Categorizing Sojourners (and English Language Learners)

In reply to another blogger’s post, I referenced a paper that I included in earlier draft of my dissertation.  It is a great meta-analysis of studies on cross-cultural communication training, but what stuck in my mind the most is probably not the best example of scientific inquiry or cultural sensitivity: categorizing people.  In the intercultural training field, most of us learn about the dangers of categorizing people as it leads to generalizations and stereotypes.  But here we have a list of 7 types of expatriates from Littrell, et al (2006).

Figure displaying the link between expatriate acculturation profiles and training techniques

Image taken from Figure 1 on page 380 of Littrell, et al (2006).

Lists like this should be taken with a grain of salt.  That said, some of this is grounded in research, specifically Mendenhall and Oddou’s (1986) profiles of expatriate acculturation. I was particularly drawn to this because it appeals to me like astrology used to appeal to me.  I wanted to see if I could guess my profile by the name and if I could identify profile based on the descriptors.  This could be a useful reflective practice exercise for sojourning ELTs if done honestly and with integrity.   For example, I could use this figure to help me better understand myself when I was a new sojourning ELT compared to myself in later stages of professional and cultural development.

My Profile

If you care about the message more than the messenger (me), please move on to the next section.  Otherwise, come with me as I embark in my own reflective practice exercise.

My generalization of an academic observer.  Image taken from http://www.livescience.com/44833-what-is-anthropology.html

My generalization of an academic observer. Image taken from http://www.livescience.com/44833-what-is-anthropology.html

Just looking at the profile names, I would probably place myself as the “academic observer” based on the fact that I just completed my dissertation doing a lot of academic observing.  When I read through the descriptors, I generally agree that I am perceptive of reasons behind host national behavior.  As for the second one, I believe I can put on a good appearance that I deal effectively with stress but I’ve learned how stress effects me without most people noticing.  And the last one is half true.  There are some contexts overseas where I interact very well (diplomatically) but not in others (spontaneous interaction with a host national that I just met).  When I look at the techniques that I need, I whole-heartedly agree with the solutions.  Yes, please give me more language training and simulations.  Only at this stage, do I learn my bias for training other sojourning ELTs.  I have a strong preference for simulations, but perhaps it’s because I found that they benefit me. When I scan through all the profile descriptions to see what matches me best, I get an inflated sense of ego because I think I am often at the “ideal expatriate” level.  But there are some situations in which I find myself as low as the introvert phase, particularly in situations where I am surrounded by new people who want to party hard.  I sometimes exhibit traits of the “type A expatriate” and more often the “academic observer” but I rarely fit the “well-intentioned missionary” profile.

How to Use this Figure

First of all, don’t take it too seriously.  If you are a sojourning ELT, then you can engage in the same practice I did.  You may even want to blog about it.  If you are a TESOL teacher educator, especially in the area of intercultural communication, you may use this to help teachers better understand themselves when overseas.

Additionally, we can turn this around to better understand our students.  (I cannot resist the lame zinger joke, but is it possible for international students in the United States to exhibit traits of an “ugly American?”  If so, then they should feel right at home.  End joke.)  Seriously, this exercise will help many teachers see their students as individuals rather than as an essentialized member of their home country.  For example, if you meet an introverted student who happens to be from Japan or if you meet a Japanese student who is introverted, you should be able to keep these two identifiers separate.  Many people and authorities will say the two identifiers are correlations and maybe even causations, but this figure should help teachers realize that international students can exhibit any one of these profile behaviors regardless of their nationality or ethnicity.

Administrators and supervisors may also be interested in using this figure to help teachers and staff better understand each other.  In this case, we are moving away from the classroom context to the host institution culture.  I find that it can be difficult for some teachers to be constantly culturally sensitive to their students when they work in an environment that is culturally insensitive to them or their colleagues.

Finally, as an intercultural trainer this figure is helpful with identifying training techniques for certain types of expats or sojourners.  However, the trainer runs the risk of misidentifying or wrongly categorizing the participants.

Sources

Littrell, L. N., Salas, E., Hess, K. P., Paley, M., & Riedel, S. (2006). Expatriate preparation: A critical analysis of 25 years of cross-cultural training research. Human Resource Development Review, 5(3), 355-388.

Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (1986). Acculturation profiles of expatriate managers: implications for cultural training programs. Columbia journal of world business, 21(4), 73-79.

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