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Special Report: What is it really like as a modern-day expatriate? Part 3

What is it really like as a modern-day expatriate? Profiling Expats

Life abroad as a global nomad is more accessible than it has ever been and increasing numbers of people choose to leave behind their home to experience life in a new country. Traditionally, life as an modern-day expatriate was associated with vast wealth and privileged living and even today, when people imagine what it is like to live as an expat, they perceive a high standard of existence, with home help, a gardener and a driver. In today’s society, however, the reality can be quite different and in this four-part series, the Expat Info Desk will look at what life as an expatriate is really like through exploring some of the issues and motivations that are impacting expatriates today.

In the third part of our research into life as expat, we look the profile of a typical expatriate. Using a variety of different sources we present insights into the ways in what personal characteristics may be necessary for a successful life as an expat and whether or not language skills are crucial to a happy life abroad. It is important to note that the findings will not apply to all expatriates but are intended as a general overview into the nature of the average expatriate.

Expat education

In 2005 the OECD published statistics that indicated that, as a rule, the expatriate rate for citizens of OECD countries tends to be highest amongst highly educated citizens, with rate of immigration being higher for skilled workers than that of the average population.

These findings were echoed in Emanuele Gatti’s research into the expatriate population in Belgium, “Overall Expats appear to be a special subgroup of immigrants characterized by a high level of education and a relatively high professional status” (Gatti, 2009, 3). She progresses onto postulate that the potential reason for such a trend is that the majority of expatriates are not motivated by basic needs but are individuals who move abroad in order to further their career or in pursuit of new experiences and challenges.

Expat personality traits

Unfortunately, there appears to be very little contemporary research into the personality traits of the modern-day expatriate population. There are a large number of older studies available that assess how an individual’s character can influence the likelihood that an international assignment will be successful. Some of these studies have repeatedly identified the following characteristics as being determinants of an expatriate’s ability to adjust to a move abroad.

  • ability to deal with stress
  • emotional stability
  • self-esteem
  • adaptability
  • being a sensitive person
  • tolerance (for race/ethnic origin, ambiguity etc.)
  • willingness to change
  • willingness to communicate
  • conflict resolution orientation
  • kindness
  • cultural sensitivity
  • dependability
  • responsibility
  • cultural flexibility
  • energy
  • being a people person
  • having empathy for others (cited in Develioğlu, 1998).
  • In Research conducted by Downes et al in 2007, published in a report entitled Personality traits as predictors of expatriate effectiveness they address many different models of research into expatriate characteristics and put forward an analysis that claims that individuals with stable characteristics were the ones that would be most likely to make a success of their assignment. Such characteristics were cited as including emotional stability, openness, and conscientiousness and cultural flexibility.

modern-day expatriate

Expat language skills

Research conducted by Downes et al (op cit) found that the majority of expatriates do not learn the language of their host country. Their findings confirmed that language proficiency is not vital but is a distinct advantage for those expatriates who do master the local language. They also noted that expatriates will typically attempt to counter any language deficiencies by participating in cultural and social activities. The researchers noted, “To counter the language deficit, expatriates may become locally proficient by enjoying the food or embracing the culture, which requires openness and flexibility that are included as part of the stable repertoire, and may help build relationships that are perhaps even more meaningful than those facilitated by language”.

HSBC’s 2008 Expat Explorer report assessed the likelihood of modern-day expatriate learning the local language. Their findings revealed that expatriates living in Europe were the most likely to learn the language of their host country with 75% of those living in Germany, 70% of those in Spain and Belgium adopting the language of the local people. The report also revealed that 51% of expatriates who originate from the USA, 50% of Brazilians and 41% of people originating from Ireland will attempt to learn the language of their hosts.


Downes, Meredith, Iris Varner, and Musinski Luke. “Personality traits as predictors of expatriate effectiveness: a synthesis and reconceptualization.” Review of Business Spring-Summer (2007): 24-25. Print.


Gatti, Emanuele. “Defining the expat.” Google Docs. N.p., 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. .

Author: ExpatInfoDesk