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It takes two to tango: Connecting expatriates with locals

Author: Marian van Bakel

Many expatriates have trouble meeting locals, and Denmark is not an exception. In fact, this year’s InterNations survey shows that Denmark is the third worst country for making friends abroad. This highlights the importance of helping expatriates connect with host country nationals – and more and more research is focusing on this topic as well. In this blog post a summary of a literature review that was published on this topic in The International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Why a literature review on E-L interactions?

Much of the research on expatriates has had the expat as sole focal point. While this seems quite obvious, it has also become clear that there are other stakeholders that are important for expat success. One example is the partner or family, another example are host country nationals (HCNs). The first calls for research on the role of HCNs date from the early nineties, and, gradually, research has started to take the HCN perspective into account. While some work has been done, much still needs to be explored. This literature review gives an overview of what has been done in terms of empirical research, and outlines various possibilities for future research.

What can we learn about E-L interactions?

Contact with HCNs is generally seen as having positive effects for expats, especially with regard to adjustment but also with regard to culture learning and competence development. Instrumental ties with HCNs seem to be beneficial for performance. Attitudinal aspects are a key aspect in E-L interactions: those who are open to learning and willing to seek support from others establish connections with HCNs more easily, and benefit more from them.

Several factors can help develop the intercultural relationship between expats and HCNs. The most important factor is whether the expat and the HCN have something in common, which can provide a basis on which the relationship can be built. There are also some barriers to the development of E-L interactions, such as (lack of) language skills and cultural differences, but also the geographical location of the expat (for example, whether there is a large expat community). These studies increase our understanding of how contact between an expat and a HCN could develop.

Future research

The article highlights various ideas for future research. Much of the research, for example, focuses on outcomes on the side of the expat (e.g. adjustment); we could still learn a lot about what the benefits are for the HCN, for example in terms of their careers. We also do not know all that much about outcomes at the group level – or antecedents, for that matter. What can organisations do to stimulate E-L interactions, and what are the benefits of those interactions for the organisation?

The paper also shows how important it is to specify what exactly the researcher is looking at: is it the frequency of the contact, the closeness, or the type of support one gets? Is it simply the frequency of the contact that helps adjustment, or does the contact need to be of high quality? This would open ‘the black box’ of E-L interactions and show more specifically the roles HCNs can play in expatriate success. After all, it does take two to tango.