Can You Adapt Successfully to Living in a New Country?

A new study identifies factors that may predict how well people adjust.

Posted Apr 04, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

In 2008, I lived in Fez—the spiritual heart of Morocco—while directing a study abroad program for American students. It was my fifth time in the country, et je parle un peu français (and I speak a little French), so I felt comfortable living and working there.

Soon after I arrived, a middle-aged Japanese couple moved into my apartment building. They had come to Fez to volunteer for one year at a clinic that provides services to disabled children. It was their first time in Morocco. They spoke just a bit of English and understood neither Arabic nor French.

I remember thinking to myself, "These nice people are going to be miserable. They won't be able to adjust. They'll either go home early or regret their decision to stay for a year."

Two months later, I had to humbly acknowledge that I had been completely wrong about the couple. They had adapted well to life in Morocco. Truth be told, I think they adapted better than I did.

When people make arrangements to study or work in a foreign country, is it possible to predict in advance which sojourners will adjust successfully to their new environment and which will not?

A sojourner is someone who lives and works in a foreign country for an extended period of time. Foreign exchange students, for example, are sojourners. Tourists are not.

Psychologists and others have studied sojourner adaptation for many years, beginning soon after the Peace Corps was established in 1961. Successful sojourning is usually defined as "adapting psychologically (feeling well) and socioculturally (doing well)" (Geeraert et al., 2019, p. 333).

Early studies often examined the impact of personality factors and cultural knowledge on one's ability to cope with culture shock, the stress of the unfamiliar. Until recently, however, researchers had not studied the impact of social norms on sojourners' well-being.

Anyone who has done much traveling knows that social norms play an important role in shaping a traveler's experience. It's not always easy to learn and adhere to local norms that govern behavior, especially public behavior.

Imagine a young woman who has grown up in southern California. She probably thinks nothing of walking down the street in a halter-top and shorts. But in some countries, the woman who walks down the street in a halter-top and shorts may be subjected to mildly punitive social sanctions. Her behavior has violated, even flouted, local norms.

In March 2019, psychologist Nicolas Geeraert at the University of Essex and his colleagues published a report in the journal Psychological Science. Their research examined the impact of social norms and personality traits on sojourner adaptation.

Geeraert and his colleagues hypothesized that sojourners will find it more difficult to adapt in host countries that have rigid norms. Such countries are said to be "tight." Tight countries have strong norms regarding appropriate behavior and little tolerance for people who deviate from the norms. Other countries are said to be "loose." They have weaker, more flexible norms and more tolerance for people who break the rules.

Geeraert's team also hypothesized that sojourners who have grown up in a tight culture will find it easier to adapt to life in a foreign country. Such persons are likely to possess a finely tuned normative radar. They can detect the existence and strength of local norms—and they monitor their own actions, modifying and adjusting them to local norms when necessary.

Finally, Geeraert's team hypothesized that the negative impact of cultural tightness will be felt less strongly by individuals who are agreeable (because they want to fit in and like to cooperate with others) and who are humble and honest (because they don't expect special treatment and aren't tempted to break the rules).

To test these hypotheses, Geeraert and his team assessed 889 high school students over an 18-month period. All of the students participated in an international exchange program. They lived with a host family and enrolled at the local high school.

The students completed a battery of questionnaires at two different points in time, once before the program started and again halfway through the 8-10 month program. The questionnaires measured sociocultural adaptation (doing well), psychological adaptation (feeling well), and six personality traits (humility-honesty, emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience).

Twenty-three different countries sent students and hosted students who participated in the study. An earlier study had established that some of the countries were culturally tight (Malaysia and India, for example) while others were culturally loose (Hungary and Brazil). Other countries were either moderately tight (e.g., Japan and China) or moderately loose (e.g., New Zealand and the United States).

After analyzing their data, Geeraert and his colleagues made the following observations:

  1. Overall, sojourners to a loose country adapted more successfully than sojourners to a tight country.
  2. Sojourners who grew up in a tight culture adapted more successfully than sojourners who grew up in a loose culture.
  3. The negative relationship between a host country's tightness and a sojourner's adaptation was smaller for those who were more agreeable and those who were more humble and honest.

In short, the study provides some evidence that both cultural and personality factors may help predict which sojourners will adjust successfully to living and working in a foreign country.

Remember my erroneous prediction about the Japanese couple in Fez? In making my prediction, I had failed to take into account some potentially relevant factors.

First, the Japanese couple had grown up in a tight culture. They may have had an effective normative radar that helped them detect and adjust to Morocco's local norms.

Second, I learned that my Japanese neighbors were extremely agreeable, humble, and honest. They had no desire to question or flout local norms, even those with which they privately disagreed. Instead, they wanted to fit in and didn't expect others to make special accommodations for them.

Can you successfully adjust to living in a new country? It depends, in part, on where you're going, where you're coming from, and what kind of person you are.

References

Geeraert, N., Li, R., Ward, C., Gelfand, M., & Demes, K. (2019). A tight spot: How personality moderates the impact of social norms on sojourner adaptation. Psychological Science, 30(3), 333-342.