Having worked with many families and individuals preparing to undertake relocation to another country, I have seen certain general profiles emerge that link them. They are generally positive thinkers. The adventure of change is something they like, they embrace new challenges, and possess strong abilities to adapt in different professional and personal situations.
So what I just did there was to build a picture in your mind of a general set of characteristics that you might interpret as prerequisites of, and unique to, people that take on the challenge of expat life. True or not, we might read such statements and be more than willing to embrace them as part of our own preconceptions. If you then give some consideration of your own personal traits and feel that you lack one or more of them, what kind of effect do you think that would have on your thinking if presented with an expat assignment opportunity yourself? Would you be hesitant to accept it because you feel you don’t qualify. The answer may well be yes, and it turns out there is science that may explain why.
Listening to a recent episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, I was fascinated to hear of studies that have been performed to determine some of the effects of Stereotypical thinking on our actions. Rather than focus on how it makes us think about or act towards others, the goal of these studies has been to establish how we might think in reaction to certain negative stereotypes that we know to be attributed to a specific group we identify with. This has been valuable in the area of racial and gender gaps in academic performance, such as the early studies done by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson¹. It is not hard to find instances where it applies in many other areas such as gender in entrepreneurship² or effects of socioeconomic status in the early learning performance of children³. No matter what our own social identity may be, most of us possess one that is negatively stereotyped.
Whether or not we believe these particular stereotypes to be true about ourselves personally, we can in fact be so preoccupied with disproving them, that we actually undertake actions that produce results to confirm them.
Your first thought might be, as was mine, that this is impossible right? If we ourselves don’t believe something is true, how can we subconsciously act out in ways that are foreign to us, not to mention do it with any authenticity. However after giving it some consideration, I think back to the many times I have engaged clients in discussions about their perceptions of the country they are going to. This is always an important exercise in the training, not to call people out for their biases, but simply to use it as a tool to frame a wider discussion on how our perceptions inform our thinking. On many occasions however, participants will stop me and quite pointedly ask “What will be the perception of the local culture of me?”. They are curious about how they may be viewed, and in fact most of the time will call out a particular negative stereotype they have heard applies to how they identify themselves. They are nervous about being “that type of person”.
Another phenomenon has been identified that produces the opposite effect, known as Stereotype Tax. This is where one might use an otherwise negative attribute and use it to their advantage. If for example you identify with a culture that is perceived to be aggressive or difficult in negotiations. Even if this is not particularly true of you in your home culture, you may sub-consciously act in such a way when dealing with foreign suppliers that you confirm the stereotype for them, bolstered by what you feel may be their preconceptions.
The question is how aware are we of particular stereotypes in ways we identify ourselves? How can we develop skills to turn our minds to positive aspects of our culture and, and intentionally reinforce them with local cultures we engage with?
Cultural competence both in a personal and that of a wider organizational sense is critical to success in today’s global business world.
To neglect development in this area brings many perils, resulting in failed expat assignments and international mergers. One of the most important aspects of such competence is awareness of self. Identifying cultural gaps and taking active steps toward bridging them is an integral part of the process of leading across borders.