There was a tendency for respondents to gravitate towards the “serial expat culture”. A significant difference in the characteristics was found to exist.
For the purpose of the research, serial expats had to live in minimum the second foreign country and had been abroad for at least 8 years.
The notion of ‘a’ culture, as distinct from other cultures, is used … in two ways. First, it refers to a population of persons who have certain artifacts and ‘mentifacts’ (i.e. ideas, beliefs, conventions, etc.) more in common among themselves than with outsiders. In the second sense a culture is the repertoire of behavior, including overt and covert aspects, of such population. In cross-cultural psychology, cultures are most frequently national states or societies, but one finds many other groupings of humans also referred to as cultures (source: Cross-Cultural Psychology, Research and Application, 2011).
On 8th of June 2017, 914 participants from 96 countries had answered the questions of the online survey. Here the number of participants by country they grew up (dark – most serial expats, medium: many, light: some, no color: no data):
225 of the data entries were invalid and had to be removed:
- 7 participants answered ‘no’ to the question: “Do you speak English fluently?”.
- 114 participants live today in the same country they grew up.
- 60 participants were abroad less than 8 years.
- 44 participants lived in less than 2 foreign countries.
That left 689 valid cases. These participants lived in 5.2 countries on average, from 3 to 37. Below you can see more demographic information. Some respondents chose to not answer the demographic questions. Only the reported answers are displayed.
Level of education
85.7 % of the participants enjoyed a University-level education with degree
The majority of the married participants chose a partner from a different country. They have an average of 2.2 children (from 0 to 7).
Location of the family
Most of the participants families (partner and kids) are living with them in the same country.
The majority of participants is full time employed, working more than 30 hours a week.
The majority of the employed participants works for a private organization.
Citizenship/ foreign countries
One way of measuring culture is through its values (Schwartz). The values were recorded by asking what is important/ unimportant or liked/ disliked, what can be approved/ disapproved, what is believed or what kind of person the respondent is, as described by Minkov.
The World Values Survey’s (WVS) questions and the public database was used to compare the serial expats to. The WVS is a global network of social scientists studying values. The surveys conducted in almost 100 countries contain about 90 percent of the world’s population. The participants of the WVS were interviewed in person and paid for their time. The serial expats participated voluntary and in an online survey.
Not all questions that were listed in the online survey are used for the statistical analyses. Since the question flow is influencing the way people respond to them, the question blocks were kept as these were originally to get a fair comparison (e.g. job access by gender is not used in the statistics, but included for the question flow).
Traits or characteristics of individuals or groups have been found to be highly correlated to values (Roccas, Sagiv, Schwartz, Knafo). I defined 8 characteristics to describe serial expats, that could be measured with the WVS.
For example, Cultural Universalism was measured with following items:
- On this list are various groups of people. Could you please mention any that you would not like to have as your neighbors? People of a different race, immigrants, people of a different religion, people who speak a different language
- I’d like to ask how much you trust people from various groups. Could you tell me for each whether you trust people from this group completely, somewhat, not very much or not at all. People of other religion/ nationality
- When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants
- Here is a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home. Which if any, do you consider to be especially important: Tolerance and respect for other people
- Sense of belonging
- Cultural Universalism
- Own set of rules
- Free choice
- Risk taking
- Stress Tolerance
Acculturation is the phenomena, when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups.
When expatriates start being exposed to many cultures due their continues moves between countries, the disintegration (collapse of meaning system) from their initial cultural identity and the development of a global identity begins. They no longer feel particularly attached to a single culture but possess a mosaic of cultural values and beliefs that make up their cultural identity. As a consequence they become cultural nomads or cultural chameleons, not experiencing identification with any one culture.
The serial expat can consciously choose between behavior sets, to fit the situation and expectations of people around, feeling at ease anywhere but belonging nowhere.
Serial Expats show discrepancies of how or when or for whom they perform apparently similar roles. They feel no need to watch such protocols or play a role when being with other serial expats. Therefor, despite showing cultural influences of many cultures, serial expats find belonging in relationships of like-minded.
They intuitively and explicitly search for international groups of people in their new social environment, e.g. through social media groups addressing these needs. The same behavior was already described in detail by Pollock and Reken for third culture kids (TCKs).
As a consequence, besides other motivations, serial expats tend to move to places where they are likely to find like-minded people. The World Migration Report has mapped out the cities with the highest number of foreign-born migrants, expats and serial expats.
Cities with the highest percentage of foreign born:
The exposure effect also called familiarity bias explains how individuals prefer things they are repeatedly exposed to. Despite liking new stimuli, our mind intuitively evaluates things we have previous experience of positively, even if we have no conscious memory of these. This so-called heuristic helps with first impressions, judging people and putting them into categories.
This brain shortcut makes us prone to cultural mistakes. Many international encounters have made serial expats learn to reserve their initial evaluations and assess new people more carefully. Such experiences help serial expats to develop conscious decision-making about others and a higher degree of cultural universalism. They treat people primarily on the bases of who they are as individuals rather than their countries of origin, religion or looks.
