How do expats get the social support they need?

When expats1 move abroad, they leave behind a large part of their social network. They must create new social connections to make sure they get the support they need to deal with the cross-cultural transition. In this article in International Business Review with my co-author Annamaria Kubovcikova, we explored how expats get work information and emotional support. In this blog post, we summarize our main conclusions.

Characteristics of support providers

Many studies on expatriate social support distinguish between expats and HCNs as support providers, but this might not be the best classification. It could, after all, very well be that an expat who has lived in the country for a long time can also provide a lot of good information about the host country, and that the HCN who has lived abroad him/herself understands the challenges the expat might face. So how should we classify support providers? In our study, we looked at the level of valuable knowledge, accessibility and cost of interaction, as suggested by information seeking theory.

Status and similarity

We show that other support provider characteristics are relevant as well, for example the status of the potential support provider. In line with information seeking theory, expats find it harder to access higher status individuals; however, it is exactly these individuals who might have valuable work information to share. We also found that expats were less likely to interact with dissimilar others (e.g., HCNs), which influenced the amount of emotional support they received from them. This confirms previous findings that HCNs mainly seem to provide informational support – although this might be different when the relationship is more developed. In another article, I argue the importance of also taking the closeness a relationship into account, since this obviously may affect the emotional support given.

What can organisations do?

Organisations can help expats access potential higher status support providers by setting up mentoring. New expats could be matched with a senior manager in the organisation – regardless of their nationality – to make sure they get access to valuable informational and emotional support. Organisations should also consider how to facilitate contact between expats and dissimilar others who masy be able to support them. One way could be to match the expat with a local host or buddy, to stimulate a particular connection. If this local host is an HCN, they could fulfil one or more host country national liaison roles which can help expat adjustment and performance.

How do expats build a new social network?

It is surprising how little we actually know about how expats actually build a new social network. There is one conceptual article that suggests how expats build adjustment facilitating support ties, but there is hardly any empirical proof. In our study, we also did not find that expats specifically seek support from more knowledgeable others, calling into question the deliberateness of an expat’s actions when trying to build a new social network. So how does this then actually work? This is the focus of my current study – more to follow!

1 Our study looks at self-initiated expatriates (SIEs), defining them as “individuals who were born outside the country they currently reside in, and who have gained legal employment without the support of a parent organization” (p. 2 in our article).

Reference

Kubovcikova, A. and M. van Bakel (2022). “Social support abroad: How do self-initiated expatriates gain support through their social networks?” International Business Review 31(1): 101894.

Picture via pixabay.com

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