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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.

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The five axioms of communication (Watzlawick) – with a few cultural notes

By Peter Muijres – Culture Class (.org)

Communication is an ever present feature of human interaction. The five axioms of communication, formulated by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues help to describe the processes of communication that take place during interaction and help to explain how a misunderstanding may come about. A few notes are added to tune the axioms better into a transcultural context.

The five axiomas are:

1. One cannot not communicate. The first axiom shows that everything one does is a message: “Activity or inactivity, words or silence all have message value: they influence others and these others, in turn, cannot not respond to these communications and are thus themselves communicating” (Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 1). This is true only however if the parties are “in the presence of another” (Watzlawick & Beavin, 1967, p. 4). This can cause problems in the relationship system though. For example, if one doesn’t want to communicate and inadvertently communicates this fact it may anger the other party. The appreciation for people who behave emotionally reserved verses who express their thoughts and feelings freely, may differ considerately between cultures. Insensitivity to these differences or the signals that people send, may hinder or undermine a smooth acculturation process considerately.

2. The second axiom, states that there are both “content and relationship levels of communication” (p. 1). Content refers to the actual subject matter of what is being discussed. The relationship level of a communicative act has to do with how the two communicators view one another and how they convey it. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) put it, “All such relationship statements are about one or several of the following assertions: ‘This is how I see myself…this is how I see you…this is how I see you seeing me…’” and therefore determines “how this communication is to be taken” (pg. 3). Watzlawick and Beavin (1967) describe the relationship level as “information about this [content level] information” (p. 5). Culture and communication training teach you how to prevent leaving an unintended negative impression with people from other cultures and tells you how to read whether you and your communication style are received well.

3. The third axiom is concerned with how participants in the system punctuate their communicative sequences. In a communicative event “every item in the sequence is simultaneously stimulus, response, and reinforcement” (Bateson & Jackson qtd. in Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson, 1967, p. 4). Therefore, one can interpret an act as being a response (‘I don’t trust you, because you don’t share your feelings with me’), while the other can interpret it as being a stimulus (‘I don’t share my feelings with people that don’t trust me’). Different punctuations make people see the sequence of events differently and may lead to endless conflicts that make pointing the finger at each other a pointless exercise. No one participant’s behaviour can be said to cause the other’s.

4. The fourth axiom is that communication can be both digital and analogical. The digital code is what the person says, what the words actually mean, while the analogical code has to do with how something is said or the nonverbal cues that go along with it. This means that someone can convey two opposing messages at once, which may cause problems. It pays off to learn how to identify when people are silently saying yes, even when you hear “no”  (not to confuse with taking a plain ‘no’ for a ‘yes’), and when they really aren’t interested.

5. Finally, the fifth axiom is concerned with the communication being either symmetrical or complimentary. This simply means that either the participants in the system are on equal ground with regards to power relations, or one of them is over the other. Conflict may arise when a party likes the status quo to change.

The strength of the five axioms exists foremost in explaining what happens during a communication process, rather than steering it.

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