Going abroad can be hard on your emotions. All the loneliness, home-sickness, strangeness, confusion. It can simply overwhelm you. One friend of mine even went back home after just one(!) week. It then comes to no surprise that companies select their expatriates carefully and often provide them with extensive training. However, this training can not do much to prepare you for the emotional rollercoaster of expat life, as Rebecca Richardson calls it.
In the last three decades, researchers have made a lot of progress in regards to emotion. Richard J. Davidson is one of the scientists in that field, and with his book “Emotional Life of Your Brain“, he introduced the concept of emotional styles. Each person is unique in the sense that he or she scores to a particular degree on the six different dimensions that make up their emotional style.
Resilience: the ability to shake-off setbacks
Why this is important for expats is quite obvious. Again and again we have to face the frustration that when we think we made ourselves clear, somehow our colleagues still do not seem not to understand. Or, how often does bureaucracy thwart our plans? It starts with visa troubles, and goes all the way to the local government not giving permission for that new project. Some people can just go go on as if nothing happened, others loose their energy for days.
Outlook: the ability to maintain one’s energy and commitment
I still remember my first month of living abroad very well. As a 19 year-old without any job- or life experience I was to teach my Indonesian “students” who were in my age or older. The only thing I knew about teaching was what I observed during my own school experience. Luckily that was not too far away as I had just recently graduated. When I arrived with the expectation to teach conversational English, I was surprised to see that there was not much of conversation going on in the beginning. Everybody seemed quite comfortable with the traditional method of teacher standing in the front, students listen. Well, for me that was more interesting than anything else and while it was a tough job, my excitement never waned. And, after a while, that excitement got me what I wanted: a talkative class.
Social Intuition: the ability to assess another person’s mental state
While the first two dimensions are equally important, now it’s getting a little bit more interesting. Why do I say that? Because for expats, being socially intuitive is a little bit more complicated than for someone living back home. With different social rules, norms and expectations, it is far more difficult to read a situation when you interact with people from different countries. To understand another person’s body language, see when they want to talk or when they’d rather be alone, or to figure out when they are stressed requires you to understand his or her cultural background and personality.
Furthermore, social intuition also has an impact on your level of shyness. And again, this is important. Richard Davidson says that shy people are constantly looking for threats and sources of danger. Then, if they do come across such a situation, they tend to freeze, not knowing what to do. When he put children in one room with Robie the Robot, and let these two unusual friends interact with each other, he got completely opposing results.”We had scores of Wills (with low social intuition), shy, reticent, wary and not at all resilient; they were unable to overcome their fear of a strange being and a strange situation. And we had scores of Sams (high social intuition), extremely outgoing, sociable and resilient, able to absorb the shock of talking to a robot and adapt to the odd situation”. Oh yes, there are big differences in terms of how well we cope with unfamiliarity.
(Who would not not be scared, huh? All alone with Robie…)
Self-awareness: awareness of one’s own thoughts and feelings
This is important in two ways. Being aware of your own emotions is the first step in learning to control them. We all know that impulsiveness is perceived negatively in many countries around the world, especially in Asia, so controlling it is one of the first things male-oriented managers from the west need to learn. Second, it is also a necessary requirement of empathy. How can you understand somebody else’s emotions, if you can’t even figure out your own? Empathy, in turn, is what we need in order to understand another person despite cultural differences.
Attention: the ability to screen out emotional- or other distractions
Here, nonjudgmental awareness is the most interesting concept. It describes the “capacity to remain receptive to whatever might pass into your thoughts, view, hearing, or feeling and do so in a noncritical way”. The keyword here is noncritical. So many times do we face situations where our worldviews clash. Truth is – so many times did it happen to me that I was simply shocked as to how somebody could express an opinion “like that”. Opinions like you should get rid of anybody who opposes the government, are things that most westerners simply can not accept. Of course we absolutely do not have to agree with these opinions, but we do need to accept their existence. We have to understand the context in which they have formed and then make up our mind without being critical of the person who expressed them. Why? Because the person has developed these opinions as a result of the environment in which he or she grew up. And that environment, for sure, was very different from yours.
Sensitivity to Context: picking up the rules of social interaction
Does it happen to you sometimes that you are completely confused why somebody calls your behaviour inappropriate? Then maybe you are not very sensitive to context. For expatriates that is a big problem. Probably one of the most important things for expats is to learn the rules of social interaction of their host culture. Without that, they make a fool of themselves again, and again, and again. Those who are sensitive to context, on the other hand, will quickly grasp the subtle differences between their own culture and the culture where they currently live. That makes them simply more adaptable. Period. They look at the situation, and based on that they decide how to behave. And that makes an expatriate a good expatriate.