Immigrant Workers and Meanings of Work

Communicating Life and Career Transitions

by Suchitra Shenoy-Packer (Volume editor) Elena Gabor (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook X, 162 Pages


This first-of-its-kind book uniquely captures the meanings of work expressed by immigrants. Their stories – from work histories to life transitions and professional journeys – are conscientiously and rigorously mapped by the academic insights of communication scholars, many of whom are immigrants themselves.
Immigrant workers’ narratives of work and its nuances in an adopted country offer many hitherto muted, invisible, and/or purposely silenced perspectives. A variety of new and familiar terms – concepts such as career inheritance, aphorisms, cultural adaptation, acculturation, and cultural distance – and culture-specific terms such as ganas and consejos are discussed alongside the inherent struggles of identity construction across borders.
While the contributors represent diversity in co-cultural affiliations, national origin, and immigration experiences encountered both personally and professionally, the stories of immigrants represent an even larger number of countries and cultures.
This volume compels the academic community to acknowledge immigrants as workers whose voices matter and whose sense and processes of meaning-making is nuanced, complex, and multi-dimensional. Immigrant workers’ voices can contribute significantly to the rich growth of research in organizational communication, meanings of work, career studies, cross-cultural management, psychology of work, and work and society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: International Migration and the Meanings of Work: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
  • Chapter Two: Experiencing Cultural Contact at Work: An Exploration of Immigrants’ Perceptions of Work in Finland
  • Chapter Three: Subtle Meaning Evolutions in the Meaning of Work for a Lebanese American Community
  • Chapter Four: Immigrants’ Negotiations of Career Inheritance: A (Dis)placement Framework
  • Chapter Five: The Inheritance My Daddy Gave Me: A Glimpse into Mexican Immigrants’ Conceptualizations of Meaningful Work
  • Chapter Six: The Labor of Identity Development: Work Lessons from Immigrant Parents
  • Chapter Seven: Discontinuities and Dislocations: Immigrant Meanings of Work during Ambivalent Work–Life “Choices”
  • Chapter Eight: Immigrant Women Negotiating Shifting Meanings of Work and Confronting Micro-aggressions with/in the Ivory Tower
  • Chapter Nine: Meanings of Work and Emotions of Immigrant Women Engineers in the United States
  • Chapter Ten: In Search of My Niche: International Teaching Assistants’ Negotiation with Meanings of Work
  • Chapter Eleven: From Longing to Work to Loving Retirement: Changing Meanings of Work of a Latvian American in Sweden
  • Contributors
  • Index


← viii | ix →Acknowledgments

We are grateful to several people who encouraged our project idea, provided feedback, and played cheerleaders throughout the process. Our thanks go to our parents, spouses, and children, who patiently and unconditionally supported our work; our editors at Peter Lang, who guided us to fulfilling our vision for this project; and the organizers of the National Communication Association’s Organizational Communication Division’s preconference on Meanings of Work (2008)—particularly Kristen Broadfoot, Majia Nadesan, and Ted Zorn—for further legitimizing and providing the impetus for studying meanings of work as its own area of research in our discipline.

Thank you to Ted Zorn and the Organizational Communication Division of the International Communication Association for sponsoring our ICA 2014 preconference— Redefining and Renegotiating the Meanings of Work, Success, Happiness, and Good Life—and to all the attendees of that preconference for continuing the conversation on meanings of work and for highlighting its significance in our scholarship as organizational and intercultural communication scholars. Finally, thank you to Stacey Wieland, Patrice M. Buzzanell, and Alberto Gonzalez.

We thank our contributors, who considered all our feedback in the spirit intended and did all the important work that makes this volume a solid contribution to the literature on meanings of work. Honestly, this project would never have been a reality without you amazing folks!

← ix | x →Finally, as friends and colleagues who first met in graduate school at Purdue University, we (Suchitra and Elena) want to acknowledge the tremendous support we find in each other through all of life’s many adventures. From India and Romania to Purdue and to our respective professional objectives and beyond, our immigrant journeys will always ensure an unbreakable bond of familiarity, friendship, and implicit understanding between us. We look forward to many more collaborations.


