According to a 2013 UN study, 3% of the world’s population live outside of their country of birth. For the number-obsessed among you, that’s over 210,000,000 people. For some, living abroad is a necessity; for many it’s a choice. That choice can be the result of work commitments and opportunities, education, adventure, restlessness or romance.
In our globalised world, living and working abroad has become easier and increasingly common. Whether you’re leaving never to return, relocating for a period of time or simply want the experience of living, working or studying somewhere truly different from home, there are many advantages of living abroad. What are these effects?
A study by AFS and the University of Essex (UK), consisting of students who’d lived abroad and a control group, found that the former presented increased self-confidence, enjoyed social situations in which they were the centre of attention, were confident public speakers and were enthusiastic in social situations. They were open to new experiences and were interested in unusual people and ideas.
Perhaps the most striking advantages of living abroad are in terms of general well-being. Participants demonstrated less stress and anxiety, higher self-esteem and higher satisfaction with life. The link between moving to a foreign country and increased self-confidence is an obvious one. In a foreign country, you’re more likely to go out and make friends rather than sit alone at home. It takes guts to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, often in a foreign language, and you’ll be more open to accepting invites to social events. If you’re one of the many people who move alone, you’ll find yourself forced to handle situations and problems completely independently, dealing with foreign bureaucracy and customs.
According to a study by William Maddux, associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, an advantage of living abroad meant exchange students were more able to connect disparate ideas and concepts, “people who have more international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity[…]What’s more, we found that people with this international experience are more likely to create new businesses and products and be promoted.” Rather than just an interesting addition to your CV, the psychological advantages of living abroad may directly impact your entrepreneurial abilities and earning potential. You’ll be enriched in more ways than one.
However, simply living abroad isn’t enough. Think of those expats who only socialise with their compatriots, refuse to learn the local language, constantly say “in America/Azerbaijan/Armenia we do it this way…” Maddux states that one must take into account both one’s old and new culture and identity, a combination he calls biculturism. The ‘double vision’ of biculturism, “becomes a tool for making sense of the world and will help individuals perform better in both creative and professional domains.” During a study of 78 MBA students, those who presented biculturism demonstrated greater fluency, adaptability, novelty, and innovation, compared to those who were ‘mono-cultural’. In a similar study, those who were bicultural enjoyed better promotion prospects at work and better reputations among their colleagues.
So, rather than succumbing to an amorphous supra-culture, or wearing Lederhosen simply because you live in Germany, living abroad means bringing your own culture with you, respecting it and being open to the cultures that others bring with them. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ cultures (is there anything as relative as culture?). What one culture sees as taboo, another may celebrate. It’s holding these two aspects of your experience in balance that, according to the evidence, brings the most benefits from living, working or studying abroad.