The JGM BitBlog: Is experience the best teacher? The adjustment of less experienced diplomats resembles that of business expatriates.

Journal of Global Mobility

Sophia Grill, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany

Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, Federal Institute for Population Research, Wiesbaden, Germany

Herbert Fliege, Federal Foreign Office, Berlin, Germany

Heiko Rüger, Federal Institute of Population Research, Wiesbaden, Germany  


Expatriates living and working in a foreign environment face a number of challenges related to culture, customs and language, and it is assumed that some degree of adjustment is necessary to avoid frustration and early withdrawal from assignment. In the academic literature, the relationship between degree of adjustment and time spent in the foreign location has attracted some attention in theoretical terms, but few studies have actually conducted empirical research in this area. In traditional expatriate research, the so-called U-curve or culture-shock models have often been used to theoretically explain expatriate adjustment over time. These models assume a “honeymoon stage” at the beginning of an expatriate assignment, followed by culture shock and ending in gradual adjustment to the new host country. For experienced individuals, however, the honeymoon phase is expected to be less pronounced, resulting in J- rather than U- trajectories of adjustment. Complicating matters further, recent publications have described a variety of adjustment trajectories. So, is there still reason to believe that there is only one adjustment trajectory fitting all expatriates? Instead, we assume that the adjustment process differs between certain subgroups of expatriates and by certain individual characteristics, among other factors. Based on social learning theory, which assumes that individuals acculturating to new host countries undergo a learning process that influences their adjustment over time, we hypothesized that the degree of previous cross-cultural experience plays a decisive role in this. For example, expatriates are considered to have a high level of cross-cultural experience if they have lived abroad for several years or have completed a series of foreign assignments.

In contrast to the more commonly studied groups of business expatriates and exchange students, in our study we used two cross-sectional quantitative surveys from 2011 and 2019 to examine the adjustment over time of employees of the German Foreign Service. Both samples benefit from a large number of participants, with almost 2,500 surveyed employees, as well as high diversity in terms of gender, age, education and host countries.  Foreign service employees are a subgroup of public sector expatriates, but even though they differ in several aspects from business expatriates, they have not attracted much attention in the expatriate literature so far. Most importantly, business expatriates typically relocate occasionally, as an exception to their “normal” work life, whereas German Foreign Service employees undergo a life-long rotation system employing worldwide relocations every couple of years. We expected that these differences would result in different adjustment trajectories for the two groups. Moreover, we expected that less experienced foreign service employees would show similar adjustment patterns as business expatriates.

We find that previous cross-cultural experience is an important factor influencing expatriate adjustment over time: The youngest, and therefore least experienced, group of German Foreign Service employees fit trajectories from traditional expatriate research, while the more experienced employees exhibited trajectories inconsistent with previously identified trends. These inexperienced German Foreign Service employees face specific challenges that lead to different adjustment trajectories than their more experienced counterparts. However, due to extant preparation and institutional support, less experienced German Foreign Service employees do not experience a honeymoon period, resulting in a J-curve of adjustment. We conclude that work experience matters and “one curve fits all” approaches do not suffice to explain adjustment over time. Moreover, neither the more experienced nor the less experienced employees showed a U-trajectory as suggested by previous literature on business expatriates.

As the findings of our study suggest, inexperienced expatriates require additional support compared to their more experienced colleagues. Therefore, it would be important that sending organizations develop special support systems for inexperienced expatriates prior to departure. Through this, negative impacts of culture shock could be mitigated.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Grill, S., Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge, M., Fliege, H. and Rüger, H. (2021), "Expatriate adjustment over time among foreign service employees: the role of cross-cultural experience", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 338-360.