Interaction with locals: helpful but not easy to achieve

Last week I attended the PhD defence of Joost Bücker of Radboud University Nijmegen, whose thesis was about cultural intelligence and global management competencies (1). In the Netherlands it is customary to include propositions for discussion in your book. One of them was:

“Interaction with locals stimulates the development of cultural intelligence”

As my own PhD thesis focused on the role locals can play in the success of expatriate assignments, I am always happy when new research finds extra evidence of this importance. The contribution that locals can make to the success of expatriate assignments is still an underexplored area in (International) Human Resource Management (2). As expats are very important and costly employees for multinational corporations, it is essential to pay attention to the local contacts that they inevitably have when working abroad. They are often crucial for success.

Getting in touch with locals
Of course, to be able to benefit from the contact, you have to get in touch with locals. Many shy away from this contact, as Bücker also states in his propositions:

“Erasmus students hinder their development of cultural intelligence through forming an international ‘ghetto’.”

This also goes for expats, many of whom seem to flockIn Touch with the Dutch together in expat associations or in compounds. For this reason, I have tried to stimulate contacts with locals in my PhD research “In Touch with the Dutch” through putting expats in touch with a local host. My study examined the impact of this contact on the success of the expatriate assignment. You can find more information about the study on the page In Touch with the Dutch.

Has contact with locals helped you? How difficult did you find it to get in touch with them? What strategy would you recommend in your country of residence? I am curious to hear your experiences!

(1) Bücker, J. (2013). Interacting with ‘strangers’. The Cultural Intelligence Scale: A Tool for Measuring Global Management Competencies? PhD dissertation, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
(2) Toh, S. M., & DeNisi, A. S. (2007). Host country nationals as socializing agents: A social identity approach. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 28, 281–301.


  1. I love this topic and I’m definitively going to read your book! For me it’s vital to get in touch with the locals. I always did and never liked the “ghetto” groups, and I still try to avoid them… I usually just go out, on the street, into the stores and start talking. When we arrived in the NL it wasn’t immediately Dutch, but I knew a few words and asked people to please talk to me in Dutch. They did, and I learned the language pretty fast. I also did sign up to courses – not language courses, but courses where I would meet locals. And I watched Dutch TV, listened to the radio and read everything I could. I think it’s this “acting like a sponge” that helped me the most. Be open minded and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. A good amount of self-irony helps too.

    • That’s very interesting! One of the things I hear often is that expats find it difficult to practice their Dutch as Dutch people often switch to English when they hear someone is a foreigner. I think it’s good that you asked them to speak Dutch to you – did that always work, or did you have to keep reminding them? Do you live in a big city or a smaller one? That might have some impact too on the ease with which Dutch people switch to English. I also think signing up for courses where you would meet locals is the best strategy in the Netherlands – hope to be able to do some research into that topic!

      • Yes, I know. I have several friends who find it difficult to exercice their Dutch. This happened to me too, but when they replied in English, I just insisted with Dutch and asked them to please stick to Dutch and most of them were happy to help. Obviously, I didn’t ask them to explain certain things when there was a queue behind me at the counter. I choose quiet moments to start little talks. I also tried to go to the same shops, so people knew that I wanted to learn. That makes things easier. I think we just have to “ignore” the funny faces people make or some of their reactions, and just keep talking. We don’t have to take us too serious too. It’s not the end of the world and making mistakes is necessary to learn. – I live(d) in a small town attached to a big one, but what helps is that here live many expats. Well, it helps, because being expat is not too exotic, but as many expats don’t make the effort to learn Dutch as most of the Dutch can talk English, you have to insist more talking Dutch. I really think that signing up for courses is the best method. In general, going where you have to talk, to be active did always work for me. I would love to know more about your research about this topic! I find it very interesting too!

        • I also think that is a very good approach to learn Dutch. What I would like to look into is whether there are cultural differences in strategies to get in touch with locals – whether one strategy works better in one country than in another. For example, the strategy of waiting for your Dutch colleagues to invite you is not the best way to meet locals in the Netherlands. I’m thinking of doing interviews with people like you, who have experience getting in touch with locals, in different countries (e.g. Netherlands and the UK) and then possibly follow-up with a survey. At the moment this idea is still in its initial stages. I’m first looking for information on this topic to see if books and other resources already say something about how to get in touch with locals in specific countries. So if you (or anyone else) have any tips or resources (for any country), I would be very happy to hear about them!

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