Oye, rubia: Are we gifted… or are we freaks?

Oye, rubia: Are we gifted… or are we freaks?

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Blogger Kristen Bernardi discusses a study that claims expatriates are more creative than their homebound counterparts.

A recent study published in The Economist claimed that those who live abroad are more creative.

When given a simple problem-solving task, researchers found that “60 percent of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so solved the problem, whereas only 42 percent of those who had not lived abroad did so.”

A follow-up study showed that expats were also more adept at creative negotiating:

“Pairs of students were asked to play the role of a seller of a petrol station who then needed to get a job and a buyer who would need to hire staff to run the business. The two were likely to reach an impasse because the buyer had been told he could not afford what the seller was told was his minimum price. Nevertheless, where both negotiators had lived abroad 70 percent struck a deal in which the seller was offered a management job at the petrol station in return for a lower asking price. When neither of the negotiators had lived abroad, none was able to reach a deal.”

Empirical evidence that we’re awesome!

(I’ll pause now so you can all send the link to the study to your friends and family with a note attached telling them how extraordinary you are for living abroad. Go on, I did it last week.)


All boasting aside, these results should come as no surprise to someone who has attempted to learn a language beyond an intermediate level.

When stuck for a word, you describe what you’re talking about. You may not remember how to say neoyorquina, but you can manage, Soy de Nueva York. Even though you can’t pronounce otorrinolaringólogo, you are able to find a doctor in Spain to treat your migraines.

Expats spend their lives explaining themselves and navigating new places as best as they can within the cultural context they’re plopped into. We become quite good at it. We learn to be resourceful because we have to, and it can be very rewarding.

How do your friends and family back home describe you?  

When people describe those who live abroad, I’ve heard terms like: independent, brave, outgoing, adventurous, ‘culturally aware’, and fearless.

But on the flipside, I’ve also heard: loner, wanderer, marches to the beat of his own drummer (said with some disdain), and my favourite, ‘trying to find himself over there’.

If you’re of the belief that humans are just highly sophisticated animals, you have to admit that it is highly unusual to stray so far from the pack. Just a century or two ago, most people stayed close to home, often with multiple generations in the same home and family members living nearby.

Unless people were seeking a new life with better employment or fleeing religious or political persecution, your average Joe didn’t pick up and move to wherever the wind took him – not nearly as much as people do today.

Affordable modern transport and technology allow us to go anywhere and everywhere we please without losing a connection with home. So are we really the highly evolved ones? Or are we free-spirited loners?

I have met some truly outstanding, worldly people in my time abroad; people that convince me that the study in The Economist is just the tip of the iceberg and that being an expat will someday be revered by society and scholars and hell, the Nobel committee.

But if the average delightfully grubby, spliff-smoking TEFOL teacher is the creative high point of the species? I am afraid for us all.


Not long ago, I was at a bar chatting in Spanish with a friend of a friend, feeling quite at home speaking in my adopted tongue in my adopted city. He asked how I came to be living abroad. As I chattered away, he shook his head and kind of half-smiled.

“All you guiris are running from something, whether you know it or not,” he told me.

Simple as that.

Gulp. Quick – let’s compile a study to prove him wrong. We’re certainly creative enough to think of one. Aren’t we?

Kristen Bernardi / Expatica

Kristen Bernardi is an American journalist living in Madrid. She has contributed to various travel publications including Fodor's, TimeOut, The Insider's Guide, Spain Magazine and InMadrid, and most recently assisted in 2008 Spanish presidential election coverage for CNN International. She is on a constant search for the perfect tortilla española, and will consider returning to US soil once the Pittsburgh Pirates make the World Series. Kristen writes a blog, Oye, rubia, on a wide range of topics for Expatica on fortnightly Fridays.

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