The past 50 years have seen an increase in the numbers of migrants, the speed of travel, and an intensification of humanitarian issues arising from migration. At the time of writing this introduction, the news agencies are alerting the world about thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boats, many suffering from abuse by handlers, heat exhaustion, and hunger while on their path to desired lands. According to The Guardian, more than 3,000 people migrating from Eritrea, Somalia, Palestine, Syria, and Libya died in 2014 off the coast of Libya because their boats capsized (The Guardian, 2015). More recently, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria has been widely reported. Despite previous European Union (EU) agreements, not all EU members have been equally open to receiving and assisting immigrants fleeing from war zones, dysfunctional or failed states, and rampant human rights abuses. For example, since the Syrian civil war started in 2011, around 3,000,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan and Turkey, and more than 120,000 Syrians have arrived in Europe, according to the UN refugee agency.

Immigration is not a recent phenomenon, and stories of immigrants involuntarily forced to leave native homelands for the aforementioned reasons only to face abuse and exploitation in their new homes do receive intermittent news coverage. However, news agencies and broadcast stations find it less interesting to showcase stories of those voluntarily immigrating for employment reasons. The immigrants in this group, arguably a self-selected group whose members choose to ← 1 | 2 →immigrate to foreign lands in search of better lives for themselves and their families, are the subjects of this book—immigrants who more or less had agency in their immigration-related decision-making process. The editors of this book, both immigrants to the United States, are also a part of this group and were beneficiaries of temporary employment or H-1B visas before receiving their green cards (in 2011 for Elena and 2014 for Suchitra).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “immigrant,” and its synonyms “migrant” and “emigrant,” as “a person who comes to live permanently in another country.” Differentiating the term “immigrant” from “sojourner” or “someone who lives temporarily in another country (Pedersen, Neighbors, Larimer & Lee, 2011), an immigrant as understood in this book is someone who has chosen to live in an adopted country long term. Berger (2004) pointed out that immigration is not a single event of uprooting oneself from the culture of origin and leaving behind the homeland to face the challenge of assimilation into a new culture. Rather, it is a lifelong, multifaceted and multilayered, complex, and never-ending experience. In this volume, we start from the assumption that voluntary immigration is a deliberate decision to change one’s life that is often driven by the optimism to find gainful employment, which may or may not lead to personally significant and self-defined meaningful work.

Besides the denotative, framed-by-policy definition, an immigrant is also the sum of subjective and intersubjective experiences that make up one’s identity. An immigrant is the person who asks the cafeteria worker for a “pig sandwich” because more appropriate words like “pork” or “ham” just don’t come to mind; whose anxiety increases during meetings simply because he has to work very hard to understand messages and find the right words (see Chapter 9 or Chapter 2 herein); who has to warn the daycare teachers that the words of the immigrant child are not English swear words but just a different language (e.g., “Fac eu” in Romanian = “I’ll do it”); who notices (with regret) that names of streets, songs, places, and public figures from the native country are slowly forgotten and displaced to make room for new ones (see Chapter 4 on displacement); who remains reluctant to hold conversations over the phone for fear of career-altering misunderstandings (see Chapter 9); who sees the world of work through the lens of visa letters and the rigid list of limitations and opportunities allowed by them (see Chapters 7 and 8). Through this book we hope to capture meanings of work expressed by immigrants and thus offer a unique contribution to the growing meanings of work literature.


