Expats might not be conscious of how they have chosen to ‘adapt’ to a new culture in a foreign country, but according to one prominent acculturation scholar, John W. Berry, there are four general coping strategies for cultural adaptation.
The four strategies are: 1) assimilation, 2) separation, 3) marginalisation and 4) integration. For an expat partner on location for a limited number of years, assimilation is perhaps the most unlikely. It implies complete absorption, or ‘going native’, as people would once have said of old colonials, who went up the river in the fashion of Kurtz. Even if a hypothetical expat partner could dive wholeheartedly into another culture, and be entirely absorbed, they would potentially struggle when relocating / repatriating. The deeper the roots, the harder it is to uproot oneself.
Life in the bubble
In some host countries, expats might find there is a well-developed expat culture / community, where they can lead a safe, comfortable existence. However, these ‘expat bubbles’ may discourage interaction with a local culture, which is what Berry meant by ‘separation’. We have to remember in some countries, expats will gravitate towards expat bubbles for many reasons. After all, life in an expat bubble can be cosy, and fun too. However, if they’re unfulfilled or disenchanted in any sense, the expat partner may wish to receive advice on how they could vary their lifestyle and social interactions.
Lost at sea
For the coping strategy Berry defined as ‘marginalisation’, a person will fail to establish contacts with the culture of their host country, while also gradually losing contact with their old culture. They are, figuratively speaking, lost at sea. This is obviously the most alarming of the four coping strategies. Feeling isolated, lonely, and possibly helpless, if an expat partner is experiencing marginalisation, they could benefit greatly from professional guidance to reassess the situation.
The ideal strategy?
Last but not least, there’s integration. For Berry this implies a positive relationship with both a host country’s culture and the person’s home country. This would generally be considered an ideal approach for expat partners. They’re adjusting their behaviours, discovering something of a new culture, and hopefully enjoying the experience, all without losing their own identity (thus making a cross-posting and their eventual repatriation less challenging). Striking that balance is perhaps easier said than done, but if expat partners are unsure how it can be achieved, fear not – our consultants are full of ideas.