Seventy-five percent of expatriate assignments end before the projected end date, according to this article, “Training: The Solution to the Expat Challenge,” which comes from the periodical, Training. According to the same article, these assignments end often because of the spouse, not the worker. While the company likely vets and trains the employee, the spouse likely has not been examined for his or her ability to work in and adapt to the new culture. This article suggests that training for the spouse could improve the employee’s–and the company’s–chance of success. I agree, and I see a potential for personal growth and learning for the spouse, if the trainer tailors his or her training for the life of the spouse.
Companies tend to offer more structure for the employee, while the spouse does not begin with this advantage. The employee enters a world of work similar to what he or she experienced back home. Coworkers are prepared for a newcomer and the have likely worked with foreigners before. They will be friendly towards their new office-mate. Often the employee was chosen for this assignment because of success at work, so the feeling of success begins the job. The spouse, however, stays at home, away from this helpful structure. Moreover, the spouse will be in charge of children and their education and activities. No one provides a familiar structure or friendly people; the spouse must find it on their own.
Training spouses can create a positive, affirming structure in completely foreign surroundings, equipping them for a creative social adventure. First, training will teach them about the culture and about the sorts of questions to ask to understand one’s surroundings. While employees are trained on how to make a deal in the new country, spouses need specific training to know about philosophies about gender roles and child-rearing and typical children’s activities. For example, do families typically have one or two employed parents? Do children take gymnastics in this country? Do kids play all afternoon by themselves, or do they participate in structured, adult-led activities? In Eastern Europe, children typically spend much of their time in unstructured play outside, while in East Asia children may spend much time in music lessons. With this knowledge, the spouse can structure a more American or more “foreign” life for the family, depending on comfort level.
Through the experiences of managing the household and children’s education, spouses will have unique opportunities to learn the local language. They will experience more linguistic success through proper training, they may even enjoy advantages over the employee in this pursuit. The employee may spend much of the day in a set schedule, speaking English much of the time. The spouse will likely interact with bus drivers, housekeepers, bank tellers, or sales people. He or she could set up language exchanges to learn the language, or can volunteer. When we lived in Ukraine, my wife volunteered to work with developmentally-disabled teens and helped them with crafts. She quickly learned to say in Ukrainian, “Beautiful!” (“Harno!”), “Good job!” (“Molodets!”) and “beads” (“bisery”). The spouse has more options about with whom he or she socializes and so has more means for learning the language, and some linguistic training only improves the spouse’s chance for success.
Second, training can teach spouses about their internal tendencies in dealing with new situations and about using them to succeed overseas. Since life is less structured, the spouse must adapt quickly to unexpected situations. A neighbor of the opposite sex stops by: is this OK or is it weird? The child of the expat got punched on the playground. Was this an affront to a foreigner, a bully, or an everyday event? Training cannot help plan for every specific situation, but can help spouses use interior tendencies and abilities in the most positive way. Spouses draw from their confidence that they can solve any problem as they make mistakes and learn. Unfamiliarity with new situations will challenge one’s abilities, but these situations will strengthen these abilities. One can draw from these abilities in the future to solve problems more confidently and successfully.
The new situations faced by ex-pat employees are new versions of their old job; those of the spouse are entirely new. When the company trains the spouse on what sorts of problems he or she may face, and how he or she can draw on internal resources to overcome them, the spouse learns and flourishes and the company wins. In the end, the spouse has not only successfully navigated the new culture with its unfamiliar linguistic and social landscape, but permanently possesses the strength and character the experience has provided.