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The fractured tribe: Expatriate discrimination against other expatriates

I have always been interested in the human dimension of life’s problems.

I was interested in expatriate social networks and their impact on cross-cultural adjustment. So I conducted a survey to find out what expatriates thought and what they had experienced. I asked expatriates to describe the social support they received from the local community as well as from other expatriates.

I expected that the expatriate community would be a source of social support. I thought I would be able to compare support from other expatriates to social support from the local community. I could, but not without a surprising twist.

It turns out that some expatriates discriminate against other expatriates.

Cross-cultural adjustment is complex. But there is a lot of research that points out that the more culturally dissimilar cultures are from each other, the more difficult adjustment can be. When cultures are far apart, or culturally distant, adjustment is more difficult. When they are closer together, adjustment is easier. Makes sense.

I thought that social support, either from other expatriates or locals, would provide a buffer and make cross-cultural adjustment easier. I found that it was generally true. But, interestingly, I discovered the presence of expatriate-to-expatriate discrimination..

To keep the results in perspective it should be noted that expatriates still reported less satisfaction with social contacts with local nationals and more discrimination from local nationals than was reported in either case from other expatriates. I found that, 20 percent of expatriates reported for local nationals that “No one would discriminate,” while 52 percent of expatriates reported for other expatriates that “No one would discriminate.” These results show that expatriates anticipate less discrimination from other expatriates. It makes sense assuming that expatriates are culturally closer to one another than they are with the local community.

However, 36 percent of expatriates reported for local nationals that “Someone would discriminate” and 34 percent reported for other expatriates that “Someone would discriminate.” These numbers are surprisingly close. Why would one-third of expatriates expect discrimination from other expatriates?

One possible explanation for discrimination may relate to expatriate adjustment strategies. While expatriates often try to achieve a cultural balance, they may make a preferential decision to favor one culture or the other.

On one hand, expatriates may over-identify with the local culture or reject their original culture. This is the expatriate who has ‘gone native’. On the other hand, an expatriate may adopt an adjustment strategy in which their original cultural increases in importance to them, perhaps becoming exaggerated. This is the expatriate who is more American than America, more British than Britain, more French than France, etc. These strategies may invite comparison and discrimination from either locals or other expatriates.

Simply put, the expatriate community itself is culturally diverse.

Since discrimination may serve an exclusionary role, expatriate experience of discrimination from other expatriates may indicate a lack of integration and a lack of acceptance within the expatriate community. This is a reminder that the expatriate community, while different from the local community, is still a collection of people from across the world, representing many different cultures. Simply put, the expatriate community itself is culturally diverse. So, expatriates may face adjustment challenges with the host nation as well as with the local expatriate community.

For more insights see my books and blog at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash)

(Image credit Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash)

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