The Consumer Acculturation of Expatriate Americans

Mary C. Gilly, University of California, Irvine
ABSTRACT - As U.S. business expands overseas, more Americans are experiencing the role of expatriate. Research in the field of management suggests that the adjustment to a new cultural environment is difficult for both expatriates and their families. Consumer researchers have examined the adjustment of immigrants (cf. Belk 1992) but not the experience of expatriates. Expatriates offer the unique opportunity to examine two issues of interest to consumer researchers: consumer learning and the meaning of possessions. The qualitative research reported here examines the expatriate consumer experience from the perspective of American women living in Madrid, Spain.
[ to cite ]:
Mary C. Gilly (1995) ,"The Consumer Acculturation of Expatriate Americans", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 506-510.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 506-510


Mary C. Gilly, University of California, Irvine


As U.S. business expands overseas, more Americans are experiencing the role of expatriate. Research in the field of management suggests that the adjustment to a new cultural environment is difficult for both expatriates and their families. Consumer researchers have examined the adjustment of immigrants (cf. Belk 1992) but not the experience of expatriates. Expatriates offer the unique opportunity to examine two issues of interest to consumer researchers: consumer learning and the meaning of possessions. The qualitative research reported here examines the expatriate consumer experience from the perspective of American women living in Madrid, Spain.


One area of cross-cultural consumer research which has been virtually ignored in the marketing and consumer behavior literature is the consumer experiences of American expatriates (for an exception, see Dawson and Bamossy 1991). In the organizational behavior literature, a body of research on expatriate managers has recently emerged (cf. Black 1988; Black, Mendenhall and Oddou 1991; Mendenhall and Oddou 1985). Research specifically on the spouses of expatriate managers suggests that adjustment to living conditions (housing, food, shopping, transportation, entertainment/recreation, and health care) facilitates cultural adjustment, and is correlated with the expatriate's intent to stay with the assignment (Black and Gregersen 1991; Black and Stephens 1989). Belk (1992) suggests that "the meaning of possessions should be studied among contemporary movers (including moves precipitated by...migration between cultures)" (p. 358).

Examining expatriate consumer experiences offers several benefits. First, expatriates enter a new consumer environment, most likely far different from simply moving within the increasingly homogenous U.S. Thus, consumer learning must take place, providing the opportunity to study the consumer learning of adults, rather than children, which is the usual sample unit.

Second, a sample of expatriates provides the opportunity to study the meaning of possessions in a new and potentially insightful way. It has been suggested that the U.S. consumer culture encourages the salience of material items in the definition of self (Dawson and Bamossy 1991). It is thus important to explore what U.S. products and possessions are missed most by expatriates, and why.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the consumer experiences of expatriate Americans. First, the relevant literature is briefly reviewed. Then, a study involving participant observation and in-depth interviews of American women living in Madrid, Spain is described and the results presented. Finally, implications for consumer learning, the meaning of possessions and cross-cultural research are explored.


As the international activities of U.S. firms increase, more American employees are sent overseas on temporary assignments (Gregersen and Black 1992). While Belk (1992) claims that contemporary geographical moves within the developed world are relatively "unproblematic," he acknowledges that "challenges remain in such moves as...leaving country of birth,...and going to a very new and unfamiliar environment" (p. 358). Expatriate employees and their families typically face difficult adjustments to living in a foreign culture. Between 16 and 40 percent of American employees sent abroad return from their work assignments early (Black, Mendenhall and Oddou 1991). The primary reason given by American firms for these premature returns is the failure of the expatriate's spouse to successfully adapt to the foreign culture. A secondary reason is the failure of the expatriate him/herself to adapt to both living and working in a different culture (Tung 1981).

From a non-job standpoint, expatriation represents a difficult adjustment for a number of reasons. First, such a move often necessitates the disposition of objects which have important meanings for the expatriate. Because the average expected length of time in the overseas assignment is four years (Black and Stephens 1989), such disposition may be temporary (e.g., storing furniture, renting the home) or permanent (e.g., selling the car, giving away clothes). Wallendorf and Arnould (1988) suggest that, because objects carry meaning related to self-concept, "losing or severing our connection to objects non voluntarily can change the meaning of life for individuals" (p. 532). Even when an expatriate has eagerly pursued an overseas assignment, there are aspects of the move which are "non voluntary." Expense or lack of space may preclude bringing along treasured objects.

