Cross-Cultural Adaptation Among Women:
How Living Internationally Affects Your Life

Surprisingly enough, many women who live in a foreign country experience difficulties with adapting due to a phenomenon known as culture shock. The following study sought to address this by looking at the very nature of culture and interpersonal communication, by reviewing research findings from around the world, and by highlighting current activities of international organizations and corporations. Most importantly is the first hand observations and accounts from a group of women in France who, during their experience of living in a foreign country, talked about it in-depth, providing us with an insightful glimpse as to the dynamics of this phenomenon.

The Pilot Study

A pilot study was conducted in London, England to ascertain specific phenomena that concerned women sojourners. The pilot involved in-depth interviews with eight women from Canada, Greece, Iceland, Pakistan, Spain, Turkey, and the United States, who currently lived in London. The purpose of this exploratory study was heuristic.

Each woman indicated that the negative effects of culture shock were eased by contact with host nationals. They felt that being part of a group was helpful as it gave one the chance to express the difficulties they were facing. None of the subjects had formally prepared herself in terms of an orientation program for her move yet this lack of preparation did not seem to have a critical impact on their adjustment. It was expressed, however, that an "on-site" orientation service would greatly assist them with the current frustrations they were experiencing.

Each woman displayed unhappiness about the "little things" (e.g., not being able to eat the food of their native culture, missing many of the conveniences of home) and contrary to popular belief, these seemingly insignificant problems often added up and got blown out of proportion when experienced on an everyday basis. In addition, those who had prior expectations about the foreign culture found they were often unfulfilled and felt frustration and disillusionment.

The women agreed that certain steps could be taken while in the foreign culture to improve one's satisfaction with life in the foreign country. Contact with host nationals, becoming part of a social group, and receiving as much training and information as possible were the main determining factors in helping one become more satisfied with life during a sojourn.

The Study

Subjects: 86 women (72 American, 4 Australian, 4 British, 3 Canadian, 1 Dutch, and 1 Spanish) were randomly selected from the roster of a predominantly American organization in Paris, France called "Bloom Where You're Planted." The women were from all age groups: twenty-seven were 45 years or older, nineteen were between 41-44, ten were between 36-40, fifteen were between 31-35, twelve were between 26-30, and three were less than 25 years old. Most of the respondents were married (78) and the majority had completed an undergraduate education (57) or had obtained a graduate degree (25). Exactly half (43) had previously lived in a foreign country and the near-same amount (45) had been currently living in Paris for 6-12 months.

Apparatus: A five-page questionnaire, an attached cover letter, and a return-addressed stamped envelop was posted to each subject.

Procedure: It was a cross-sectional study in which nearly half of the questionnaires were returned (47%). Many of the women who replied expressed great interest in the study and requested a written response concerning the results. They were all answered.

The Hypotheses

Previous research has found that an important factor implicated in the coping process of an international sojourn was previous foreign experience, therefore:

* Women who had prior international experience by way of previously living abroad will be more satisfied with life in France than those who had not lived in a foreign country before.

Cross-cultural researchers agree that preparation for a new culture by way of a formal orientation program is beneficial. Systematic orientation not only smoothes the path for the average culture traveler, but also reduces the financial and political costs represented by the businesses relocating the people and/or families. Therefore:

* Women who received cross-cultural preparation through an orientation program will be more satisfied than those who received no cross-cultural preparation.

The relationship between a sojourner's expectations of the foreign country and the fulfillment of those expectations is also seen as a crucial factor in determining adjustment. Theory suggests that high expectations which are not fulfilled are related to poor adjustment, whereas low expectations lead to better adjustment, therefore:

* Women who did not have prior expectations and women who had prior expectations which were fulfilled will be more satisfied than women who had prior expectations which were not fulfilled.

Numerous psychological variables have a history of playing a critical role in the adjustment of sojourners. The present study examined seven specific domains in the following categories:

* Degree of Urbanization.
Because it is likely that larger cities have a higher international population than smaller cities thus giving the inhabitants more opportunity to communicate with culturally diverse people, and because Paris is in fact a large city, it was hypothesized that women who came from larger cities will be better able to adapt in Paris and thus be more satisfied than women who came from smaller cities.

