Different Cultures Help Foreign Talents Develop a Clearer Sense of Self

The word immigrant has become a dirty word in an era where even primarily homogenous countries are opening their doors to foreigners. Bad news has also trumped the common knowledge that 40 percent of top tech companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Meanwhile, no one notices that an immigrant who encounters a different culture develops what could be called a clearer sense of self.

This was based on a study by a team of social scientists at Columbia Business School, Rice University, and the University of North Carolina.  Among the 2,000 participants, the researchers learned that living abroad can increase “self-concept clarity,” the extent to which individuals’ beliefs about themselves are clearly and confidently defined over time. These newcomers generate self-discerning reflections in which people grapple with the different cultural values and norms of their home and host cultures. 

“In a world where living-abroad experiences are increasingly common and technological advances make cross-cultural travel and communication ever easier, it is critical that research keeps pace with these developments and seeks to understand how they affect people,” the authors wrote.

They continued: “In this vein, our studies demonstrate that living abroad affects the fundamental structure of the self-concept by enhancing its clarity. The German philosopher Hermann von Keyserling wrote in the epigraph to his 1919 book ‘The Travel Diary of a Philosopher,’ ‘The shortest path to oneself leads around the world.’ Almost 100 years later, our research provides empirical evidence in support of this idea.”

While most research on foreign experiences has focused on whether people have lived abroad or not, this new research takes a more nuanced approach to distinguish between the depth and the breadth of international experiences.

Rather than breadth  (the number of foreign countries lived in), it finds that depth (the length of time lived abroad) enhances a clear sense of self. 

The longer people live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections they accumulate and, as a result, the more likely they are to develop a better understanding of themselves and have increased clarity about career decision-making, the authors said.

The numerous benefits that come with a clear sense of self range from greater life satisfaction to decreased stress, improved job performance, and – as the new research shows – enhanced clarity about the types of career options that best match an individual’s strengths and values.

Global mobility managers should take heed.

Understanding the impact of living abroad has practical implications for organizations as they operate across national borders and recruit foreign talent.

However, the mind’s predilection for roaming, which results in self-concept clarity does not extend to other types of transitional experiences. These include getting divorced or losing a job. 

The researchers include Adam Galinsky and Jackson Luof Columbia Business School; Hajo Adam and Otilia Obodaru of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business; and William Maddux of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. They conducted six studies involving 1,874 participants and published their findings in an article “The Shortest Path to Oneself Leads Around the World: Living Abroad Increases Self-Concept Clarity” in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Having a clear sense of self could become increasingly important in today’s complex world of work, according to the authors.