There is some anecdotal evidence that expatriates also miss goods which are unavailable in their host country.

For 24 years I have seen expatriate spouses come and go; many would fail or be miserable because they didn't have the split level home on a dead end street, the Jell-O, the cotton bread, the prepared foods, etc. (An American HRM executive quoted in Black and Gregersen (1991)).

Chatwin (1990) interviewed American expatriates in Lausanne, Switzerland and found that adaptation to a new culture could be detected through the pattern of adjustment of food-related behaviors. She found four main periods of adjustment: 1) euphoria, where new arrivals are open to new sights, sounds and tastes, 2) skepticism, where the newness becomes threatening, 3) integration, where guilt feelings emerge (because Americans place value in learning new ways) so that some effort is made to obtain some ingredients for favorite dishes from local sources, and 4) adaptation, where ingredients are consciously substituted and foods from home are combined with foods from the host country, with the expatriate again willing to try completely new foods. Thus, food can be an intensely personal and self-defining consumer product for expatriates (as the quotation above suggests).

Conversely, Dawson and Bamossy (1991) suggest that, "being thrust into a foreign cultural environment without one's worldly possessions is likely to cause an expatriate to view having possessions from an entirely different perspective, and to focus more on concerns of doing and being" (p. 367). In their study of expatriate Americans living in the Netherlands, they found that the expatriates had consistently lower materialism scores (using Belk's measures) than either the Dutch or the American samples. Thus, the "doing without" of familiar possessions and products can be either a miserable or a liberating experience.

A second reason expatriates face difficulties is the general problem of adjusting to a new and different culture. A great deal of time and energy must be invested to adjust to such new aspects of the culture as transportation systems, housing arrangements, health care providers, and types of food and their preparation (Gregersen and Black 1992). In the consumer behavior literature, the problem has been studied within the context of acculturation, defined as the "adoption of the dominant society's attitudes, values and behaviors" (O'Guinn, Lee and Faber 1986, p. 579). Acculturation is a term typically used in reference to immigrants who plan to stay permanently in their adopted country. While it can also be applied to the temporary adoption of the new culture's norms of behavior, a related but more relevant stream of research might be that on culture shock (Gullahorn and Gullahorn 1962; Oberg 1960; Torbiorn 1982). Culture shock scholars suggest that people face uncertainty about what behavior is acceptable when they enter a new culture. Over time, they discover differences in cultural norms so that they are no longer certain what behaviors are acceptable and what are offensive. Many of the symptoms of culture shock (e.g., anxiety, confusion, apathy (Torbiorn 1982)) result from the stress of uncertainty concerning behavioral expectations. Therefore, the process of cross-cultural adjustment involves uncertainty reduction by learning whether behaviors are appropriate or not in the new culture (Black and Gregersen 1991).

The qualitative research reported here was designed to complement the survey research conducted on expatriate spouses and their adjustment to a new culture (e.g., Black and Stephens 1989). Specifically, the research focuses on expatriate spouses' adjustment to leaving behind possessions, to the unavailability of certain American products, and to learning new ways of shopping for goods and obtaining services.


Because of the dearth of research on the consumer experiences of expatriate Americans, a qualitative approach is appropriate. It was important that informants be chosen who would have had significant experience shopping in Spain. Thus, women were targeted because of previous research which indicates that the great majority of expatriates are men and that 80% of expatriate spouses do not work outside of the home (Stephens and Black 1988). Belk (1992) suggests that, "gender should be an important consideration in analyzing the uses and meanings of possessions during geographic movements" (p. 358). Further, most day-to-day consumer experiences revolve around the purchase and preparation of food, typically the domain of women (cf. Levy 1981; Thompson, Locander and Pollio 1990). The researcher conducting the interviews is a woman, obviating some of the concerns of Bristor and Fischer (1993).