* Perceived Similarity of the French Mentality.
Cognitive dissonance theory states that people feel more comfortable being around people who think like they do, therefore it was hypothesized that women who perceived the mentality of the French to be similar to their own will be more satisfied with life in France than those who did not perceive the mentality to be similar.

* Perceived Similarity of Socially Acceptable Norms.
This hypothesis stems from a situational concern involving the feeling of not knowing instinctively the right thing to do. Therefore, women who perceived the socially acceptable norms of France to be more similar to their own country will feel more comfortable and be more satisfied than those who did not perceive a similarity.

* Perceptions the Women Felt the French Have About Their Native Country.
Wherever one goes overseas, you must live with the pre-conceived images people have and if you perceive that your culture is viewed in a negative way, it will greatly affect your confidence and self-esteem. Therefore, women who felt the French have positive perceptions about their country of origin would feel more comfortable and accepted and hence more satisfied, whereas the women who felt the French have negative perceptions about their country of origin would fee threatened or intimidate and not be satisfied.

* Personality Type.
This classical theory in conjunction with cross-cultural adaptation puts forth that extroverted women will seek out relationships and social support groups which will aid in adaptation, while introverted women will withdraw and seclude themselves, hindering their chances of adapting. Therefore, women who tend to direct their energies outward to derive satisfaction (extroverts) will be more satisfied with their life in France, while those who tend to turn inward from social contacts and become preoccupied with their own thoughts (introverts) will be less satisfied with their life in France.

* Degree of Flexibility.
Openness to change is a determining factor of whether someone will be able to successfully live within the boundaries of another culture, therefore women who rate themselves as very flexible will better adjust to a new culture and thus be more satisfied with their life in France than those who do not consider themselves as flexible.

* Self-Esteem.
A very significant psychological concern, maintaining self-esteem is a constant effort in a foreign country and is very important because the more one values one's self, the more likely she is to make extra efforts to adapt and be satisfied. Therefore, women who rate themselves as having high self-esteem will be more satisfied, whereas those who assess themselves as having low self-esteem will be less satisfied.

An important mental affliction that plagues sojourners is the perceived loss of control they have over the physical world around them (by way of the unfamiliar city, shops, and people) and the increased inability to control the psychic world within them (in other words their thoughts and emotions). Referred to here as locus of control, this phenomenon is exhibited in the following way: an internal person tends to take responsibility for her own actions and views herself as having control over her destiny, whereas an external person tends to see control as residing elsewhere and attributes success or failure to outside forces. Therefore:

Women who perceived themselves as internally inclined will be more satisfied than those who perceived themselves as externally inclined.

Types of support provided by interpersonal relationships have shown a highly significant role in determining a person's adaptation and sense of well-being. In fact, studies prove a direct relationship exists between social support and psychological disorder. For a sojourner, personal contact with host nationals is one of the best types of support to help one feel accepted and comfortable. Therefore:

Women who made French friends and were part of a social group (any social group) will be more satisfied with life in France than those who were not part of a social group.

Because a sojourner has taken up a new residence and gone through significant life changes, the sense of being secure and provided for is an integral, yet often unexamined, component of one's basic needs. The feeling of being as financially well-off in the foreign country as one would at home, the basic feeling of being isolated from the world you're used to, and the inevitable feelings of loneliness are strong influences on the essence of one's being. Therefore:

The less a woman felt isolated or lonely and the more she felt as financially well-off as she would be in her home country, the more satisfied she will be with her life in France, whereas the more one indicated feelings of isolation or loneliness and the less she felt as financially well-off as she would be in her home country, the less satisfied she will be with her life in France.


In general, the results were to be expected yet there were a few findings that raise exciting new questions and pose a better understanding of how to better help individuals adapt during an international sojourn.

A vast 71% of the women were living in France due to their husband's business transfer.

Only 38% went through a formal orientation program prior to their arrival. Of those, 78% found it to be helpful overall, while the others complained it was too general.

