When an Ostrich, a Bird, a Frog and a Lizard are moved to a foreign environment…


Here is a puzzle: if an Ostrich, a Bird, a Frog and a Lizard are moved to a foreign environment, which one of them has the best chance of successful adaption and adjustment? Taken literally, the puzzle sounds like a case for environmental biologists… yet, let’s look at it metaphorically and explore the theme of cultural adaptation in light of recent research.

In their recent article, Li, Zhang and Harzing (2019) introduced the aforementioned metaphors to refer to different cultural identity negotiation strategies, while exploring how these strategies link to expatriates’ responses to their host cultures, and the underlying psychological mechanisms.

Although there is quite a bit of research evidence on the influence of different trait and situational antecedents for cultural identification—and hence expatriation experiences—Li and colleagues point to the dynamic cultural identity perspective, which implies the notion of choice in conceptualizing one’s cultural identity. Based on the existing literature on cultural identification, the researchers differentiate between four choices, or cultural identity negotiation strategies: monocultural, multicultural, global and cosmopolitan strategies. Expats may adopt a monocultural strategy when they choose their home country in defining the self and are not willing to identify with the host culture. With this strategy, international assignees may see themselves as foreigners, as different from host country nationals, and unwilling or unable to fit into the host environment. A multicultural strategy means that the person is identifying with both, home and host culture, making them compatible. The multicultural identity negotiation strategy is often used by bicultural individuals, who find a way to integrate both cultures into their identity. Expatriates, who adopt a global strategy, transcend both home and host cultures and define themselves in terms of similarities and universalism across cultures. For example, the values of human rights and nature conservation can be something that unites global citizens and creates a sense of belonging to a global community, beyond national and cultural boundaries. Finally, expats who use a cosmopolitan strategy are also culturally independent from their home and host cultures, yet are interested and willing to engage with the host culture.

Looking at theoretical conceptualizations of responses to cultural exposure, the scholars use the differentiation between exclusionary and integrative responses. An exclusionary response, as the term itself suggests, shows a resistance toward and rejection of the foreign culture and is associated with feelings of stress and anxiety while working abroad. With such a response, the expat is less likely to build social relations with locals and tries to avoid the local culture. In contrast, expatriates with integrative responses willingly accept the host culture and make it complementary to their home culture. For instance, expats with integrative response are willing to learn the local language and actively engage with local employees.

Why would expatriates with different identity negotiation strategies use exclusionary versus integrative responses? Here, the researchers identified two important underlying mechanisms: salience of the home culture identity (dominance of home culture identity) and cultural learning mindset (favourable attitudes towards intercultural learning).

Bringing it all together, Li and colleagues propose a model of associations between identity strategies and expatriate responses:

  • High salience of home culture identity AND absence of cultural learning mindset result in a monocultural strategy, or so-called ‘Ostrich’ strategy. In a natural Ostrich manner, such expatriates are ‘burying their head in the sand’ and ignore the host culture, thus using mainly exclusionary responses.
  • Low salience of home culture identity AND absence of cultural learning mindset relate to a global strategy, also called ‘Bird’. Expats with a global strategy do not identify with either culture. Similar to birds, they are detached from the ground and fly in the sky, hence use a universal approach across cultures. Exposure to foreign culture elicits neither exclusionary nor integrative responses in Birds.
  • High salience of home culture identity AND presence of cultural learning mindset relate to a multicultural ‘Frog’ strategy. Frogs can quite successfully live in the water and on the land, just like multicultural expatriates succeed in internalizing the host culture while also maintaining their home culture. As such, Frogs would be using both, exclusionary and integrative responses.
  • Finally, low salience of home culture identity AND presence of cultural learning mindset brings us to the cosmopolitan strategy, or the ‘Lizard’ strategy. Lizards are masters of adapting to their surroundings, which is a good metaphor for expatriates who—while not identifying with either home or host culture—are willing and interested to fit into the host environment. Therefore, Lizards will be mainly using integrative strategies.

Returning to the initial puzzle, available research on expatriation suggests that integrative strategies, used by Frogs and Lizards, have generally more positive implications for expatriates. Taking into account the dynamic nature of cultural identity negotiation, managers seems to be in a good position to support the development of situation- and employee-specific negotiation strategies in their expatriates. Moreover, to the extent that expatriate training aims to decrease home country identity salience or increase a cultural learning mindset, exclusionary responses can be deactivated and integrative responses supported.


Further reading:
Li, C., Zhang, L. E., & Harzing, A.-W. (2019). Of ostriches, frogs, birds and lizards: A dynamic framework of cultural identity negotiation strategies in an era of global mobility. Journal of Global Mobility: the Home of Expatriate Management Research, 7, 3, 239-254.

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