Two types of candidates that are ALWAYS in demand with HR professionals are passive candidates and those with truly exceptional soft skills. This post, written by a returning expatriate, or ‘repat,’ about their soft skills as verified by behavioral science, was originally posted on Repatriate.Me as “Inside the Expat Brain: Our advantages in the job search according to science.”
Jumping into expat life requires a certain type of personality. A sense of adventure, resourcefulness, and refined social and communication skills are usually taken for granted. With time, as the exotic becomes routine and novelty dissolves into the hum drums of daily life, the characteristics that set expats apart change. Putting my finger on this change, then articulating, and quantifying it has been a long term goal of mine since starting this website.
I finally got a bit closer when I found an article on Aeon.co that I very easily could have scrolled past when it came up on my social media feed: How Loneliness Generates Empathy and Shapes Identity.
“Loneliness? I don’t feel lonely…” You’re probably thinking. I know, but if you really think about it, the experience of living abroad for a long time is by nature, in some part, isolating. In some way or another, you stand out. You may have married into a large family, but how many holiday meals do you attend where, even if you speak the language, there comes a point where your capacity to stay focused on the conversation in the foreign language gets maxed out? You smile and enjoy the meal, but find yourself playing games with the kids or volunteering to change baby diapers while the rest of the adults chat.
Not to mention the straight-up racism and exclusion that expats in various countries may face. The bottom line is that no matter how fluent your language ability is and how integrated you are into the local culture, there is no avoiding the fact that you are not a native of the country and you will inevitably feel ‘different’ from the locals.
Then there’s the question of isolation from your family and friends back home. It’s true that not everyone has close attachments to family and friends, but even chatting with old acquaintances on Facebook there will be cultural references that you miss and jokes that fly right over your head. Yes, it is your home country and culture, but you haven’t been immersed in it for a long, long time.
This is not a bad thing. In fact, as we fill out cover letters and highlight certain skills and personality traits on our resumes, I feel very strongly that we can use all of this to our advantage. The Aeon article explores the traits of empathy and creativity as positive traits that are augmented by experiences of loneliness. However, it also describes emotional and cognitive drawbacks (increased depression, for one) of too much of said loneliness. It is my contention that long-term expats, by settling into their places in their adopted societies while still experiencing a small amount of cultural isolation on a nearly constant basis, will have likely avoided the negative attributes of too much loneliness while still enjoying the benefits.
Once I establish that, I’ll make it actionable and discuss how expats and repats can invest further in these attributes and use them to their advantage in the job search.
Empathy may have the most direct connection with loneliness. If I may quote directly from the article:
Using electrical neuroimaging with a small test group, Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago and her husband John, also at Chicago, found that participants who described themselves as particularly lonely reacted to pictures of threatening stimuli more than twice as fast as people who described themselves as non-lonely (in the lonely: about 116 milliseconds after stimulus onset; in the non-lonely:about 252 milliseconds after stimulus onset). As John Cacioppo writes in a similar study, this suggests that lonely people’s ‘attention is drawn more to the distress of others’.
The quote there is a little confusing so I dug deeper. The first paper is behind a paywall (which is probably why Aeon didn’t link to it), but there was an interesting nugget in the second:
This main effect… indicated that nonlonely individuals rated social stimuli more negatively than nonsocial stimuli, whereas lonely individuals rated social and nonsocial stimuli equally. Importantly, no differences were found in the ratings of the pleasant stimul.
Translation: people falling in the “lonely” category were actually less sensitive to negative social experiences. To me, this speaks to something akin to grit, another rather positive characteristic, more than empathy. We’ll go ahead and add that to our list then.
Before we move on to the next trait, think about this study that showed decreasing levels in Loneliness felt by American college and high school students. The researchers tentatively point to modernization as the main cause of this trend. If that is true then we can assume that the same trend is happening in other modern countries.
Granted, we’re on shaky ground here, and I wouldn’t dare try to publish this in a peer-reviewed journal, but I think for a blog it’s okay to ponder whether maybe, just maybe, repats, are actually more qualified for jobs requiring empathy-related skills than their compatriots that never left home, even if their expat experience was in a comparably modern country to their own.
