Living abroad: would you be able to integrate?

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Louise Hay

Living abroad: would you be able to integrate?

Could you adapt to living in a foreign country? We are about to tell you about a study that has identified the variables that play the most important role in these contexts.

Last update: 24 March, 2022

Today more than ever it seems that the world is getting smaller and smaller. Long distances are no longer a problem and every day we come into contact with people who come from other countries, from other cultures who seem ever closer and more accessible to us. There are many who decide to go and live abroad.

Some do it out of necessity, others out of necessity improve the quality of one's life, for study, for work and even for emotional reasons. What is certain is that taking a trip, getting to know the world, and moving to another place, integrating and adapting to the lifestyle of the same is not the same thing.

Psychology has also been interested in this adaptation to contexts other than its own. In the last decades, several studies have focused mainly on the stress caused by what we do not know and on the ability of each of us to deal with another culture, as well as on the connection of the latter with the creativity of individuals.

But until very recently the impact of social norms had not been explored of other cultures on the well-being of the people who seek to integrate into them. A team of researchers fromUniversity of Essex, headed by Nicolas Geeraert, released in March this year a report on the impact of social norms and personality traits that affect the integration of those who go to live abroad.

The rigidity of social norms

Even though we live in a globalized world in many ways, social norms still divide the world and, in many cases, they give the feeling of creating more distance. Furthermore, these are the factors that make the integration of a new resident more or less difficult.

This study explains, in a nutshell, that there are "difficult" countries due to the rigidity of their social norms and lack of tolerance towards deviation from these norms. On the other hand, there are more “flexible” countries, whose social norms are less rigid and which can count on a fairly high level of tolerance towards other customs.

For people born and raised in "difficult" countries or cultures, they will adapt better to live abroad. These people, in fact, have developed a very rigid perception of social norms and recognize and adapt to them very easily.

Regardless of being born in one country rather than another, what this study confirms is that cultural narrow-mindedness has a negative impact on the ease of adaptation to other cultures. Furthermore, the factors that significantly slow down this impact shift from wanting to be accepted to playing one's role, through cooperation with others, having no expectation of a different treatment and refusing the temptation to break the rules.

The experiment: living abroad

Geeraert's team worked with 889 volunteers who were participating in an international exchange program. They were high school students who had lived for 18 months with a host family in the destination country and who had attended the local school.

They were given questionnaires to measure the degree of socio-cultural adaptation, which refers to doing things the "right" way. Psychological adjustment was also assessed, i.e. whether they felt comfortable. And finally, the questionnaires measured the six personality traits: openness to experience, humility-honesty, kindness, emotionality, conscience and extroversion.

In all, 23 countries had sent and welcomed the students. Some of these countries were considered particularly "difficult". This is the case in India and Malaysia, Japan or China. On the other end of the line, more “flexible” countries were included, such as Brazil and Hungary, New Zealand and the United States.

The results of the study

After analyzing the collected data, the conclusions of Geeraert's team confirmed the expected results. Individuals who had traveled and lived in flexible countries were those with fewer problems of adapting to social norms. Especially those who came from countries that are difficult from a regulatory point of view, much more so than those who belonged to more flexible or informal cultures.

The integration in the foreign country was also greater for those who had behaved in a humble and friendly way. In conclusion, it seems that the two most important factors in elaborating the prediction of a greater or lesser level of adaptation to life abroad would be the type of personality and the distance (or proximity) between one's own cultural factors and those of the chosen destination.

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