A new study reveals that living abroad can help clarify one’s sense of self. According to the findings, living in other parts of the world encourages us to reflect on the various cultural values and norms that we encounter both at home and in the host cultures.
In turn, these reflections can help us discover which values define us personally and which simply reflect our cultural upbringing. This is particularly true for those who live abroad for a long period of time.
The research was conducted by a team of social scientists from Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina. Their paper is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Previous research has shown that transitional experiences, such as getting divorced or losing a job, typically decrease individuals’ self-concept clarity. In contrast, this study looks at the possibility that living abroad is a rare kind of transitional experience that actually increases self-concept clarity.
“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.
“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.”
The researchers conducted six studies involving 1,874 participants who were recruited from online panels as well as from U.S. and international MBA programs. The participants, including those who have and have not lived abroad, completed surveys.
Most research on foreign experiences has focused on whether people have lived abroad or not, but this new study takes a more nuanced approach to distinguish between the depth and the breadth of international experiences. The findings suggest that depth (the length of time lived abroad) rather than breadth (the number of foreign countries lived in) enhances a clear sense of self.
The authors found that the longer people live abroad, the more self-discerning reflections they accumulate. As a result, they are more likely to develop a better understanding of themselves and show increased clarity about career decision-making, the authors said.
Understanding the impact of living abroad has practical implications for organizations as they operate across national borders and recruit foreign talent.
Extended periods of time spent in a foreign country can yield a myriad of benefits, including greater life satisfaction, decreased stress, improved job performance and enhanced clarity regarding a fulfilling career. Having a clearer sense of self is increasingly important in today’s world with its unprecedented range of available career options, according to the authors.
Source: Rice University