Far Away From Home, Closer to Yourself

Research shows how living abroad can increase self-concept clarity.

Posted Jun 29, 2018

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What are you most looking forward to during your time abroad? I often ask new expats and exchange students during their first weeks in their new home. They tell me excitedly about the new friends they can’t wait to make, the new languages they’ll learn, the new cities and restaurants they’ll discover. Then, when time comes for goodbyes and return flights, I ask another question: What insights did you gain from your experience abroad?  This time, they turn inward, as they reflect on what they learned about themselves—the strengths and weaknesses they didn't know they had, the dreams and values they hold dear. A lot happens between those two questions. The new friendships and captured moments become the building blocks of their international experiences. But of no lesser value is often a discovery of a different kind—the discovery of their selves, of who they really are. After all, as writer Pico Iyer puts it, “we travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

Growing opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges in our ever-globalizing world have spurred a wealth of research on how these experiences affect various psychological processes. For instance, studies have shown that living abroad can reduce intergroup bias and stereotype endorsement, enhance well-being, foster creativity and personal development, increase self-confidence and self-efficacy. Recent research involving 1,874 participants from different countries has shed light on how time spent abroad can also lead to a clearer sense of self. 

The self-concept is a complex, multifaceted and malleable cognitive structure that is in part shaped by our experiences. For example, starting a family or a new career can result in temporary or long-lasting changes in one’s sense of self. Often, transitional experiences undermine the clarity of one’s self-concept—when our roles and identities change, our sense of who we are and what is important to us can undergo adjustments. As a transitional experience, living abroad can affect the sense of self in various ways. It can add new skills (e.g., bilingual) and attributes (e.g., resilient) to one’s self-concept, as well as enhance the clarity of the self. 

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Self-concept clarity refers to a clear definition and internal consistency of the contents of the individual’s self-concept—in other words, having a clear understanding of who and what one is. Among the positive consequences of self-concept clarity include feeling satisfaction in relationships and life in general, high job performance, as well as adaptive and resilient responses to stress. So what is it about living abroad that unlike other transitional experiences increases self-concept clarity? As Adam et al. (2018) suggest, it’s all in the self-discerning reflections that individuals often go through abroad. The new values and social norms of the host culture drive them to come face-to-face with their own values, traits and beliefs and examine to which extent they are a result of their cultural upbringing. People might begin reflecting on what is important to them, what convictions pilot their behaviors, and how they engage with their environment and the people around them. Occasions for such self-appraisals become abundant when we leave our native lands. When the surrounding context is no longer the one that has shaped our values and social norms, we begin to question how much of our culturally-shaped assumptions actually align with our core beliefs. Hence, through this process of reflection and evaluation we gain more clarity on what is important to us and, consequently, on our sense of self. 

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For instance, let’s say a Dutch person who values directness moves to Japan, where cultural norms foster indirect communication. Seasons pass, as the newcomer experiences first-hand a novel communication etiquette of reading between the lines, deciphering silence and discovering that how things are said (e.g., tone of voice, non-verbal cues) is as important as what is said. As a result, they might re-affirm their preference of communicating their messages directly, especially if they appreciate efficiency and would like to avoid ambiguity and misunderstandings. Or, they might realize that because being indirect lessens the chances of offending others, this newly acquired contextual and nuanced style of communication aligns more with their core values. Either way, the repeated self-discerning reflections and re-evaluations of their identity and to which degree their values and assumptions define them (as opposed to being a result of their cultural upbringing) may in turn lead to a better understanding of their sense of self.  

Interestingly, the study also showed that it's not the number of countries (breadth) that people have lived in that will increase self-concept clarity, but the length of time (depth) spent abroad. The authors suggest that this is because the more time people spend abroad, the more intimately they get acquainted with values that may be different to theirs. Consequently, they will have more opportunities to reflect about their own assumptions and beliefs that they usually take for granted, thus, leading to a clearer self-concept. 

Positive experiences abroad can do a lot for our repertoire of skills and abilities. The sheer adventure of leaping into a foreign life—bustling with its unfamiliar flavors and melodies—is a feat in itself. Yet, perhaps among the biggest rewards of triumphing over the whirlwind of physical and psychological adjustments, of venturing far from the solace of home, is the gift of arriving closer to ourselves. 


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