Meaning of work (MOW) research has grown in recent decades as scholars in the field of organizational communication focus on contemporary tensions ← 2 | 3 →surrounding work: a greater geographical, economic, and political reach of corporations; technologies replacing humans in the workplace; stagnant incomes leading to a growing gap between the rich and poor; and an increased population mobility because of perceived opportunities, wars, failing states, and human rights abuses. MOW literature is important because work is central to human life, is an important source of personal satisfaction and happiness, and sustains individuals and families (Budd, 2011). Traditionally, most popular and even academic definitions of work, at least in the United States, reinforce in varying degrees that work is drudgery, a lack of autonomy, an obligation, degrading, dehumanizing, alienating, and inescapable compulsion, in other words, extrinsically motivated. More recently, scholarship has explored work as a form of self-expression, creative endeavors, and activities undertaken for a greater good, for social justice, and other causes that show evidence of a personal sense of accomplishment, in other words, intrinsically inspired. Finding meaning in work has been argued as being the prerogative of the fortunate few who have the choice of discriminating between the work (or nonwork) options available to them. But, what happens to this choice when the desire to do so takes individuals to foreign lands in the hopes of exercising that choice and finding meaningful work? This volume and other research show that in addition to cultural adaptation issues, immigrants encounter numerous obstacles in making meaning of their work. Tangibly, immigrant workers experience stress related to their visa status, language proficiency, money, loss of connections and status in the work context, discounting of skills acquired in their native countries, ethnic/gender discrimination, feelings of isolation and insufficient orientation to new job skills, and wage-based discrimination, to name a few. These challenges continue to relegate immigrants’ work to the figurative margins, even if they are engaged in “mainstream” professional occupations.


This book is a humble attempt on the part of the editors to reveal immigrant voices regarding work and its meanings. Conspicuously absent from MOW literature in organizational communication studies, immigrant workers’ narratives of work and its nuances in an adopted land offer many hitherto muted, invisible, and/or purposely silenced insights. This book and its chapters compel scholars and MOW scholarship to acknowledge immigrant workers’ stories as discursively and materially real and worthy of inclusion in mainstream conversations about work. Our contributors represent diversity in co-cultural affiliations, national origin, and immigration experiences encountered personally and professionally. The chapters in this volume contribute to the stories of immigrants from an even larger number of countries and cultures.

← 3 | 4 →In Chapter 1, Kuchinke highlights the value of population-specific, large-scale studies on meanings of work. He connects Hofstede’s work, the original MOW study of the late 1980s, and contemporary management literature to suggest that national culture has a strong impact on meanings of work. Kuchinke surfaces the tensions between macro- and micro-level forces in the construction of MOW and suggests that greater the cultural distance between attitudes about work in the country of origin and the adoptive country, the steeper the learning curve for the immigrant crossing cultures.

In Chapter 2, Välipakka, Zeng, Lahti, and Croucher suggest that immigrant experiences of assimilation can be better understood as a fusion process that draws on a view of interpersonal interactions as dynamic, unpredictable, and complex processes producing endless integration and innovation. They analyze the work experiences of immigrants in knowledge jobs in Finland and highlight the importance of designing socialization practices for immigrant professionals that do not alienate them or result in treating them unfairly.

In Chapter 3, in focusing on the Christian Lebanese American (LA) community in the U.S., Homsey and Bisel use the “language convergence/meaning divergence” theory to illuminate how the meaning of the phrase “to provide for” has subtly evolved among different generations of immigrants from this community as newer generations have become more prosperous. As a member of the LA community herself, the first author used interviews and her own observations to highlight how, in the community’s discourse about hard work as necessary for material prosperity, the changes in the meaning of “to provide for” from a focus on physical needs and survival to reputation and status have gone largely unnoticed.

In Chapter 4, Mitra extends the concept of career inheritance and displacement through the use of three dialectics (home–host; rigid–flexible; self–other) and makes us rethink negotiations of individual agency and institutional structures. He suggests that every instance of displacement always includes a process of placement, or embedding oneself somewhere. Mitra’s chapter notes how immigrant workers’ career meanings are continually shifting as (dis)placement is always ephemeral, both material/discursive and real/imagined.


X, 162
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
silence subalternity ganas consejos immigration
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. X, 159 pp.

Biographical notes

Suchitra Shenoy-Packer (Volume editor) Elena Gabor (Volume editor)

Suchitra Shenoy-Packer (PhD, Purdue University) is an independent research scholar and management consultant. She is the author of India’s Working Women and Career Discourses: Society, Socialization, and Agency, and co-author of Intercultural Communication in Everyday Life. Her peer-reviewed work has been published in Management Communication Quarterly, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, and the Journal of Communication and Religion, among others. Elena Gabor (PhD, Purdue University) is an associate professor at Bradley University. Her work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals such as Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal (Highly Commended Paper Award, 2013), the Journal of Ethnographic and Qualitative Research, and Intercultural Communication Studies, among others.


Title: Immigrant Workers and Meanings of Work
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