Overseas Assignments: A Poor Fit for Introverts?

If you’ve ever spent more than a week in a foreign country where you do not speak the local language, you may find a bit of fatigue and homesickness settling in. Travel is often fun, exciting and eye-opening, but the strain of being away from all that is familiar can be overwhelming.

Now imagine your foreign journey is set to last for a year or more — and, you’re not a particularly outgoing person. You might even, in fact, describe yourself as an introvert.  A new study from Florida Atlantic University suggests that if you’re an expatriate on an overseas assignment, being an introvert may work against you.

The study, based on a meta-analysis of personality-expatriate adjustment correlations and organized around the framework of the Five Factor Model of personality, found that expatriates who did well with foreign assignments tended to be extroverts who were both emotionally stable and open to new experiences.

Extroverts, says study co-author and Florida Atlantic University assistant professor Michael Harari, are much better at forming larger and denser social networks, which help provide the emotional and informational support that’s key to succeeding on an expatriate assignment.

“Extroverts are more adept at building these support networks, and we believe that’s why extroversion was so important,” he says.

Emotional stability is also important, says Harari, given the potential for culture shock when living and working in a completely unfamiliar environment.

Harari suggests that employees who’re interested in an expat assignment consider evaluating their own personalities to determine how well they might fare in adjusting to the challenges. HR should also consider administering personality assessments as part of their organization’s career development and expat selection systems to cut down on employee turnover.

With that said, introverts should hardly count themselves out as contenders for expat assignments. After all, as noted by Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, introverts often possess qualities — good listening skills, an eye for detail — that would seem to be especially important to have in an overseas assignment.

And another thing: Introverts who recognize their strengths and weaknesses — and understand how to compensate for them when the situation requires — may be just as likely to thrive overseas as extroverts.


Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.