How to better cope with the absence or scarcity of social connections when arriving in a new country? Marian van Bakel studied this issue for several years and I’ve asked her what she found out and what she would advise for new expats to cope better with their new situation.
Her detailed results have been published this year in her PhD thesis, “In Touch with the Dutch: A Longitudinal Study of the Impact of a Local Host on the Success of the Expatriate Assignment” (Radboud University Nijmegen and University of Groningen).
CT: Where does your interest for expat communities come from?
MvB: When I was studying Business Communication at Radboud University Nijmegen, I found the intercultural communication courses the most interesting part. When I was then looking for a topic for my MA thesis, expats seemed a very interesting one. And I’m still not tired of it!
CT: What are the most important findings resulting from your PhD work?
MvB: Putting expats in touch with a local host is a good way for organisations to help their expats prick the ‘expatriate bubble’, because it is not always easy for expats to meet the locals, especially in the Netherlands (Expat Explorer Survey, 2010). A local host helps expats communicate more easily with locals and learn about the host country.
Another important finding is that expats received social support from locals. Social support is a crucial resource when coping with the stress of an international assignment, yet in a new country it is largely absent, as expats leave their social network behind when moving to another country.
This study showed that a local host could fill at least part of this gap. Contact with a local host also made sure that expats remained open minded and proactive with regard to social initiatives, compared to those who do not have a host.
The quality of the contact was important: expats with a strong bond with their host benefited more from having a host than those whose bond was less strong – though even this bond was better than having no host at all.
All in all, this goes to show that arranging a local host is a low-risk HRM intervention.
CT: You have not interviewed a lot of participants. Why? And how did you select them?
MvB: The main part of my research was a longitudinal experiment in which 33 expats with a host were compared to 32 expats without a host. When comparing groups the way I did, it is generally said that each group needs to consist of at least 30 participants to be able to compare them and draw conclusions. As participating in a nine month project in which you had to establish contact with a local host and fill out three questionnaires was asking a lot of participants, and not every expat in the Netherlands could participate (see further), it was not so easy to find participants. I would have loved to have had many more participants, but this was just not feasible.
CT: Did some of your results surprise you… and which ones?
MvB: A first finding that came as a surprise was that expats in general tended to decrease on open mindedness (except if they were put in touch with a host), whereas I had expected that those who enjoyed a host would become more open minded. Even though expats might come to the Netherlands with an open mind, ready to establish a life here and make contact with the Dutch, those without a host find the reality of life in a new country more difficult than expected. Contact with a local host can counteract this, helping them to see the Dutch differently.
Another surprising finding pertained to the quality of the contact between expats and hosts, because about two thirds of the matches established a strong bond without a very elaborate matching process and without intensive monitoring. Hosts usually had travelled intensively or even lived abroad themselves, which helped because it provided important common ground to base the relationship on.
Interestingly, some of the friendships lasted for years after the project finished, in some cases even after the expat had moved again.
CT: What were your most difficult moments during this research?
MvB: The most difficult moments were certainly when I was looking for participants for my research, because it was not easy to find ways to contact them. I also had to impose some restrictions on who could participate – for example, a local host was not deemed very relevant for those who had already lived in the Netherlands for more than a year or who had a Dutch partner – which made it more difficult to find enough participants.
Happily I discovered that fairs such as Feel at Home in the Netherlands in The Hague and I am not a Tourist in Amsterdam were a great way to talk to expats and explain the research. That made it much easier to find enough participants.
CT: Based on your observations, and also based on what you’ve learned from other researchers during your studies, what would you recommend to an expat arriving in a new country?
MvB: First of all, expats and their partners should realise that the move abroad causes a significant change in their social environment for which it is important to prepare. Think about what is important for you with regard to your social life in the new country so that you can work on creating a social network that matches your needs.
Although it can be very helpful to be in touch with fellow expatriates, try also to get out of this ‘expat bubble’ and get in touch with locals. They can teach you about the host culture and also provide social support.
When reaching out to them, it is important to remember that locals have their established network of friends and family and are not necessarily waiting for an addition to their social network. That is not to say they would not appreciate the contact, but it is the expat who needs to make the most effort – at least at the beginning of the contact.
Take initiative and persevere!
CT: What will you do next in your career? Will you continue to study expat issues?
MvB: I continue to be interested in the expat experience, especially everything surrounding establishing a new life in a new country. One of the topics I would like to explore next are cross-cultural differences in making friends. The Expat Explorer Survey lists the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Switzerland and Belgium as the five countries in which it is most difficult for expats to make local friends and I wonder whether part of this difficulty lies in simply not knowing the right way to make friends. For example, many expatriates in the Netherlands expect to be invited for drinks or dinner by their colleagues; however, this is not usual in Dutch culture where there is a fairly strict boundary between work and private life. I think it would be very helpful if we could give expats recommendations with regard to how to establish a new social network in their destination country.
CT: THANK YOU!
Marian’s PhD reference and summaries can be found, including contact details: http://www.ru.nl/cvp/onderzoek/bakel_van_marian/