Twelve expatriate American women agreed to be interviewed. Contacts were made through personal contact with the researcher, referrals from other informants, and through the cooperation of the American Women's Club in Madrid, Spain. All of the informants had been in Spain for a minimum of six months. Informants were chosen such that the sample would represent a range of ages, household compositions, and backgrounds. In addition, the researcher engaged in participant observation, living as an expatriate for a year in Madrid. Shopping experiences were noted, and photographs taken. The in-depth interview tapes were transcribed and analyzed as outlined by McCracken (1988). The Table gives characteristics of the twelve informants (excluding the researcher).

In reporting results, all informants have been given names other than their own. Following an informant's pseudonym, the informant's age is indicated, followed by her length of time in Spain as of the date of the interview. A great deal of research supports the idea that adaptation to the new culture changes over time for expatriates (cf. Black et al. 1991; Gullahorn and Gullahorn 1962; Torbiorn 1982).


Disposition of Possessions

When employees take overseas assignments, they may bring all of their household and personal possessions, or they can take the bare minimum to the new country. Only three of the twelve informants brought virtually all of their possessions. Ellen (40; 6 mos.) expects to be in Spain for 10 years, and thus brought her entire household contents. The only other informants who brought "everything" were Monica (43; 7 mos.) and Toni (48; 2.5 yrs.). They plan to stay 2.5 years and 5 years respectively, but because the employers paid for moving the household, these two women chose to bring all of their possessions. However, even these three women had to leave possessions behind because of the difference in voltage, or because the object did not "fit" in terms of size or aesthetics.

All of the other informants brought limited amounts of goods, moving into furnished apartments in Madrid. Most of these informants mentioned bringing clothing and books, as well as personal items such as photographs and jewelry. Three informants brought their dogs. Interestingly, several informants chose to bring housewares, such as linens, pots and pans, and Tupperware, despite the fact that they were provided with furnished apartments and comparable items are available in Madrid.

All of the expatriate informants had possessions they had left behind. These objects were donated (antique furniture), rented or sold (houses), given to friends to use (110 volt appliances), or put in storage (bikes, vacuum, garden equipment). Most of the informants who had brought very little to Madrid left an entire furnished house (to rent or for a family member to use) and left other possessions in storage. Marilyn (29; 1.5 yrs.) sold furniture, car, condo, "everything." She did leave behind some clothes, books and "sentimental things that I wouldn't sell." This was the one unmarried informant.

The attitudes of the informants toward disposing of possessions varied widely, from Ellen (40; 6 mos.) who described the process as being very difficult and painful to Marty (56; 3 yrs.) who disposed of much of her furniture (by giving it to her children or selling it) because the tenants wanted the house unfurnished and "I didn't have antiques so I figured whatever I had I could replace." The strength of feelings seems to be related to how well they were adjusting. Ellen was having a difficult time adjusting to Spain, despite her extensive prior expatriate experiences and her fluency in Spanish. Conversely, Marty saw her time in Spain as an "adventure," saying, "I don't want to go back to the U.S. I want to experience new things." This latter attitude is consistent with Dawson and Bamossy's (1991) survey findings that expatriates become less materialistic and become more interested in activities. The remaining informants expressed attitudes between these two extremes, expressing ambivalence about leaving their possessions but enjoying their new experiences.

When informants were asked what they missed most about living in the U.S., interestingly, "things" were not mentioned frequently. Rather, answers focused on having familiarity with how things work. This theme was expressed in a number of ways, such as missing "the ability to communicate" (Nora, 60; 7 mos.), "being able to rush out and get something and I know exactly where it is, it's fairly close and they have a good selection of what I need" (Deborah, 30; 9 mos.), "independence" (Toni, 48; 2.5 yrs), "knowing where to go; knowing what to pay; I miss the sense of mastery of the situation you have in the U.S." (Ruth, 51; 1 yr). These statements are consistent with the literature on culture shock which suggests that it is stressful not knowing what behaviors are acceptable in the new culture. Thus, it is "easy" to live in the U.S. where the expatriates know how things work, while it is "difficult" to live in Spain, where they face a learning situation because they don't know were to go, how to make purchases, and often do not have the language skills to learn this information easily.



