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New culture. New identity?

Immigrating and adapting to a new country means experiencing a new culture and a new way of life. An immigrant could experience emotional extremes. While the positive experiences bring a sense of adventure, we explore the emotional struggles one experiences to accept a new place as home where you don’t feel fully welcomed and visible.

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I lived abroad for so long that I lost the right to vote in national elections in my home country. Of course, this is just a simplification of my life. The point is that I don’t know what it means to leave home and go abroad. But that does not mean I don’t understand the struggles of adapting to a new host country.

Moving abroad is more than just packing your bags. It’s about transplanting who you are into a new environment, an environment potentially hostile to you, your skin colour, way of talking, or behaviour. Even when moving from a predominantly white to another predominantly white country, you have to adapt and your accent tells everyone that you are not from here. I was once mistaken to be the au-pair of my children, who look and talk like Irish people compared to me. That remains to this day one of the most shocking experiences I had when moving to Ireland. It made it clear that I was not from here, and might never be fully from here.

The stress of immigration

An immigrant is someone who decided to leave their home country to become an enduring resident in another country (Lamont & Molnár, 2002). Immigrating is not just a momentary move to another country, it’s also not being a nomad and traveling around. It’s about making a new life in a new country. This distinction is important. Immigrants do not go back. And because they do not plan to go back, they experience their host country differently and have different struggles than, for example, expats. Expats know that this life abroad is only momentary. They often still have a house in their home country. Expats develop a cosmopolitan identity. They combine aspects of their home and host country to create a new social identity. This is similar to digital nomads. Digital nomads might not move back to their home country, but just like expats the new destination is transitory.

Often, expats are also sent by their employer on an international assignment and thus are coming to a new country with a support network in place. Like a friend of mine who moved for work, the move was organised and as stress free as moving to another continent can be. This is none existent for immigrants. Immigrants leave everything at home. They might have a number of friends or family members that can help them when first arriving in a new country, but this support is more emotional and pale in comparison with the support expats receive from their employer.

Immigration is a major disruption to life. It’s a big life-changing event. It requires reconstruction of your social identity and a change in social status (Shaffer, Harrison Gilley & Luk, 2001). One of the biggest stressors immigrants experience is their loss of identity and status when moving to a new country. A social identity is being part of and feeling connected to a group. It’s the knowledge (cognition), together with the emotional value and importance related to being a group member (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Individuals have different social identities, and based on cues in the environment one identity becomes stronger, more salient, than another. This is important, as the social identity that is strongest, is the one that decides what norms are acceptable and what behaviours are allowed and not allowed.

The advantages of immigrating

With all these potential challenges with immigration, and we haven’t talked about the ugly side, overt and covert racism, challenges of refugees and the dangers of illegal and legal immigration (trafficking, exploitation by employers and other people) are there any advantages of immigrating?

1. One advantage of being an immigrant is your creativity. Being multilingual, as many immigrants are, is associated with divergent thinking (Lee & Kim, 2011). Divergent thinking is the ability to come up with many solutions to a problem. It’s the precursor to creativity and innovation. You know, the exercise to come up with as many potential uses for a brick? That’s a typical divergent thinking exercise.

2. Another advantage immigrants have is that they are likely to have a greater entrepreneurial personality (Chew and Zhu, 2002). That means they have a need for achievement, the desire to take initiative, a willingness to take risk, innovativeness, and perseverance (Thomas and Mueller, 2000). That’s what gets them to pack up and move in the first place. So maybe after all, my family of civil servants who moved to foreign countries in the 1980s is more entrepreneurial than what I thought.

Brain Work

Consider your travels and experiences with people from other cultures: What strikes you as weird or odd?

What aspect of your current social identity would you like to replace with behaviours or norms from a different culture?

What do you find really annoying about your country-men in other countries, or about the customs in other countries?


