The Expat Personality: What type of person adjusts well to culture?


Do you think that you are doing a good job adjusting to your host culture?

Not everybody is a perfect fit for a stressful job like living abroad. Different cultural norms leave us in many situations in which we don’t know how to act. They confuse us and make us feel stressed out. The stress is a result of the cognitive dissonance we experience when we are forced to act in ways that go against our own values. While in my previous article I focused on how to learn from that stress, now I want to discuss what the “perfect” expat personality would look like, if it existed

A common belief is that the more we interact with a group of people, the more we like them, learn about them, and adapt to their behaviour

If this was true, then the most important factor of the big five personality traits would definetely be extroversion. The more outgoing you are, the easier it will be for you to make friends with local people, and the more time you will spend with them. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Hanging out with locals without being open to their ideas, beliefs and values doesn’t help you to adjust to their expectations in any way. You might even make it worse. That’s why people conservative people who strictly follow the values of their own society will get in trouble abroad, unless their host culture is either very similar to their own, or tolerable of a wide range of behaviour.

Openness to experience is therefore always necessary. People with this trait are more open-minded, curious and careful to judge others. They are more careful to avoid stereotypes, and it comes more naturally for them to correct false expectations of other cultures. But do not get me wrong: researches do find a correlation between spending more time with local people and the ability to adjust to the local culture.

The reason is that quality time with people from other cultures allows us to refine our mental models of people. From the time we are children, we develop a representation in our mind that tells us how people with certain traits are likely to behave. We look at the behaviour of our significant others – because that’s what we know best – and based on that predict the behaviour of others. I believe you can see why this is a problem: in different cultures, these predictions simply don’t work.

mental models of people


Look at the picture above. It is taken from Brandy Mychals’ “How to read a client from across the room”. It shows three different kinds of people: class presidents, who are direct, results-oriented and who have the desire to appear competent. Cheerleaders, on the other hand, are personal, fun and have the desire to appear approachable. I really do not want to drift too far into her descriptions of personality types, but I chose to discuss this because Brandy does a great job in terms of digging out her own mental models from her subconsciousness and classifying them into simple types that we all can understand.

You too have these mental models of cheerleaders, actors and those people who act just like them. But the point here is that mental models like these do not necessarily work in different cultural contexts. Yes, in China, India, or Brazil there are also people with similar traits like a cheerleader, but the ways they manifest themselves in reality are different. In other words: you need to spend more time with local people to figure out in what ways your old mental models apply to the new environment, and in which ways they don’t.


I prefer to think of this dimension in terms of it’s opposite: emotional stability. One would think that the more stable somebody is, the better he or she will be able to deal with the stress of adjusting to a new culture. Interestingly researchers until today had different levels of success in terms of proving that. Some even found that the opposite is true. One possible explanation for this are the cultural differences when it comes to the display of emotion. In Asian countries, where it is often considered a sign of weakness to display emotion, emotional stability is certainly an important trait. But on the other side of the world, in Latin America, it is normal to react in an impulsive way when one’s honor is threatened. Of course this doesn’t mean that neuroticism leads to better cultural adaptation in Latin America, but it is simply more in line with the expectations of the locals.


The relationship here is quite clear: agreeable people want to preserve positive relationships, and to do that they will follow the norms of their host culture. In their desire to be accepted, it is important for them to understand the way of thinking of the locals and do their best not to hurt their feelings. As Huang, Chi, and Lawler write: “when facing conflict, expatriates with high agreeableness seek to solve it in ways that are customary to the host nationals”. Agreeableness is therefore an important trait for any expat to develop.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *