Recently I started wondering whether there are some common personality traits that would define an expat or would allow us to predict the possibility of different people going abroad.
I don’t know the definite answer to this nor I have done any quantitative research about it, but I have been observing myself and my fellow expats and have come to a couple of conclusions. I feel that the below however is more relevant to expats who wanted to relocate themselves and not necessarily partners or families that followed someone abroad without the genuine urge to do it.
Let me know if you feel like this might have a potential for further research (actual academic one rather than just an idea in my head :)).
Personality – how to define it?
In psychology there are various theories defining what personality is, what it isn’t, what it involves, how it is formed over years etc. A lot of them were created long way back or evolved with time. It’s simply impossible to just pick one that is an absolute truth. The absolute truth in this case does not exist as personality is not a material structure that you can touch, see or examine. One of the theories however quickly came to my mind when I started thinking about expat personalities (you know I like theories as a basis of all of my considerations!) – Murray’s system of needs. Murray described personality in terms of various needs that people may have. What I especially like in this approach is that it assumes that the needs may evolve with time, their importance may fluctuate as you grow. Therefore what makes you who you are is the combination of primary needs that lead most of your behaviours and choices in life.
So, what are the needs that may be common for people who choose to try living away from home and from what they find familiar?
Need for sentience and adventure
I find that most of us who decided to go abroad have a need for certain stimuli and experiencing the world with all your senses. Whether it’s going to a completely new country where you don’t know the language or culture or signing up for a work project abroad, you want to see new places, experience new things, eat new food, get to know new people. You have the need for change and adventure. Not everyone likes that. What’s even more, as an expat you might think that you do like it but still struggle to adjust for the first couple of weeks or months (and enjoy the process overall). What seems to be a common theme is the will to win the boredom, to keep changing something in your life and keep challenging yourself.
Need for achievement and personal development
On the topic of challenges, I think that for expats they are perceived as personal growth, and hence they are so desired. Even though we know that something will likely be difficult or frustrating experience we also know that it is going to help us grow as a person. And it doesn’t matter if we go abroad to study, to work, for a short term project or with a thought of just making money. All of those reasons are very typical for people who relocate, but for some reason we do decide to go all the way abroad and not just to a different area of our city/country, we do take on this tough adjustment challenge.
Very often we go abroad for better education or job prospects, we know that there will be obstacles, but we care to succeed (each person would define success in a different way) and accomplish what we came here for. We seem to be ambitious little fellas!
I wonder what do you consider to be your best personal development experience abroad so far?
I will be the first to answer this question and I’m curious to hear your thoughts as well! For me it’s not anything material for the time being. At the moment the best development for me was to see that the world is open to everyone and that the picture of certain cultures that we might have in our heads are very often a reflection of our own experiences (regardless of whether we have formal knowledge about them or not; our emotions still play the role here and the fears that we might have stop us from arriving in the country with an open mind). I appreciate the fact that I started meeting people with perspectives so different from my own and they keep challenging my views. This is stunning to actually experience how different opinions on a given topic might be, depending on where you’ve grown up. These topics might range from the bureaucracy around finding work or apartment all the way to what toys you had when you were a kid. Theoretically I knew that these differences in perception exist and that I will be influenced by my past experiences, seems obvious. But I was shocked to see that despite of this knowledge I caught myself taking some things for granted as if my ‘normal’ was the only reference that existed in the world. The biggest mistake you can make when moving abroad, by the way.
My development was to enrich the theory with practice and add in some real emotions to the equation. It was to realize how deeply the values and a certain definition of ‘normal’ is ingrained in me and gain more self-awareness to start working on broadening my perspective.
Need for cognizance
Most of the expats I’ve met show a great deal of urge to learn, know more, understand the surrounding world and gather information. In other words, they are curious people. They are curious to learn about others, various parts of the world, different ways of living, working and thinking. However, depending on a person learning about the world might involve either expanding the knowledge about the architecture of the host country or the job market within the aviation industry or getting to know as many people as possible or getting to know the local arts and theatres or something completely different than this. The bottom line is that every one of us has different interests, but it seems that we share the high-level need for learning.
What are other needs that you would add to this list? What traits do you see in common for yourself and other expats? Do you think that a ‘typical’ expat personality profile exists at all?