Finding your new identity and your tribe in a new country

When moving to a new country, you are no more a member of the social groups in your home country. At the same time, you can’t just join similar groups in your host country because you look and speak differently. This creates an emotional conflict. The most common solution for immigrants is to develop two separate social identities: One related to the host country and the other to the home country. While this might solve the problem on the surface, it can also lead to further challenges. Immigrants can struggle to determine what ethnic group they belong to and to which cultural values they should feel emotionally attached to. These emotional struggles can lead to feelings of no self-worth (Raquel C. Hoersting, Sharon Rae Jenkins, 2011), especially if the immigrants have a strong need for a cultural home.

There isn’t much of a solution to this struggle. There is no quick fix, but requires time and reflecting on your experiences to make sense of them. A person can be witness to a tremendous parade of episodes and yet, if he fails to keep making something out of them, he gains little in the way of experience from having been around when they happened. It is not what happens around him that makes a man experienced; it is the successive construing and re-construing of what happens, as it happens, that enriches the experience of his life (Kelly, 1963, p. 73).

Practically this means taking the time to think and create a new social identity within the constraints of your host country (Collier, 1998; Schaetti, 2000). Experimenting and trying out different ways to feel connected to your host country is very important for your wellbeing. We explore further on the concept of a new social identity and the effect on our mental health in our post Parent as a new identity. People have different social identities. Each identity is related to a characteristic of the person. Depending on the context, one identity dominates the other and guides our behaviour. Feeling disconnected from your host country has a negative impact on your mental health. Specifically, immigrants who continue to ruminate about the past and struggle to let go of their old social identities from their home country, experience immmigrating negatively. Immigrants who embrace the host country experience as a way to learn and grow, find ways to integrate within the community and form new identities without forgetting the positives from their home country, live a more enriched life.

Tiny tips

1. Pick the good from the past

Reflect and list what you like about your home country, what values you cherish or dislike, what norms you look forward to dropping and which ones you think you can never let go.

2. Pick the good from the present

Make a list of cultural experiences you have in your host country. Both positive and negative. Think about the people, communities, and organisations that made you feel welcomed and those who didn’t.

3. Best of both worlds

The positives of your home country and the positives of your host country molded together will help you arrive at forming a new social identity and a social circle that makes you feel like you are at home even when you are far away.


Chew, I. K. H., & Zhu, W. 2002. Factors influencing Singapore managers’ career aspiration in international
assignments. Career Development International, 7: 96-108.

Dwertman, D. J. G., and Kunze, F. (2020). More Than Meets the Eye: The Role of Immigration Background for Social Identity Effects. Journal of Management. Doi: 10.1177/0149206320929080

Harrison, D. A., Harrison, T., and Shaffer, M. A. (2019). Strangers in a Strained Lands: Learning from workplace experiences of immigrant employees. Journal of Management, 45 (2), p. 600 – 619

Hoersting, R. C., & Jenkins, S. R. (2011). No place to call home: Cultural homelessness, self-esteem and cross-cultural identities. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(1), 17-30.

Lee, H., & Kim, K. H. 2011. Can speaking more languages enhance your creativity? Relationship between bilin- gualism and creative potential among Korean American students with multicultural link. Personality and Individual Differences, 50: 1186-1190.

Olsen, J. and Martins, L. L. (2009). The effects of expatriate demographic characteristics on adjustment: a social identity approach. Human Resource Management, 48 (2), p. 311 – 328

Shaffner, M. A. , Harrison, D. A., Gillney, M., and Luk, D. M. (2001). Struggling for balance amid turbulence on international assignments: work–family conflict, support and commitment. JOurnal of Management, 27, pp. 99 – 121

Shaffer, M. A., Kraimer, M. L., Chen, Y.-P., and Bolino, M. C. (2012). Choices, Challenges, and Career Consequences of Global Work Experiences: A Review and Future Agenda. Journal of Management, 38(4), 1282–1327. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206312441834

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations (pp. 33–47).

Thomas, A. S., & Mueller, S. L. (2000). A case for comparative entrepreneurship: Assessing the relevance of culture. Journal of international business studies, 31(2), 287-301.

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