Of those respondents who did not have formal preparation, 72% felt it would have helped.

Regarding language, 62% spoke at a beginners level upon arrival and 18% spoke only a working knowledge.

76% thought the French mentality is quite different from their culture of origin.

40% thought the socially acceptable norms are somewhat different than their own.

49% believed the French have positive perceptions about their country of origin, 30% thought they have negative perceptions, and 21% felt the French are indifferent.

95% described their personality as sociable and outgoing and each respondent claimed she was flexible.

93% reported they had good self-esteem.

80% were part of a social group, and more specifically 36% belonged to an American group, 28% were part of a group from work, and 17% were part of a group associated with either the husband's work or the children's school.

67% had prior expectations and of those, 61% said they had been fulfilled.

72% had children and of these, 70% had children living with them in France.

62% indicated feelings of isolation.

88% indicated feelings of loneliness.

57% thought they were as well-off financially as they were at home.

53% said they were very satisfied, while 46% reported feelings of being not satisfied.


Pearson product-moment correlations were computed to assess the magnitude and direction of the relationship for each hypothesis. The significant correlations were as follows:

Psychological Variables: r=.2613/p=.010 (at .01 level),

Specifically within this category:
Perceptions the French have about Native Country : r=.1996/p=.003 (at .01 level)
Level of Self-Esteem: r=.2932/p=.003 (at .01 level)

Additional significant correlations:

Sense of Provision: r=.2744/p=.006 (at .01 level)

Specifically within this category:
Feelings of Isolation: r=.1794/p=.050 ( at .05 level)
Feelings of being as Financially Well-Off: r=.2142/p=.025 (at .025 level)

Additional significant correlation:

Social Support: r=-.2009/p=.033 (at .05 level)(negative because it was scored in the opposite direction)

T-test for independent samples was also employed to determine which variables were significant in producing a not as satisfied respondent from a very satisfied respondent. The significant findings were:

NOTE: THIS IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION AND WILL BE SET UP IN TABLE FORMAT. . Description of Question Group Means Not as Satisfied Very Satisfied t value p Psychological Variables 2.34 25.1 -2.36 .021** Perceptions French have 2.8 3.6 -2.96 .004*** Self- Esteem 3.3 3.7 -2.79 .006*** Sense of Provision 3.8 4.3 -2.60 .011*** As Financially Well-Off 1.5 1.7 -2.00 .049* * .05 level ** .025 level *** .01 level

In addition, the social support domain approached significance (p=.065) which is worth speculation and will be discussed in the next section.

As predicted, the women who scored higher on these significant independent variables were more satisfied than those who scored lower, which illustrates the variables found to be influential on life satisfaction in women sojourners.


The present study aimed to examine the relationship between specific psychological and situational factors and sojourner life satisfaction for women. In brief, the psychological variables category in general found support which indicates the following factors directly affect life satisfaction according to this study and should be taken into account when working with women sojourners:

The size of the city she is from (and more specifically drawing on any past cultural communications),

The perceived similarity of the host national's mentality with her own (and illustrating ways they are parallel),

The perceived similarity of the socially acceptable norms in the new country (and presenting examples of the corresponding norms and values which is highly effective when presented by a host national),

The perceived perceptions the host nationals have of her country of origin (and helping her to learn more about her own country and it's history and that of the country she is in, allowing increased confidence when discussing these things with the natives),

Her sociability and how outgoing she is (one must provide assessment and training to help build confidence in new situations and provide resources of what to do in the foreign city/country),

Her degree of flexibility (and getting her to identify with past flexible behavior, present flexible attitudes, and roleplaying new ways of keeping an open mind),

Issues relating to self-esteem ( working with women in individual or group counseling, providing resources, and doing exercises on increasing self-esteem).

Worth mentioning is the fact that the concern of the perceptions one feels the host nationals have about oneself and her culture has not been previously mentioned in the research or literature and it has tremendous value in assisting sojourners. Likewise, the self-esteem finding encourages new research and theory and has strong implications for the selection of sojourners.

