Here are the results of my research about the culture of serial expats. They show whether individuals’ culture gravitates to a common culture after they are exposed to several other cultural environments over an extended period of time, regardless of where they are from and which cultures they were exposed to. The research aims to identify which characteristics of such individuals, called serial expats, if any, are most affected by the cultural adjustment. Cultural change was verified by comparing the self-reported values of serial expats, to the national values of their respective countries, using questions of the World Values Survey (WVS).
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).
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 (590 or more).
Level of education
Location of the family
Citizenship/ foreign countries
How was the culture of serial expats measured and compared
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
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. Some places are traditional targets for immigration.
Cities with the highest percentage of foreign born:
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.”
But it also raises questions: Who am I, in addition to, or in spite of, these difference?
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
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.
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”.
Serial expats are able to cope with these types of stresses better. The higher the number of changes an expatriate faces in their path then the greater their flexibility and competence for uncertainty becomes.
A minimum number of 98 participants was required to build up a culture of serial expats within a 10% margin of error (confidence level 95%, normal distribution, large population). With 689 participants that requirement was met.
The WVS conducted its research country by country (some with regional differences). The comparison is therefore made on a country base. A minimum number of 43 participants per country was required to conduct a comparison within a 15% margin of error (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 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 need to be treated with care and further research should be conducted to get conclusive figures.
Examples of answer patterns:
Pride countryman/ 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 (see above). An offer to work in such location will be attractive to the majority of them.
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.
The quality of the results improves the more participants contribute. In case you qualify as a serial expat and haven’t participated in the survey yet, please follow this link: Serial Expat Culture
The next countries to reach the minimum of 43 valid data entries would be France, India, Australia, Netherlands and Canada.
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!!