Why our need for instant gratification destroys expatriate adaptability

Indulging in all the pleasures life has to offer right now is a natural tendency for all of us. Naturally, we seek to experience positive feelings, and getting what we want right now is giving us exactly what our brain is craving.

Typical examples of the consequences of instant gratification are corporations that want to achieve short-term financial returns but completely disregard the long-term consequences of their actions. People soothing their worries through self-destructive behaviours like drinking or gambling, but who disregard the effect this will have on their health or mental state. Men cheating on their wives for the thrill of having an adventure, while forgetting about the stability of their relationship. The possibilities here are really endless.

Instant gratification and the ability to adapt to a new cultural environment

The first reason why instant gratification is problematic for us in adapting to a new cultural environment is that it creates a certain sense of helplessness within ourselves. If we feel that we need to see immediate results in terms of building positive relationships with the local people, getting accepted in the new society, as well as adapting to the local behaviours, then encountering problems in the process of doing so leads to more frustration.

instant gratification and expatriate adaptability

Don’t get me wrong here: all expatriates feel this sense of helplessness when they first move abroad. Even mundane activities like opening a bank account can be a big challenge when you do not have a clear understanding of how to interact with the local employees you are dealing with.

The problem arises when we want to see improvement quickly, and when we start to either judge our inability to adapt to these local customs, or when we start blaming the locals for our problems instead.

Building an intuitive understanding of a different culture takes time

Learning the typical behavioural scripts of a different cultural environment is a matter of pattern recognition. When we first move abroad, the behavioural patterns we learned throughout our past are not consistent with the one’s we encounter when we are interacting with people in the new environment.

There is no way around having to learn the different behaviours through a process of observation, imitation, and reflection and adaptation. We need to notice the differences, try to imitate the new behaviour, reflect on the differences, and then make a decision about whether to adapt these new behaviours or not. This whole process can take years to complete depending on the circumstances of the individual

As you can see, there simply is no short-cut in terms of adapting to a different cultural environment. Since it will always take time and effort, our need for instant gratification can get in the way, especially when the sense of frustration about yourself sets in.

Instant gratification can lead to imitation without reflection

People with very good intentions when moving abroad, but with the tendency to strive for instant gratification, may fall into the trap of imitating the behaviour of the locals without reflecting on the values and beliefs that underlie these behavioural patterns.

They start using similar behavioural patterns compared to the locals, but they do not understand the context in which these behaviours are appropriate.

To give you a very simple example, let’s have a look at the typical greeting Australians use when they meet each other: “hey mate” or “G’day mate”. Almost all expatriates I meet will inevitably start using a similar form of greeting quite quickly after arriving in the country since everybody around them uses these terms.

What they often don’t understand, however, are the values and beliefs that come with this form of greeting. Mateship is a very important value in Australian society and has the connotation that everybody living in proximity to each other are part of the same community. With this value comes the expectation that people should support each other and treat each other as equals.

Without an understanding of these deeper values and beliefs, expatriates coming to Australia might adopt these small habits like greetings without adapting in ways that are truly appreciated by Australian society. For instance, the value of mateship also leads to very high participation rates in volunteer projects around the community. Therefore, when somebody wants to be part of the community, volunteering would be one excellent way of getting a much deeper insight into Australian cultural DNA.

Imitating the behaviour of the locals is one important step towards expatriate adaptation, but in itself is simply isn’t enough. A deep understanding of the culture’s values, beliefs and worldviews must always accompany these new behaviours. And to do that, a long process of reflection is necessary.



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