own terms.

An abilty to explain something (‘erklaeren’) and having an interpretative understanding (‘verstehen’) are two different things, Max Weber once explained. By now, you might have a notion of what utepils is. However you still have no idea what it means to live through a long, dark Scandinavian winter and the mindset, social setting and joyful expectations of spring and summer that the Norwegians tend to associate with ‘enjoying a beer in the sun’. Understanding the meaning of a word means something different than understanding that meaning in its cultural context. Let’s sink our teeth into two examples.

The German word ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’ literally translates as ‘fingertips feeling’. The concept describes a certain strategic awareness, tact and intuition that allows for a quick responding to situational changes. The description might have drafted a picture by now, but it probably won’t include the almost geek-like joy and satisfaction that fingertips feelers may derive from observing how all particles in an incomprehensible scheme ingeniously work together to produce the tangible, hoped for result. A commitment to understand what needs to be done, why and in what way fosters a carefully cultivated mindset of punctuality, discipline and critical curiousity on a level where skills turn into art. Famous for their attention to detail, planning and punctuality, a missing cultural context would fail to make understandable why Germans were among the first to come up with a word for ‘Fingerspitzengefuehl’.

The opposite of planning is delicately caught by a word the Portuguese came up with: desenrascanço. Literally meaning “disentanglement”, desenrascanço refers to improvised, ad hoc solutions that prevent the problem from getting completely out of control and without a solution. So, that be a serious reason for concern?

Although you may have an idea of the translation of desenrascanço, developing cultural sensitivity requires a context. Desenrascanço is normally used to express an ability to solve a problem without having the knowledge or the adequate tools to do so, by use of imaginative resources or by applying knowledge to new situations. Portuguese people are said to strongly believe it to be one of their most valued virtues and a living part of their culture. There is a distinct pride and pleasure involved in the resourcefulness associated with the ability to handle unexpected situations and is not to be confused with an endorsement of amateurism, irresponsibility and lack of planning.

This brings us back to the original question: is a language able to express cultural uniqueness and what implications would that have for cross-cultural communication? The purpose of raising questions such as these is not to end up with a final answer that should be copied and applied across situations indifferently.

One post on cultureclassblog mentioned that picking up easily on new languages indicates cultural intelligence, because it shows an ability to recognize and apply subtle culture specific meanings in communication. What did the American expat, who refused to speak anything but English, communicate by stating : “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s surely good enough for me!”? That speaking in the same language is no guarantee for being on the same page.

More important than the content of words is your view of self, others, your relation to others and the world that you communicate. Relationships depend on communication and over 80% of it happens non-verbally. Attending to mind whether another person really understands and feels understood may not seem necessary at times, but may contribute something else  within a context where borders are crossed and opportunities created together. provides training in cross-cultural personal and communication skills.

Cultural Intelligence

Written by: Peter Muijres

Around a decade ago a few people spearheaded the introduction of anew concept: ‘cultural intelligence’, also called ‘cultural quotient’ or ‘CQ’. Ang, van Dyne, Earley and Livermore were among these people and introduced CQ to help understand and predict why some expats adjust better than others to communicating with people from different cultures and living in a new environments.

CQ is more concerned with the personal potential to adapt, not merely with the outcomes in terms of cultural competencies. Therefore, proponents claim that CQ is able to measure and predict expatriate performance more precisely1 than cultural competence based measures. The concept of CQ seeks to line up with cognitive, social and emotional forms of intelligence . However, the differential CQ is different because it is not confined by specific cultural borders.1,2 In fact, CQ is concerned with the capability to identify and reconcile cultural differences.

CQ comprises four parts: cognitive (CQ knowledge), metacognitive (CQ strategy), motivational (CQ motivation) and behavioural (CQ action).

Cognition and meta-cognition are concerned with what information is collected and how it is processed. For example, a woman with a well-developed CQ knowledge, is aware of her personal and interpersonal experiences during everyday interactions, when they happen and how she responds. Sensitive to the responses of others and her effectiveness, she might then use information to adjust her learning strategy or her communication or problem solving style to fit the demands of the situation.

An American tourist who did not show this behaviour, was once spotted with his wife in a quiet backstreet bar in Amsterdam. He was very happy and excited about being in Holland and really felt like making some new friends on the spot. However, his loud and expressive communication style, considered obnoxious and disruptive by the Dutch visitors, only met with resistance. However, he did not reconsider and trying something else but decided not to give up. Instead, he became louder and more enthusiastic in increasingly desperate attempts to win the interest of his potential new friends.

As a part of CQ, ‘motivation’ describes a person’s level of initiative and effort: how much does he or she try to adjust to his or her new environment? Persistence, efficacy, self-confidence, affinity with the new culture, personal objectives, goals and the level of effort required, are all players in the motivation to engage with people from different cultures. Although the strategy of the American tourist did not render any new Dutch friends, he definitely deserved credits for his motivation.

CQ behaviour describes the ability to develop culturally appropriate behaviour and responses. Observing and imitating the behaviour of local role models (social mimicry) is a powerful method to acquire the culturally appropriate behaviour that facilitates effective communication. Picking up easily on new languages is considered a good indicator of culturally intelligent behaviour1, because it demonstrates an ability to recognize subtle culture specific meanings and use that in communication.

Although CQ does not provide a unique and exciting new perspective model, it has several positive sides. One of the most powerful ones is that the CQ model seeks to answer the training needs and connects with other models and theories. Many frameworks within the intercultural field, especially those developed before the 1980s, did not consider other theoretical models, research findings, field experiences or training needs.

CQ takes notions of cultural psychology and cognitive psychology into account by paying attention to how information is selected and processed and affecting the self-concept. The influence of Bandura’s social learning theory, for example, is visible in the attention for social mimicry as a social learning strategy. CQ might further complement our understanding of human intelligence by including the ability to think ‘outside the box’, including the reinvention of problem solving and communication strategies under different conditions.

The association of CQ with other types of intelligence provides a familiar reference that may foster general acceptance, but CQ seems a pretty mainstream and hardly innovative model nonetheless. In spite of an interest in other models and practical applications, the concept sticks with determining traits and capabilities of the individual. Host national views, expat experiences, the steps and stages in the process, the dynamics at play during the process receive less or no attention.

CQ makes a constructive step towards connecting theories, HR interests, and outside the box survival. Then again, the model itself makes sure to stay within the comfort zone of an established Western science. Perhaps it’s the lack of something new, bold and thought provoking, the ‘out of the box’ model seems to promise but not make true. – Cultureclass provides training and coaching that helps in- and expats develop the personal and intercultural skills they need to succeed today.

Suggested reading:

(1) Earley, P. C. (2002). Redefining interactions across cultures and organizations: Moving forward with cultural intelligence. Research in organizational behavior, 24, 271-299.

(2) Earley, P. C. & Ang, S. (2003). Cultural intelligence: An analysis of individual interactions across cultures. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

(3) Earley, P. C., Ang, S., & Tan, J. S. (2006). CQ: Developing cultural intelligence at work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.