Missing American Products

All of the informants had "sources" of U.S. products, typically friends and family coming to visit, or their own trips back to the U.S. The list of products missed and sought out reflected an interesting variety of products. Ellen (40; 6 mos.) had not been able to find cottage cheese and peanut butter. She was considering doing an import/export business on her own, targeting the American expatriate community. Deborah (30; 9 mos.) and Diane (37; 1 yr.) both had people bring them over-the-counter medications, suggesting a lack of trust in Spanish medications. Monica (43; 7 mos.) had people bring her Charmin toilet paper. She said she hadn't even tried to find anything comparable because she kept having visitors from the U.S.! Nora (60; 1.5 yrs.) brought back Crisco shortening, corn meal and Jell-O from the U.S. at Christmas. Mary Ellen (55; 2.5 yrs.) freezes corn tortillas and brings them back in her suitcase. Bisquick, microwave popcorn, pancake syrup and sour cream were other products missed by these expatriates. The American Women's Club of Madrid has a "bring and buy" sale regularly, where members bring things to sell, and the American products brought back from the States are always popular. The prominence of food in the list of products missed supports Chatwin's (1990) findings regarding the importance of familiar foods to expatriates.

Learning About A New Consumer Environment

Two product categories were chosen for more in-depth questioning. Informants were asked about differences they had observed in purchasing grocery products and health care products and services. Because of the frequent need for grocery shopping, this was the area which received the more complete response.

Informants all observed that grocery shopping must be done more frequently in Spain than in the U.S. This is due to several factors. First, packaged goods are less available in Spain; therefore, these expatriate women found themselves preparing more fresh (and therefore perishable) foods than in the U.S. Further, many of the informants did not have automobiles in Madrid (because of fears of driving in a foreign country and lack of parking, as well as the availability of good public transportation) and were constrained by the amount they could carry home by foot or on the bus. Thus, they had to make smaller trips more frequently. Third, shopping is done more frequently by these expatriates because of a lack of space for storing products in the home. Madrid is a city of apartments (pisos) which, while spacious, tend to be smaller than the suburban homes these women had left in the U.S. This increased frequency of shopping was a major adjustment problem for the informants. As Ellen (40; 6 mos.) put it, "Grocery shopping is something I hate to do and now I have to do it more frequently!"

Another theme which emerged was a perception that Spain offered less variety of goods. But when looking at the specific products mentioned by informants, the variety appears to be lacking in products which Americans purchase frequently but Spaniards do not. Examples informants gave were product categories such as frozen foods, canned goods, cake mixes, canned soup ("Two different types of Campbell's and that's it," said Nora, 60; 1.5 yrs.), and, of course, Jell-O ("Just orange and strawberry," said Emily, 50; 1.5 yrs.). My own observations of selection reveal that a typical Spanish store will devote an entire aisle to varieties of olive oil (vs. one or two brands in the U.S.), and almost that much space to all kinds of jars and cans of asparagus. These are two product categories consumed more in Spain than in the U.S. Thus, the expatriates tend to attribute the problem to supply (i.e., the stores do not offer variety) while it is more likely one of demand (i.e., the expatriates do not purchase the products for which there is variety).

Related to the theme of frustration over not being in control mentioned previously is the observations made by several informants about the lack of self-service in the Spanish markets. In almost all Spanish stores, consumers are not allowed to choose their own produce, but must rely on the grocer to give them six apples, four tomatoes, or whatever (as Sharon (58; 1.5 yrs.) said, "You can't touch the fruits or vegetables; they just about smack your hand if you do"). Ruth (51; 1 yr.) expressed the sentiments of many of the informants when she said, "In the U.S. I feel more in control because of self-service. More personal contact cuts both waysCyou have a person smiling at you as they're putting rotten tomatoes in your bag."

Many expatriates express concern about hygiene and cleanliness in the new country (Torbiorn 1982). This concern emerged in the interviews about both grocery products and health care services. Two of the informants focused on the display of meat products in Spain. As Deborah (30; 9 mos.) said, "Meat is packaged in the U.S. and in Spain it's less sanitary. We have ours in packaging and they have theirs kind of hanging out there with the heads on and the arms and the eyes on the fish looking at you." This sentiment was echoed by Marty (56; 3 yrs.): "They have rabbits and chickens hanging up, looking at you." However, this concern for "sanitation" may simply be an American aversion to seeing food as it was when it was alive. Spaniards, like many Europeans, display whole fish, rabbits, pigs, etc. in restaurants to suggest freshness.

