Impact of a local host on the intercultural competence of expats

Intercultural competence is an essential asset for those who live abroad or who work with people from different cultural backgrounds. For this reason, I also examined in my PhD research whether contact with a local host had an impact on the intercultural competence of expats (1). This is my second blog post about the academic articles that have appeared about my PhD research In Touch with the Dutch (the first one was about the impact of a local host on adjustment and performance).

A local host
Thirty-three expats were put in touch with a local host for a period of nine months. During this time they did all kinds of activities together, ranging from dinner or drinks to visits to the city of Gouda or the Keukenhof.Keukenhof They were compared to a group of thirty-two expats who did not have a local host. Their partners also participated in the research, but unfortunately their numbers were too small to offer many insights into the effect of a local host on partners. Assignment to the experimental and control condition was random so that the effects found would be due to the contact with the local host, and not to other factors. We examined the effect of a local host on four main concepts: adjustment, performance, intercultural competence and social support. In this post I focus on intercultural competence.

Intercultural competence
There has been much discussion about the concept of intercultural competence and similar concepts such as intercultural communication competence, cross-cultural competence and cultural intelligence. Many of these theories are similar with regard to including three components (knowledge, attitude and skills), and context and outcomes. In our study we used the following definition of intercultural competence: “the knowledge, motivation [attitude], and skills to interact effectively and appropriately with members of different cultures” (2).

Measuring intercultural competence
The many approaches to intercultural competence have also resulted in a multitude of instruments to measure the concept. We have chosen to use the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (MPQ), which aims to measure multicultural effectiveness, one of the criteria of intercultural competence (3). The MPQ consists of five dimensions: Open-mindedness, Cultural Empathy, Social Initiative, Emotional Stability, and Flexibility, which reflect the attitude and skills components of intercultural competence. In our paper we summarize some of this discussion and explain the reasons behind choosing the MPQ over other instruments.

Impact on Open-mindedness and Social Initiative
Our study showed that a local host had an impact on Open-mindedness (an open an unprejudiced attitude towards out group members and towards different cultural norms and values) and Social Initiative (the ability to establish and maintain contacts and to take initiatives) (3). In general, contact with a localSymbool (zwart) host buffered a decrease on both Open-mindedness and Social Initiative: expats decreased in Open-mindedness and Social Initiative except if they were put in touch with a local host. These results are striking because we did not expect the general tendency for expats to decrease on these variables.

Too optimistic expectations
A possible explanation is that the expats came to the Netherlands with an open mind, ready to establish a life there and make contact with the Dutch, and then found the reality more difficult than expected. The Expat Explorer Survey (4) indeed showed the Netherlands to be a very difficult country in which to make local friends, according to the expats themselves. Their expectations might have been too optimistic, which may have resulted in a decrease in Open-mindedness and Social Initiative. A local host might help here:

But if you have that family contact, a normal family, whether it is a guy with his girlfriend or just a guy who takes you to meet his parents 1 day for a weekend, you go bowling or whatever, where you see normal Dutch people interacting, I think you get a different perspective of their cultures, not to see the negatives that you see here by yourself.

The key to appreciating the host culture
Our study showed that contact with a local host counteracts a tendency of expatriates to decrease in Open-mindedness and Social Initiative, encouraging them to keep an open mind and take social initiatives in the Netherlands. As a result, it is a viable way for organizations to support their expatriates. Frequent interaction with locals might be “the key to appreciating the culture of the host country and, in turn, open the door to long-term adjustment of both the expatriates and their family” (5).

Sources

  1. Van Bakel, M. S., Gerritsen, M., & Van Oudenhoven, J.P.L.M. (2014). “Impact of a local host on the intercultural competence of expatriates.” International Journal of Human Resource Management 25(14): 2050-2067.
  2. Wiseman, R. (2002). Intercultural communication competence. Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication. W. Gudykunst and B. Mody. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications: p. 208
  3. Van der Zee, K. I. and J. P. Van Oudenhoven (2000). “The Multicultural Personality Questionnaire: A multidimensional Instrument of multicultural effectiveness.” European Journal of Personality 14: 291-309.
  4. HSBC (2010). Expat Explorer Survey 2010. Report two: Expat Experience. (www.expatexplorer.hsbc.com)
  5. McEvoy, G. and B. Parker (1995). Expatriate adjustment: Causes and consequences. In: Selmer, J. Expatriate management: New ideas for international business. Westport, Quorum Books: 97-114.

Photo and symbol by the author

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About Marian van Bakel

I graduated in International Business Communication at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. After my studies I was a Visiting Study Fellow at University of Oxford where I conducted a research on the adjustment of Dutch diplomats and their partners in London. In February 2012 I successfully defended my PhD thesis ‘In Touch with the Dutch’, in which I put expatriates in touch with a Dutch host to examine the effect of this contact on the success of the international assignment. During my PhD research I also worked as in house communication consultant at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I am currently a postdoc at the Department of Leadership and Corporate Strategy at the University of Southern Denmark (www.sdu.dk/en). Since 2004 I have done extensive voluntary work in the intercultural field for the Young Society of Intercultural Education, Training and Research (Young SIETAR). One of my projects was to co-edit and co-author A Suitcase Full of Discoveries (2008), an intercultural storybook for children.
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