How much otherness can we take?

Many of us get a clearer sense of self when we live abroad, or when we travel regularly and dive into different cultures. But how much otherness can we take?

The concept of  ‘othernessis central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed.

In one society, the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power. In order to understand the notion of The Other, sociologists first seek to put a critical spotlight on the ways in which social identities are constructed. Identities are often thought as being natural or innate – something that we are born with – but sociologists highlight that this taken-for-granted view is not true. (Dr. Zuleyka Zevallo)

I don’t mean the “otherness” as in gender, race, sexuality or religion, I intend the otherness in terms of other culture with its values, beliefs, rules, language etc.

According the article Living abroad tied to Clearer Sense of Self a study reveals that living abroad can help clarify one’s sense of self. According to the findings, living in other parts of the world encourages us to reflect on the various cultural values and norms that we encounter both at home and in the host cultures.

  • What values define us personally?
  • Which values simply reflect our cultural upbringing?

This becomes particularly interesting for those who lived abroad a long time. I might say that it has a greater impact on those who live in one place for longer than 4-5 years, i.e. not expats who move every few years or global nomads, TCA’s etc. but for immigrants, refugees, or expats-turned-locals.

 

Transitional experiences

We experience stages of transition not only when we move from one place to the other, but also when we experience divorce, change or lose a job, friends, family members, change schools or social groups. Our whole life is made of changes from the beginning. Some come more naturally and we barely notice them, others are more incisive and “leave marks” or scars.

Fact is that these kind of experiences typically decrease our self-concept clarity

The above mentioned study looks at the possibility that “living abroad is a rare kind of transitional experience that actually increases self-concept clarity”.

 

“In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people,” the authors wrote.

It seems that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity. Like Herman von Keyserling, a German philosopher, wrote in the epigraph to his book The Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919): ‘The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.’ (Der kürzeste Weg zu sich selbst führt um die Welt herum).

Research shows, almost 100 years later, that he was right. The study “involved 1,874 participants who were recruited from online panels as well as from U.S. and international MBA programs. The participants, including those who have and have not lived abroad, completed surveys.”

The approach in this study distinguishes between the depth (= the length of time lived abroad) and the breadth (= the number of foreign countries lived in) of international experiences, and finds that depth is more important than breadth when it comes to enhance the clear sense of self.

I personally am not surprised. In my life-long observation of internationals and intense work with internationals in the past 5 years, confirms this study.

 

I appreciate the wealth of experience shared by global nomads and those who re-build homes around the world every 2-4 years (have a look at www.figt.org for example), but I observe that the more in-depth experience comes from those who live-like-locals, those who embrace the otherness to a much wider extent. They live and work like locals, they join local organizations, clubs, they become fluent in the local language etc. They are integrated into the host society: while maintaining their personal and cultural values, they embrace and adapt the local ones to a certain extent.

 

The longer we live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections we accumulate.

We develop a better understanding of ourselves and show increased clarity about our own values, beliefs etc. but also our career decision-making.

This study clearly shows what many international companies should be aware of and consider when planning assignments for their employees: extended periods of time spent in a foreign country can yield a myriad of benefits, including

  • greater life satisfaction
  • decreased stress
  • improved job performance
  • enhanced clarity regarding a fulfilling career

 

And I would like to add the increased benefit for the whole family! Not only will children and teenagers get the chance to build better connections, have more meaningful and in-depth relationships, but accompanying partners will be more prone to build deeper relationships too, they will be more willing to not keep their career on hold – or even give up on finding one! 

 

I have seen hundreds of accompanying partners try to building a portable career within two-three years of an assignment abroad.

Many did, but most of them either changed after a year or two when they tried to start a local business, or built an online career as career or life coaches, counsellors, opting for the online variant of finding their clients and “tribe”. – I am one of the latter ones, but as I’m a long-term-international and consciously opted for staying longer in one place, I offer my services to locals too, and in the local language. 