A lot of people say they are creative, and I’m sure they are not lying. But let’s take a moment and discuss the most creative people. I’m talking about indisputably creative people. Certain geniuses generally fall into this category, but think about someone for which “creative” is their most outstanding characteristic. A person that if you asked 20 of their acquaintances to describe them, you would get 20 people saying “creative.”
What does a day in that person’s life look like? What kind of job do you picture them having? Can you imagine them working in an office?
My guess is an office is the last place you would find this person. Yes, there are cultural biases at play here, and I would be the first person to raise an eyebrow at an overgeneralization about creativity and mental instability, but there are people that study the link between creativity, high intelligence, and mental illness. Consider John Nash, the famous mathematician and subject of the film (and book) A Beautiful Mind. A colleague of his once asked him why, with his logical and mathematical brain, he could not deduce that the things he was seeing were hallucinations. His response:
…the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.
He had the ability to make connections that no one else could. Including some he was wrong about. There’s another trait buried in here that we can pull out, and that is persistence.
A researcher in the field, writing in The Atlantic (not an academic journal, but still a highly regarded magazine) wrote:
I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.
Expats are similarly forced to develop this quality of persistence, while simultaneously balancing it with the discretion to not take things too far or trip over a cultural landmine while advocating their point.
When I was told that I was not allowed to give my daughter my family name because it didn’t fit in the boxes of the form, I knew without a doubt that the government official was wrong. I’m not a lawyer, but based on a wealth of similar experiences of life in Korea, I knew that it was much more likely that this countryside government office just didn’t have the right form than for the Korean parliament to have specifically passed a law requiring children of foreign parents to use Korean family names.
Persistence and creativity go hand in hand. An expat may have five perfectly logical and legitimate arguments all get shot down. They have to keep searching for the one argument that will paint the situation in the particular light that gets through to and motivates the bureaucrat that’s mostly interested in avoiding paperwork.
In addition, expats have to be part CPA to manage family finances in two (or more) countries, immigration lawyer to get proper paperwork for their dependents, technology guru to keep in touch with connections in their home countries, and I know more than a few of us that would make damn fine chefs (now that I think of it, I know a couple that actually are or were professional chefs). The expat life attracts a lot of autodidacts, polymaths, and multipotentialites (which kinda takes the previous two terms and smashes them together).
Leveraging Empathy and Creativity to Our Advantage
There is some insanely good news for those of you that made it this far: business and management guru Dan Pink strongly believes that the Information Age (which benefited “knowledge workers”) is ending, and that the “Conceptual Age” is upon us. What types of workers will be most valued in this new age of work? Creators and empathizers.
Write these down and look for them as you scan job postings: empathy, grit, creativity, persistence. You’re going to have to do more than just sprinkle the terms through your cover letter and resume, though.
If we approach the job application process like scientists, we have only made the very first link. We can’t just say in a cover letter, “You should hire me to get all the benefits of a genius without the instability and mental illness,” which is as discriminatory against people struggling with mental illness as it is just plain annoying. Rather, once you buy into this whole idea of the value of these traits there are three things to do in order to properly leverage them:
- Identifying concrete skills related to empathy and creativity
- Recognize our advantage with these skills and find ways to further develop them
- Seek out job opportunities that utilize those skills
And then yes, of course, you need to bring it all to the attention of the people seeing our resumes. No, actually, you have to prove it to them. You do this by quantifying with verifiable information. Where possible, give statistics, like: “I observed an inefficiency in SYSTEM that, when corrected, improved RESULT by 964%”, but you can also do it in an anecdote, as in “My experience with THING1 taught me SKILL that I applied to THING2.”
Life as a culturally isolated expat can make a person feel detached. We have all adapted to it, grown from it, or found ways to cope with it. Some of us have unfortunately become cynical and jaded. It’s a good thing that we have become more cautious and careful before making a leap to another continent (again), but I hope this post has given you some cause for hope.
Your parents may think that repatriating is as simple as putting yourself, your spouse, and their grandkids on a plane one day and landing back home the next (well, technically the same day if you’re going Asia to North America, but I digress). It is more complicated than that and it is going to be hard.
However, it is, also, doable. And it’s going to be worth it.