The Evolution of an Expatriate
This is my site Written by Thomas Tøth on October 2, 2012 – 12:20 PM

Expatriating employees is expensive and many firms experience that expatriations are unsuccessful both from a business perspective and from a personal perspective, where expatriates experience culture shocks and never adjusts to the host country culture.

Based on my own experiences I have discussed how to avoid expatriation failures in another blog post.

In this post we will have a closer look at the dynamics and evolution of an expatriate’s life; and what organizations can do to proactively increase chances of successful expatriatriation according to the research of Professor Jon M. Shapiro and his colleagues.

Professor Jon M. Shapiro from Northeastern State University in Boston, Massachusetts has done extensive research on cross-cultural relationship development. Through his research he has developed a four-stage model of how an expatriate act and react when meeting a new culture. This ‘evolution of an expatriate’ (my labeling – not sure if Shapiro would approve of it) resembles the team dynamics we know from models such as Tuckman’s stages of group development.

I believe that Shapiro’s four stages informs the life cycle of expatriation very well. I will explain the essentials below:

The romantic sojourner

The first stage that all expatriates reaches is the romantic sojourner, where the expatriate basically act like an ordinary tourist. This stage is characterized by fascination of the new culture, where people usually “fall in love” with the place and experiences the new and exotic culture as an escape from the all too well-known mundane daily life.

Shapiro states that “the romantic sojourner acts as a typical tourist enveloped in an idealized vision of the local culture” (p. 74).

When the romantic sojourner faces unfamiliar cultures she will develop declarative and procedural knowledge to better be able to cope with the strangeness of this culture. These two types of knowledge are based on the expatriates’ own cultural background. That is, she will try to make sense of the strangeness of the new culture by applying reasoning that works within the boundaries of her own culture. Declarative knowledge refers to generalized facts about the culture, whereas procedural knowledge are rules of thumb on how to act in specific situations.

Over time knowledge based on the expatriate’s own cultural background – etic knowledge – is challenged and the romantic sojourner will start developing knowledge based on learnings from the host country – emic knowledge; and “tension between etic and emic perspectives emerges during the romantic sojourner stage” (p. 75) when the expatriate’s involvement in the the host culture moves from a superficial level to a deeper level where she encounters the difficulties of business relations as well as establishment of social relations.

The foreign worker

The tension between the competing etic and emic perspectives signals the move from being a romantic sojourner towards becoming what Shapiro calls ‘the foreign worker’. “Unlike the romantic sojourner, who has a naïve and emotional view of the host culture, the foreign worker develops a more realistic and cognitive understanding of the local culture. (p. 77).

The foreign worker will so to speak enact his cultural knowledge in three ways:

  • Mimicry
  • Control of unacceptable behavior
  • Role-playing

The first, mimicry, has to do with copying both verbal and non-verbal cues from the locals. The second, control of unacceptable behavior, has to do with understanding – and acting in accordance – how to behave; i.e. what is considered good manners, what is rude et cetera. The third, role-playing, is explained by Shapiro as follows: “Foreign workers learn to engage in authentic social behaviors as they enter the world of ‘‘performers’’ who strive to manage impressions through desirable self-presentation. […] It is neither trickery nor deception, but rather an organized and clever attempt to put host culture members at ease” (p. 77); or in other words: “acting, performing, and pretending are all essential parts of role-playing. Just as in a theatrical performance” (p. 78).

It is also in this phase that the expatriate experiences a culture shock because of the” stressful struggle to learn quickly about the strange environment coupled with feelings of frustration” (p. 79). The expatriate experience to be disoriented; is struggling to make sense of the different value systems she experiences; and lack of control.

Unfortunately many expatriates never manages to gain control over the culture shock and thus risks becoming disillusioned  and generally unsatisfied with the life in the host country.  In other words: In order to be able to cope with the culture shock the expatriate need to learn to mimic the locals and engage in role-playing which may seem discomforting to some. However, overcoming the culture shock is rewarding:

“After I was in business awhile, I learned how to communicate better. Not just the stuff from the books you know, not just what to say, but how to act and see. Now I can see what people are thinking; I can read people. When I look at someone’s expression or movement, I know when to make my move” (p. 78)

The skilled worker

“The foreign workers who persevere become skilled workers who develop a deeper understanding of the local culture and engage in deeper contact with business associates. For the skilled worker, their relationship with the host culture evolves into a ‘diplomacy game’ aimed at preserving relationships with host country members. Skilled workers become ‘cautious politicians’’’ (p. 80).

The main difference between the foreign worker and the skilled worker is that the skilled worker is no longer struggeling to act in accordance with local culture. What earlier was characterized by role-playing is now an intimate part of the expatriates attitude and behavior. And the elaborate understanding of differences will help to increase tolerance.

The skilled worker is typically able to nurture a few successful relationships. These relationships are usually business-bounded but are also expaning into interpersonal relationships.

However, most important is that the skilled worker has developed a significantly greater self-efficacy. Thus, the skilled worker has a more realistic understanding of how she is perceived by the locals and how well her newly developed cross-cultural skills helps her complete tasks and reach goals.

The partner

“For a few workers, this long and challenging journey yields the partner stage. At this stage, workers possess the highest cultural sensitivity and a negotiated business culture based on relational trust” (p. 81).

The partner is characterized by developing situated knowledge that enables her to understand even deeper layers of for instance gender differences; ; variance in professional cultures such as organizational cultures; as well as other more subtle cultural characteristics.

In other words: The situated knowledge is a more refined kind of cultural sensitivity that enables the partner to make sense of sub-cultures that are typically invisible to expatriates at an earlier stage in the “cultural evolution”.


Consequently, the partner may very well be characterized as “an insider” as opposed to the skilled worker who “cannot bridge the cultural differences. No matter how deeply they plunge into the culture[…] they will always be ‘outsiders’” (p. 81).

… and why is all this relevant to organizations?

I started out this post claiming that expatriation quite often ends up in personal agony where the expatriate experience culture shocks and never succeeds in adjusting to the culture in the host country. These failures does not only have personal consequences, but are also quite expensive as the full potential of expatriation is not reached.

By understanding the evolution of the expatriate organizations can proactively address some of the issues. In my blog post ‘How to avoid expatriation failures?’ I have listed some general bullets on what organizations should focus on, namely selecting the right people; preparing them well; making sure they are received well; assigning a local culture-buddy; and lastly listening and learning from their experiences.

In Shapiro’s article focus is primarily on preparing for expatriation. I will leave the last words to Shapiro, who underlines that:

“Reliance on the number of years of international business experience is not necessarily a good surrogate for cultural sensitivity. Instead, training and selection based on skills in monitoring and adaptation – such as mimicry, control, and role-playing – may be more important.

Moreover, training programs need to incorporate the range of knowledge that exists for host countries including declarative, procedural, situated procedural, and culturally reflexive knowledge. Given the scarcity of people who reach the partner stage, firms should prize individuals who either are at this stage or show promise in reaching it”. (p. 85)


See also: How to avoid expatriation failures?

Shapiro’s Article:

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