I’m very glad that my own observation of internationals living different kinds of mobile life – short vs long stays, in depth or less in depth experiences with the local culture etc. – is confirmed by the researchers of this study.

Having a clearer sense of self is increasingly important with the unprecedented range of available career options, like the authors of the article and research say.

 

I know that some people thrive in a mobile life, in the first years they are full of excitement and wanderlust. 

But usually, when children are added to the picture or some challenges – issues among the partners, health problems, extended family in need… – they tend to “slow down” and focus on what helps them or their families get a clearer sense of self.

I see that many families who keep on moving intensively, leaving children behind in boarding schools or sending them to extended family, have a higher probability to struggle at some point with anxiety and difficulties of finding the clearer sense of self like mentioned in this study.

 

Therefore my questions are:

  • How much otherness can we take? 
  • How much otherness can the others in our family take…?
  • When do we know that it is enough?
  • What do we need in order to keep on going/moving/changing?
  • Do we associate longer stays with “loosing the mojo” or with “getting the chance to have more in-depth” experiences?

 

As every member of the family experiences otherness in different ways – even twins – I recommend to focus more on the depth of the experiences, than on their breadth.

– Once again, less is more

– I would love to know your thoughts on this and continue this conversation !

 

(The research mentioned here above was conducted by a team of social scientists from Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina. Their paper is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes)

 

You may want to read:

Living Abroad Tied to Clearer Sense of Self

Study: Living abroad leads to a clearer sense of self

More information: Hajo Adam et al. The shortest path to oneself leads around the world: Living abroad increases self-concept clarity, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.01.002 

Journal reference: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes  

6 Comments

  1. Excellent Article. Well written and argued.

    I completely agree on the fact that one’s identity is moulded by the culture in which one is immersed and if one stays long enough in another culture one does change somewhat, absorbing some of the local culture. Having changed country within Europe 3 times, all with long stays, I think of myself as a European more than anything else. Not to speak of my son, who feels very much the same, if not more so.

    • Thank you, Laura, I am very glad that you like this article! Yes, we are Europeans and we can be proud of this. We are constantly changing and adapting but we both love to research, to “dig deeper”, and we love to see things from different perspectives.

  2. Both duration and breadth are important. The longer you stay and spend time with the locals, the more you know about the culture,e.g, does anyone know that Chinese girls would never say that they like vinegar, even if they do, as it is not looked upon as decent in their culture! I got to know from my Chinese friend. Language is very important,even if you are not fluent but can communicate somehow, the locals will embrace you more! Shorter stay is not very good to understand the culture and before one can immerse into it, has to come out and move on! I’ve learnt many things from 🇨🇳 and less from holland as the duration were varied.

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  4. I strongly agree with your arguments, having experienced living and working in a variety of countries around the globe over the past 15 years. For me the key difference in living like a local is experiencing the daily grind of waiting in a queue at the bank, visiting all the local utility offices to pay the monthly bills, having car repairs done by a local mechanic and learning to be patient when the electricity and/or water go off for extended periods of time. I always tell anyone who’s interested in living abroad that its the best gift (of education) one can give to themselves. Thanks also for the link to the survey!

    • Thank you, Henry, for your very important comment! I know that many expats delegate these daily experiences with the local culture to their spouses/partners or others, and miss out on this experience. Some spouses/partners struggle with finding out how to function in the new place and could need some more help, not in the sense of others taking care of it but with being trained and know how things work in that new place. I would also say that our children who grow up abroad should have the same experience, otherwise, if they ever come back to one of the places they lived before without knowing these things, they will feel even more frustrated and alienated.
      I like your examples: when we are in need we discover how resilient we are, how adaptable to the other culture and I always can tell if someone has the right mindset. If one gets upset by the slightest difficulty, it’s probably better to reach out for a good cultural trainer…
      You have lived abroad for 15 years, may I ask in what countries? And, excuse my curiosity, did you repatriate or are you still working abroad?

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