Developing a high quality intercultural relationship: expatriates and their local host

In my Ph.D. thesis In Touch with the Dutch I looked In Touch with the Dutchat the impact of a local host on the success of the expatriate assignment. My first research question focused on the impact of a local host on adjustment, performance, intercultural competence and social support. Secondly, I examined the impact of the quality of the contact between expats and local hosts – are those with higher quality contact better off? Thirdly, I focused on how high quality contact between participants was created. That is the topic of this blog post*.

Importance of contact quality
The quality of the contact with the local host was important for the benefits that the expats got out of the contact: the higher the quality of the contact, the more benefits were derived. Happily, about two third of the expats developed high quality contact with their host; they rated the contact a 7 or higher on a scale of 1-10. But why did certain participants hit it off, and others didn’t? What caused these expats to really enjoy the contact with their host?

What helped the development of the contact?
I found nine factors that influenced the development of the contact:

  1. Similarities: Do participants have something in common on which they can base the relationship? In this study, we matched participants based on similarities in age, location and family situation.
  2. Motivation: To what extent are the participants motivated to make the contact work? Are they willing to make an effort to meet even if it is difficult to find a time, or if they do not live very close to each other?
  3. Benefits: Do the expats benefit from the contact? Various benefits were found in terms of help with adjustment, offers of social support and other benefits such as enriching contact or a different perspective.
  4. Anxiety: To what extent are participants anxious about the first meeting or their language skills? This could hinder the development of the contact.
  5. Expectations: Do participants have similar expectations about the contact, for example about who should take the initiative? In quite a few cases the initiative lay more with the local host, who found this regrettable. This can slow down the development of the contact.
  6. Busy schedules: How busy are the Scheduleparticipants? Both expats and hosts lead busy lives, which doesn’t always make it easier to make appointments.
  7. Suboptimal timing: Is the contact with the local host established at the right time for the expat? The expats had been in the Netherlands only for maximum one year when they joined the project, yet two of them expressed that they would have preferred the contact to take place earlier than only after 7 or 8 months because they felt they did not need as much anymore.
  8. Communication breakdown: Is there any communication breakdown between participants, either on a technical or a personal level? Sometimes e-mails do not arrive, or life events (e.g. birth of a baby) occur which can disrupt the contact.
  9. Cultural differences: In some cases, cultural differences hindered the development of the contact. One example was a different tradition with regard to who takes the initiative to contact the other after the birth of a baby. This disrupted the contact in one case because both parties were waiting for the other to take the first step.

Key factors
From looking at the cases with the four highest and Thermometer (Acid Pix)the four lowest contact quality it became clear that three factors were more important than others: similarities, motivation and benefits. These are important factors because they help overcome some of the barriers. If there is a ‘click’, people really want to make an effort, and they get something out of the contact, it does not matter as much that there may be an age difference or that they do not live very close to each other.

Putting expats in touch with a local host can be a good way to support expats during their international assignment. The nine factors mentioned above shed light on how you can stimulate the quality of the contact between expats and their local host. This is important because the higher the quality of the contact, the more benefits for the expats.

* This blog post is a summary of the third academic article that has appeared about my PhD thesis, in March 2015 in the Journal of Global Mobility.

References

Van Bakel, M.S., Van Oudenhoven, J.P. & Gerritsen, M. (2015). Developing a high quality intercultural relationship: expatriates and their local host. Journal of Global Mobility, 3(1), pp. 25-45 (see Publications to read the article (post-print)).

Photo of the schedule by Photosteve101 and of the thermometer by Acid Pix, both via Flickr.

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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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