The Perfect Expat: between skill and personality

20 November 2018

This article was written by Katia Vlachos, author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment. Katia writes on cross-cultural adaptation and expatriate life. She also works with expats at various stages of their transitions. Katia can be reached through her website as well as LinkedIn, Facebook (@KatiaVlachosCoach) and Twitter (@vlachosk).

“When I move to a new location, it typically takes me one to two years to develop a circle of friends.”

“For my best friend, it’s just a matter of weeks.”

“I’m an introvert and he’s an extrovert. He gets out almost immediately, taking every opportunity to go to social events, make new acquaintances, and organize outings with people he’s just met.”

“I focus on feeling settled at home first and often need to be dragged out of the house. We both end up with really great, really close friends; it just takes me much longer to get there. Knowing that about myself helps me manage my expectations.”

Spoiler: there is no perfect expat

Understanding how our personal characteristics influence the way we adapt to change is key to making successful international moves. While there is no ‘perfect expat’, studies have shown that certain personal qualities – a mix of innate personality traits and acquired abilities – can accelerate the adjustment process.

Together, personality and acquired skills have a powerful influence on how we deal with transitions – and how ‘fit’ we are for expat life.

The incredible impact of personality

Research studies have linked specific personality traits – measured on dimensions known as the ‘Big Five’ – to cross-cultural adjustment and success in expatriate assignments. The Big Five are believed to be the building blocks of personality and consist of:

  • Openness to experience – the tendency to embrace change.
  • Conscientiousness – the tendency to be organized and self-disciplined.
  • Extraversion – the tendency to derive energy from the company of others.
  • Agreeableness – the tendency to be friendly and cooperative.
  • Neuroticism – the tendency to experience negative emotions easily.

The higher you score on the first four and the lower you score on the last one – that is, the more open, structured, extroverted, friendly and emotionally stable you are – the easier you tend to adjust to new cultures.

Of course, our personalities are far more complex than the Big Five framework makes them out to be; but it is a useful framework to help you understand what adaptive traits you already have, where you may run into difficulties and how to compensate.

Expat skills that can take you far

Skills and abilities that you acquire over the course of your life will also play a role in the adjustment process. These skills include flexibility, resilience and cultural intelligence.

Flexibility is the ability to accept change and ‘go with the flow’. Flexibility also means tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. This skill is extremely valuable because change and uncertainty are inevitable in expat life.

Resilience is the ability to manage stressful situations without breaking down; to maintain a positive attitude and sense of motivation in the face of setbacks. Given that stress is also inherent in international moves, resilience is a key expat quality.

Cultural intelligence (CQ) – the ability to function effectively in different cultures –implies the willingness and ability to see the world from a different cultural perspective. It is usually accompanied by skills such as empathy and curiosity. Cultural intelligence is often linked to an openness to learning to communicate in unfamiliar languages.

One step at a time

Before making an expat move, it’s important to take the time to assess your personal characteristics – both your strengths and your vulnerabilities. Even if you don’t have all the traits and skills described above, you can learn and develop many of them. Accepting and owning where you’re coming from is a good foundation for figuring out what you need to develop and where you will need to get support.

For instance, you can learn to be flexible and resilient by consciously and actively practicing accepting what you cannot control and focusing on what you can, surrounding yourself with a supportive group of friends, engaging in self-care, and maintaining your sense of humor, among others.

Similarly, there are many ways to build your cultural intelligence, including gathering knowledge about the new culture, understanding as much as possible your own cultural biases, as well as being curious and asking questions.

The key? Your state of mind

Few of us are born ‘perfect expats’. You can’t change your personality, but you can make the most of what you have and be aware of what you don’t have. You can also consciously work to develop skills that will help you cope better with transitions.

The good news is that most of the qualities that make a successful expat can be learned ‘in the field’: with time, whether you want that or not, expat life itself will teach you many of the skills you need.

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