Adler explained 40 years ago already, “the multicultural person is intellectually and emotionally committed to the basic unity of all human beings while at the same time recognizing, legitimizing, accepting, and appreciating the differences that exist between people of different cultures.”
The exposure of serial expats to various cultural, political, religious and legal environments make them develop their own set of rules by which to live. This is essentially a mixture of the rules established during childhood, with adjustments made from learning about the advantages and disadvantages of other environments.
This might raise the questions: Who am I, in addition to, or in spite of, these difference?
The freedom to know that one can successfully make a living in most places in the world, and the knowledge that the current location with all its advantages and disadvantages was one’s own selection, gives a serial expat a great sense of having a free choice over their lives.
Studies by Suurati and Mäkelä explain how expat experience creates better choices on further job opportunities: “The outcomes of expatriates who pursued international careers were:
- a higher level of career capital (strong self-confidence and reliance on own capabilities),
- a global job market perspective (broader pool of possible employers) and
- internal career motivation (interesting work responsibilities and personal goals, being in charge of own career).”
References: Suurati, Mäkelä
Risk taking can be defined as choosing a gamble when a safe option is available. Taking risks involves choosing courses of action that carry with them greater uncertainty and, among the uncertain outcomes, carry possible negative outcomes relative to the alternative action.
Moving from one country to another carries enormous risks, with the potential of failure, both economically and socially. Serial expats are ready to take such risks. Instead of staying at home (safe option), they decide to explore the world and choose to face uncertain outcomes – again, and again.
Not knowing where to find a good dentist or a clean swimming pool for the kids are challenges involved with arriving in a new place. Despite internet-based map tools and searches, it takes a lot of effort to find one’s way around at the beginning. Within the network of serial expats, the chance that someone else has already been in this place and situation is high, and seeking information from such persons is usually helpful. As Mao and Shen said: “This requires a high degree of communication across different cultural groups within their networks, leading to a high level of cross-cultural density, which helps to reinforce this feeling of interconnectedness to a global culture”.
The basis for communicating is typically a simplified form of English or “pidgin English”. It’s a version of English that contains expressions from various countries, e.g. “same, same, but different”.
The uncertainty of a new job environment, a new place, and a new social environment create stress. In addition, many expats face relationship strains, a lack of close friends to confide in, uncertainty over their future, feelings of isolation or of having to manage too many conflicting demands.
Serial expats are able to cope with these types of stresses better. The higher the number of changes a serial expat faced in their path, the greater their flexibility and competence for uncertainty become.
A minimum number of 98 participants was required to build up a culture of serial expats (confidence level 95%, normal distribution, large population). With 689 participants that requirement was met.
The comparison was performed on a country base. A minimum number of 43 participants per country was required to conduct a comparison (confidence level 95%, normal distribution, large population). Three countries had a sufficient number of participants:
- USA: 82
- Germany: 72
- Great Britain: 55
Using the k-nearest neighbour statistical method, 62% percent of these participants were classified as serial expats (not as the country they grew up).
That lets us conclude: Yes, serial expats, independent of the country they grew up, or the countries they lived in, tend to develop a culture of their own.
Using the chi-square goodness of fit statistical method, 79% of the relevant items showed a significant difference (USA 82%, Germany 83%, Great Britain 69%). Yes, the culture of serial expats is significantly different – compared to the culture they grew up with.
The biggest difference showed up in the characteristic ‘Own set of rules’. Below is an overview of the significantly different answers clustered by characteristics (compared to the answers given in the WVS). The characteristics Risk Taking, Communication, and Stress Tolerance are based on one or two questions and were not asked in all countries. These results are not shown and further research should be conducted to get conclusive figures.
Examples of answer patterns:
Pride countryman/ serial expat
Question: How proud are you to be a countryman from the country you grew up/ to be a serial expat?
I see myself as 'world citizen'
Not like as neighbor
Quality of children
Active member in organization
Certain characteristics shared by serial expats, like being able to shift between cultural situations, choosing the appropriate behaviors, or appreciation of diversity are highly anticipated by employers. To attract cultural bridge builders like serial expats, employers and their international HR departments would have to reflect their expectations when designing a position:
- The results of the study show that Serial Expats have more creative, more independent and more intellectual positions with more supervisory responsibilities. It creates a level of expectation for their career.
- Serial Expats tend to flock to the same locations. Offering positions at such location might make a position more attractive.
The traditional search for serial expats in countries with good passports and good education, as it was used by multinational corporations to send employees from a typically developed country as documented by Brewster, Bonache, Cerdin and Suutari, and Ossman is insufficient. Despite their countries being near the bottom of the QNI List (Quality of Nationality Index), there was a considerable number of participants from Pakistan (24), Syria (4), Sri Lanka (2), Yemen (1) and Ethiopia (1). There were also no excessive numbers of contributors from those countries with the highest numbers of tertiary graduates, e.g. China (3). It concludes that the traditional search needs to be expanded to all countries to get the best candidates.
The information is condensed, but I hope it gives you an insight in the serial expat culture. Please contact me in case of any questions or comments.
A biiiig thanks to all of you, who took 15 minutes out of their hectic lives to participate and make this research project possible!!! Your assistance is very much appreciated!!
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