After 14 years of counseling and coaching expats, and consequently hearing my clients describe hundreds of blunders to me, I’ve come up with the 4 blunders that people describe most often, and a few words of how to avoid making them, which are for the most part, self-evident.
Blunder # 1: Not learning the local language.
For many expats learning at least a little of the local language is a no brainer, but for others who are working for their embassies or multi-national organizations, it’s easy to avoid learning a new language as it’s not required of you.
And in many countries, a majority of the population speaks English, so you can rationalize not learning the language.
In India, where I lived for 14 years, almost everyone in the middle classes and above, and many even in the lower classes speak some English, as it’s the country’s official language.
However, when I learned even a little Hindi, the predominate language in the north, doors opened for me. People who spoke perfect English warmed to me as I stumbled over my Hindi. They were pleased that I was attempting to learn their language, even though it wasn’t necessary to survive in India.
So how to avoid this blunder is obvious. Plus when I took Hindi classes, I met other expats who were not content to just get by with English. We bonded over a shared interest in taking a deeper dive into the country.
Blunder # 2: Befriending only other expats.
While it’s often easier to make friends only with other expats, this keeps you on the surface of the culture. There are countless things you can’t learn until you’re in someone’s home for dinner. What real people eat in their homes, as opposed to restaurants, what time locals eat, their attitudes toward alcohol, and how they express hospitality to name just a few.
If you’re fortunate enough to work with locals, or to have your children in school with local children, you have a more natural port of entry. Inviting locals to your home for dinner or to a party is a good first step.
If this isn’t the case, try joining a group for local and expat women (if you’re a woman) or taking a yoga or meditation class to meet locals you’re likely to have something in common with. Talk to people you meet about starting a book group if you like to read. I was in a wonderful book group for years in India where we rotated reading a regional author and a more general author each month. I read books that I never would have read otherwise.
Blunder # 3: Drinking yourself under the table on a regular basis.
Let’s face it, we all know that the expat culture is a drinking culture; with expats from some countries drinking more than others. (I won’t call out any names). But expats frequently tell me that after some time, doing nothing but drinking with other expats gets old and monotonous.
Particularly if you’re new to a country and interested in making friends, bonding around going out and drinking doesn’t typically provide for deepening relationships.
Expats frequently tell me that spending every Sunday with a hangover disrupts their family life, and doesn’t allow time for them to explore their new environment.
So, no need to become a teetotaler (unless you want to) but either limiting the amount you drink or the frequency can add to your expat experience.
Blunder # 4: Failing to take advantage of the local culture.
Some of my expat clients who work for embassies around the world tell me they rarely leave their embassy compound. When I first started hearing this, I found it shocking, unless they were someplace like Afghanistan or Somalia.
I now get the rationale behind this. If you’re rotating postings and countries every few years, it takes its toll to try and assimilate into new cultures repeatedly. You become world-weary and want to be on familiar turf.
But the price you pay for this is high, as I see it. Find other expats who want to learn a bit about the local culture; take a cooking class, volunteer with an NGO, teach someone English, anything that gets you out of the expat bubble.
By avoiding some of these blunders, you’ll go a long way to enriching your expat experience.