Living Like A Local: When Expatriates Adjust to Local Culture – And When They Don’t

on March 4 | in Global Business, Human Resources, Operations, Strategy | by | with No Comments

Location, location, location. As the old adage says, location is everything. With business globalizing at a rapid rate, companies are conducting business in more and more locations. While technology allows  much work remotely, there is still a rise in expatriation. It is not unusual for employees to settle in multiple international locations over the course of their careers.

Many of these internationally-minded professionals may consider themselves to have “cosmopolitan” identities – maintaining that they are “citizens of the world.”  And while their cosmopolitan identity may reflect the types of urban, globalized places they’ve lived in, that identity doesn’t necessarily mean they will more readily adjust as expatriates in a new environment.

According to research conducted by Professor Luc Wathieu and a colleague, cosmopolitan people often adjust less than their non-cosmopolitan counterparts to elements of the local lifestyle.

The adjustment pattern for cosmopolitan people is actually associated with the duration of sojourn.  Why would duration matter? It all has to do with determinants of well-being.  Wathieu says that non-cosmopolitans derive well-being from the status quo. They adjust more for a long duration because the length of sojourn makes the effort worthwhile. Cosmopolitans seek a global lifestyle but view well-being as enhanced by short-term discovery and experimentation. Therefore, they would adjust more during a short stay than during a longer one.

“The idea for this came from my own personal observations,” explains Wathieu.  “I’m a cosmopolitan person and have lived many places, but always for long periods of time. My cousin is similar to me, but when he visited, he always knew so much more about the area – the best bar, the most popular restaurant for local, traditional food. I never knew any of these. I attributed this to the fact that I knew I was there for a long haul. To discover these would be nice but not necessary for my lifestyle.”

Wathieu’s research provides great insight for executives into how expatriate employees behave, and suggests implications for what services, tools, and resources should be available to them. Does this mean cities should strive to supply more global-style services? It depends on how transient the population is. “For a city like Paris, where there are a lot of tourists, then of course you should stay as local and true to that identity as possible,” states Wathieu. “But if a city is looking to attract international companies with expatriate employees, then they may want to consider accommodating a more global lifestyle.”

Luc Wathieu is Professor of Marketing and Deputy Dean at the McDonough School of Business. His research combines economics and psychology to understand consumer empowerment and the adoption of new technologies.

Grinstein, A., & Wathieu, L. (2012). Happily (mal)adjusted: Cosmopolitan identity and expatriate adjustment. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 29, 337-345.

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