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Culture, Type and Expats


Jennifer Ginger’s article (Typeface, Spring 2007) about the stressors experienced by expatriate managers concluded that organisations should offer cultural awareness training or personal coaching to them, for both ethical and business effectiveness reasons.  My own research (Organisations and People, 1999) drew similar conclusions, and I also advocate extending such assistance to partners and families.


How can MBTI help in this area? 


Type and Culture (Kirby, Kendall, Barger, 2007) is a useful resource for working with expatriates, as it links some of the well-known models of culture (Trompenaars, (1998), Hofstede, (1991)) to type preferences.  In this article, I apply this approach to my own experience of living in Egypt and Brazil and speculate how my own type helped or hindered me in adapting to the host culture. 


Culture influences the behavioural expression of type.  If our type is congruent with the cultural values and behaviours of the country in which we live, we will feel more comfortable; if not, we will feel more challenged. 


Adapting to a host culture may be particularly problematic when:


  • The host country culture differs from that of the home country

  • And thebehavioural expression of the culture differs from the type preference of the expatriate.


Below I have selected three of the cultural factors listed in “Type and Culture” and given some personal examples from my own experience of living in Egypt and Brazil between 1995 and 2002. 





Does the culture emphasise rules or relationships?  Trompenaars suggests the UK has a universalist approach; my guess is that both Egypt and Brazil are particularist.


The universalist emphasis on rules and an impersonal approach fits with TJ preferences; the particularist emphasis on relationships and flexibility may fit with FP preferences.


There was always the sense in Egypt that rules were negotiable. On one occasion we were told by police that we couldn’t go into a particular area in the desert in our 4 wheel drives, but after some friendly conversation, they kindly explained to us how to get there!  As an INTP, I liked and appreciated the flexibility of rules in Egypt, though sometimes got impatient with the time taken to haggle over them.  My ISTJ husband often got particularly frustrated by the lack of certainty at work.


If you wanted to get anything done in Egypt, it was essential to take time to get to know people before doing business. Even the greengrocer asked how you were, and greeted you like a long lost friend if you had been away.  If you made friends with him, you were more likely to get the better fruit and vegetables.  People were much more likely to help you if you had a good relationship with them.  It took me quite a long time to appreciate this – my preferences and experience of organisational life led me to expect people to do things because “that was their job” rather than because they were doing it “for me personally”.  One of the main insights I gained from living in Egypt was the importance of patience and of putting effort into developing relationships and I hope I brought a little of this home with me!


Although there were many rules in Brazil, Brazilians placed a strong value on relationships.  It was important to be polite, to greet people, to smile and there was more physical contact than we are used to.  On one occasion, after helping me choose two pairs of trousers in a shop, the assistant kissed me!  I couldn’t imagine that happening in Marks and Spencers! 


People who you dealt with were your friends.  This could cause problems in professional relationships.  For example, if your doctor or dentist treated you as a good friend, it was much more difficult to complain if something went wrong.  In Brazil, conflict is avoided, so problems may not be addressed.  As an INTP who places a high value on competence I found this difficult to deal with. 


The warm, expressive and easy-going relationships that I experienced in Brazil seem to fit with preferences for Extraversion and Feeling.  As an INTP, I had to “make time to talk” – this applied as much with my maid and driver as with other adults, such as the other mothers at the Flamengo football club attended by my sons.  Learning Portuguese undoubtedly smoothed our lives.




Achievement vs Ascription


Is status accorded by what people have done or by their personal connections?

Trompenaars suggests that in the UK status is based on achievement; I believe in Egypt it is ascription and am uncertain about Brazil.


The emphasis on achievement fits with the Thinking value placed on competence, while the emphasis on who you are and your personal connections may fit better with the Feeling preference.


In Egypt, connections were important and what we would call nepotism occurred.  My husband resisted being pressured to appoint people on many occasions, but he eventually succumbed when he had a visit from some generals in the Egyptian army!  Our type preferences and our meritocratic values were incongruent with this and we had to find ways of rationalising it. 


As an expat wife, the most obvious impact on me of this dimension of the culture, was that I was accorded status as the wife of a senior expat manager.  This probably also put obligations on me of which I was not aware!  Perhaps E_F preferences would have helped me to be more perceptive in this respect.  


My husband’s boss was Egyptian; when negotiating with others, he always wanted to know about their background, their families, where they were from – basically whether they could be trusted.  Without this background knowledge, he was reluctant to do business with them. 


Brazilians worship heroes and put an immense weight of expectations on them.  In politics, they want to believe that one person can solve all the country’s problems.  In sport, they focus on individuals - during the 2002 World Cup there was continual pressure on Ronaldo to be the “artilheiro” (top scorer). 

Well known people, from politicians to drug traffickers, to footballers, are given nicknames, which seems to add to their almost mythical, untouchable quality.  To an NT, the focus and expectations placed on individuals seemed irrational.



Sequential vs Synchronic


Is time managed with appointments scheduled in advance and plans followed or are schedules more flexible and subordinate to relationships?


Trompenaars believes the UK to be sequential. Egypt and Brazil seem to have a synchronic approach to time.


This cultural dimension relates to the J-P preferences.


In Egypt there was always uncertainty about whether events would go ahead at the appointed time.  When we received our first invitation to an Egyptian wedding, we took advice on whether we should arrive at 9pm (as stated on the invitation).  We were advised that around 10.30pm was probably more appropriate! The only time I recall anything happening at the appointed time was during Ramadan, when as soon as the cannon at the citadel went off, signifying sunset, people disappeared to eat and the streets were eerily quiet.

Meetings in Brazil frequently did not start on time and people would often wander in and out and take phone calls (this seems to be increasingly happening in the UK too!).


At times it was frustrating when things didn’t go to plan, but I think my P preferences and extraverted intuition helped me to be prepared to go with the flow and see what happened.  I was motivated by curiosity to experience and understand a different culture.


Overall, the key difference I found between the culture of the UK and those of Egypt and Brazil, was the emphasis in both those countries on personal relationships rather than on rules and objective standards  - who you knew was often more important than what you knew.  This area is probably the most difficult for an expatriate manager to deal with, especially if their type preferences are Sensing, Thinking and Judging, which is often the case. 


When people go abroad to work, residents of the host country expect them to be different.  They expect us to arrive with our Western, first world values and behaviours; they will have had previous experience, either good or bad, of expats; and they will have their stereotypes of us, just as we have of them.  They don’t expect us to be the same as them, but it helps if we adapt a bit!  In my experience, people in those countries are willing to interact and to be patient with us while we learn their ways. 


We know that people experience more stress in situations where they have to constantly use their least preferred functions.  As an STJ manager, living and working in a culture which appears to behave according to FP preferences, can be particularly stressful.


Coaching about the host country culture and behaviours can help expatriates to settle in and operate effectively, both at work and at home.  With some help, they can learn the behaviours associated with the host culture, even if it is not natural to their type preference.  This facilitates the transition so that they are, and feel, accepted.




Linda K. Kirby, Elizabeth Kendall, Nancy J. Barger (2007) Type and Culture: using the MBTI Instrument in International Applications CPP, California


Jennnifer Ginger (2007) “Careers that Cross Cultures” Typeface Vol. 18 No. 1


Catherine Stothart (1999) “Expatriates – what helps them adapt?” Organisations and People, Vol. 6 No. 2


Trompenaars, F. & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998) Riding the waves of culture: understanding cultural diversity in global business. New York.  McGraw-Hill.


Hofstede, G. (1991) Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind. London. McGraw-Hill.