Several of the other informants expressed concern about hygiene and safety regarding health care products. The common adjective used to describe health care services was "scary." Diane (37; 1 yr.) said, "I view the pharmacies as almost scaryCthere's not enough regulation on the pharmacy." Nora (60; 1.5 yrs.) said, "It's scary thinking about going to a doctor here because it would have to be someone English-speaking or I wouldn't feel comfortable or confident." Marilyn (29; 1.5 yrs.) echoed this sentiment, "I'm scared of it [health care]. If something serious happens to me, my roommates know they should drive me to the airport and put me on a plane to the U.S.!"

This fear of Spanish health care is countered by the informants who had actually used it. Their experiences (ranging from 27 stitches in Ellen's (40; 6 mos.) daughter's hand to Toni's (48; 2.5 yrs.) root canal) were generally quite positive. Thus, it appears that it is the "fear of the unknown" that is driving the non-users' opinions of Spanish health care services.

Informants were asked who they ask for advice on where to go for a product or service. All of the expatriates said that they ask other Americans who have been in Spain longer for product advice. The American Women's Club of Madrid keeps a file of members' suggestions and publishes a book, Bear Facts, with advice for American expatriates in Madrid. Other sources of information included Spaniards at the husband's workplace, Spanish neighbors or the portero. (Each apartment building has a portero who has a desk in the lobby and is in charge of the building.) But the overwhelming tendency was to rely on fellow expatriates. This theme suggests the importance of perceived homophily (i.e., shared needs) in word-of-mouth seeking for expatriates, rather than expertise (which Spaniards would more likely have).

Informants were asked what changes they had noticed in themselves as consumers since coming to Spain. The common theme here was a decrease in materialism. Monica (43; 7 mos.) said, "I'm spending less money; not shopping as much," while Ruth (51; 1 yr.) said, "I wait longer to buy something," and Marilyn (29; 1.5 yrs.) summed it up when she said, "I'm less materialistic. I have less money and everything is more expensive. I'm out of the habit of shopping just for shopping sake." These statements, again, support the Dawson and Bamossy (1991) survey findings of less materialism among American expatriates living in the Netherlands.


The interviews with American expatriates in Spain, and the expatriate experiences of the researcher, confirm the difficulty involved in leaving the U.S. and adjusting to a new consumer environment. Most expatriates leave behind most of their possessions, only bringing clothing, books, and perhaps a few personal items such as photographs or jewelry. Belk (1992) says that, "During geographic transitions we move those possessions that are most apt to move us" (p. 339). However, it is interesting to note that none of the women mentioned bringing a particular special possession nor were special possessions typically mentioned when informants were asked what they missed. It may be that people who are willing to take overseas assignments are generally less attached to their possessions than people who do not choose to go overseas. When I was preparing to leave for my expatriate experience in Spain, many people reacted to the news with comments such as, "How could you stand to leave all your things with strangers?" It may be that there is an expatriate "personality" which enables people to leave possessions behind in favor of new experiences. This issue deserves further study.

The one thing expatriates missed most was being familiar with the "way things work," particularly as consumers. Thus, they learned to rely on other American expatriates for product and shopping advice because these information sources have already "conquered" the unknown. Still, informants admitted to consumer learning by trial and error, observation and "fumbling around."

Similar to the findings of Dawson and Bamossy (1991), the informants became less materialistic as they learned to "do without" their possessions. However, there were certain American products, particularly food, which seemed to symbolize home. These products were sought out and obtained at great expense and effort. Belk (1992) observes that people may gain a feeling of security from familiar things which symbolize connections to past life and home. Thus, while possessions seemed to lose their importance overall, certain products retained (or perhaps gained) significance for these expatriates.

Further research is needed to gain a full understanding of the expatriate consumer experience. The informants in this study felt frustration because they did not understand how things worked in the new culture. Is this frustration felt because of the language barrier or would American expatriates in English-speaking countries have similar experiences? Research on other American expatriates would help to answer this question.

The consumer experiences of expatriates represent an opportunity for a unique perspective on other cultures, as well as our own. Further research on expatriate consumers would contribute to the literature on consumer learning, the meaning of possessions, and cross-cultural understanding.


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