Social support also appeared as an indicator as to how satisfied a sojourner is with her life in the foreign country. Women need a support group with which they can talk about feelings, know that someone will listen, and help them locate new friends and acquaintances with which to do things especially since they are often the ones who have left behind a career with a large and varied support system.

The sense of provision category also found support meaning the following factors must likewise be taken into account when counseling women sojourners:

The degree of isolation depends on where and how she spends her time (it is necessary to provide a structured place where one can come and expect activities to be going on, groups to talk with, and a list of events that one can attend, as well as resources available for her use);

The degree of loneliness one feels (again will be alleviated by providing her with opportunities to meet other natives of her country and host nationals);

The feeling of being as financially well-off (which can be handled effectively by helping her to budget for her new expenses, showing her which items differ substantially in their prices, and by giving tips as to where to get quality items for the best prices).

The main benefits of orientation programs were found to be learning about the culture, learning about the practical aspects of life in the culture, and language training. The main complaint regarding the inadequacy of orientation programs was that they were too general.

Most of the women had expectations concerning their own life in France and how it would change, not about France as a country. The challenges to be overcome in terms of parenting included help with their children making regular friends, finding good doctors, and the problem of a confining apartment life.


To date, there is precious little literature on the challenges associated with a business transfer and that which does exist is not notable for either it's theoretical sophistication or empirical rigor. It was not until comparatively recently that cross-cultural psychologists began to consider some of the psychological consequences of the business transfer and specific issues concerning women sojourners. Further research into the psychological variables that were presently found to be significant, especially concerning self-esteem and the importance placed on the perceptions people have of you, could produce useful results. It is beneficial to continue along this line of research as it carries implications of ascertaining what actually determines the various types of responses people have to a second culture.

Motives for travel are often complex having biological, psychological, and cultural determinants. From the methodological point of view, the study of social motives is limited because of the unreliability of self-report. Future research must employ an attitude measurement in conjunction with a questionnaire to give the investigator more confidence that the questions are tapping what people deem as important. For example, it has been shown that economic determinism is not a sufficient explanation for motives to migrate, which was also apparent in the present study, however, this economic factor was found to have an influence on overall life satisfaction in the foreign country. Programs looking at how economic contentment and change is related satisfaction has important suggestions for businesses sending individuals and families to foreign countries.

A central issue of culture shock is that cross-cultural problems arise because sojourners have trouble negotiating certain everyday social encounters. A serviceable program must distinguish the specific social situations which may bother sojourners, train those people in the skills that are suitable for effective interaction, and follow-up that these situations are handled successfully. Admittedly, this individualized approach is more costly than an orientation program geared towards a larger group, however, it is worth the investment for international business especially sending top players.

Previous investigations supported by theoretical and empirical considerations, reveal that one of the major sources of cultural information is the host nationals who function as culture friends and informal trainers. A successful program must have the resources to increase the development of social relations between host nationals and sojourners and continue to address the additional steps that can be taking while in the foreign country to improve satisfaction or adaptation of the sojourner.

There is extensive literature referring to the adjustment of sojourners' over time in the form of the U-curve, the W-curve, and the inverted U-curve and many theories exist as to the concept, magnitude, and duration of culture shock.

A wide variety of factors must be taken into account for each individual including intrapersonal factors, biological factors, interpersonal factors, spatial/temporal factors, geopolitical factors, and control factors.

Both experience and research have shown that cross-cultural interactions by their very nature are potentially stressful and that cross-cultural life was not meant to be easy. Applied psychology responded to this challenge and began to generate theoretical constructs and remedial methods that now enable us to comprehend and facilitate culture contact. However, a successful program must be able to uncover the resources within each person that have successfully led them through other transitions in their life (e.g., moving to a big city, going to college).


If culture shock is perceived as disorientation, change may produce blockages and defensive communication. Perceived as challenge, however, change can stimulate creativity, provisional communication, and self-development. Positive benefits can and do result from living in foreign countries and this needs to become the central focus in order to increase individual and work performance.

by Erin, for her Masters of Science degree

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