What comes to mind when we think of ourselves? Self-concept and identity, right? We all understand who we are. Yet, that is not something we decide while looking at ourselves in the mirror, rather it is something we negotiate every day, through interacting with the people around us. Our family, friends, co-workers and the very culture we live in confirm or validate who we are. We belong to social groups and we ‘play’ certain roles in society, whether it’s teacher, parent, daughter, son or member of a club. All this takes place in a dynamic process of social validation that is crucial for psychological wellbeing.
When we move to a foreign country, it disrupts that familiar environment and can lead us to question our social validation, which brings us to the core objective of my research: what are the implications of living and working abroad in a new cultural setting for self-concept and identity?
Living and working abroad is what expatriates do. They not only experience reduced contact with their social networks in the home country, but also have diminished access to their customary sources of social validation. At the same time, they need to adjust to a novel sociocultural environment in which they often encounter new cultural values and new ways of doing things at work, school, and in community life.
Spanish nurses in Germany: identity challenges
For my PhD research, I interviewed 30 Spanish self-initiated expatriate nurses who relocated to Germany to work. The aim was to explore how the experience of expatriation affected their self-concept and identity.
What I found is that their low proficiency in the German language was the major source of identity challenges. The Spanish nurses received insufficient training in the host country language, which made workplace interactions difficult during the initial few months. They failed to understand simple nuances and instructions and were unable to communicate effectively, which often led to negative feedback from co-workers. This challenged their self-concept and their professional identity as efficient nurses, since they feared that their language limitations could be mistaken for lack of competence, which it often did. In reality, Spanish nurses are valued for their high-level of university education. The language barrier, however, led them to view themselves negatively. Comments such as: “I felt small”; or “I felt stupid”, were common.
They coped by socialising almost exclusively with fellow Spanish nurses, who provided the necessary social validation to them. As one nurse commented, ”being with Spanish friends was like going to therapy”. I found that as the nurses’ proficiency in German improved, so did their workplace interactions and positive self-conceptions. Nevertheless, many still relied on their Spanish groups after six or seven years in Germany. An ‘us versus them’ inter-group dynamic was apparent when they pointed to cultural differences between the two countries, mostly related to qualities the Spanish took for granted such as spontaneity or social openness. The expatriate nurses frequently resorted to cultural stereotyping of German co-workers, depicting them as ‘cold’ or ‘square’.
My study indicates that expatriation can be challenging to self-concept and identity. Particularly when there are language barriers, our ability to express ourselves, maintain positive self-conceptions and fully enact valued identities can be diminished.
The findings have important implications for organisations employing self-initiated expatriates. Identity challenges can put a strain on intercultural workplace interactions, with potentially negative effects on job satisfaction and organisational commitment. Companies should ensure that expatriates receive adequate language training, so that these professionals can achieve their full potential. Moreover, intercultural training should be provided to multinational teams, in order to create a culturally inclusive environment, buffer the negative effects of cultural differences in workplace interactions, and avoid ‘us versus them’ dynamics.
Juan Miguel Rosa González is a PhD candidate at the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation.