You’ve spent the first half of your life learning acceptable social behaviour, the last ten years telling your kids not to care what people think, and then it happens…
Suddenly you’re stuck right back where you were on the first day of high school, having to walk into places you really would rather run screaming from, and make nice with a sea of people who have no idea who you are. Welcome to the reality of expat life.
If your cultural orientation training was anything like mine, it revolves around the country currency, demographics and religious practices. What it might not tell you is how to find the people with whom you can laugh, cry, and everything in between with.
So here’s my best advice for potential expats, based on fifteen years of relocation, social gaffes, awkward situations and offending people.
It gets easier.
Just as the first day of school was the worst for most of us (apart from the boy who had diarrhea in assembly in 9th grade – that’s a tricky one to beat), the first few weeks of any relocation are the hardest. The quicker you get out there and start circulating, the quicker you will find your first friend.
It’s a numbers game.
You didn’t expect to like everyone in high school, and nor will you like everyone you meet, but you have to go through the numbers to get to one who will become lifelong friends. Go to as many gatherings as possible, safe in the knowledge that somewhere out there is someone who is doing the same thing and hating it every bit as much as you do…
Talk to a cherished friend beforehand,
so that you are:
more confident about yourself and will present yourself in a more relaxed way
have vented all your relocation angst so that your new acquaintances don’t think you are a moany old whingebag and hereafter avoid you and,
so you have someone impartial waiting to hear all the gory details. Knowing that you have someone far, far away who relish all the post party gossip and can never tell makes putting up with the fifteenth “what does your husband do?” far more palatable.
Go to where people gather to be social.
This issue cropped up the other day – in Europe there are higher numbers of dual income families, so there are fewer opportunities for people to meet socially through school, and so a friend with school age children is struggling to meet new people. Instead, find local events by searching social media, (check out the Families in Global Transition or I am Triangle Facebook Groups for the most awesome community of people who not only get what you are going through, but take a fiendish delight in connecting you with global locals) take a class, or do something that people go to alone. And no, I don’t mean bars.
Be prepared to watch, learn, smile – and bite your lip. Often.
There will be new social rules (cute does not have the same implicit meaning in the UK and the US), a new dress codes, language differences. You may be an avid taxidermist, but that’s probably not going to be your best icebreaker at the school social. And if you are anything like me, try to avoid sarcastic, flippant or hilarious remarks, such as “Will there be alcohol served?” at the new parent breakfast. My strategy is to seek out the person that sparks the most antipathy, and watch for who else in the crowd is wincing. Instant friend, right there.
Learn to say ‘Sorry’ in every language
– but never be ashamed of trying. This has been a hard-won piece of self-knowledge, based on years of feeling ‘less than’ when I got things wrong. I hereby give you permission to apologise freely for giving offense, but never ever give up your right to get things wrong. Because here’s the thing – if you are out there making mistakes, it means that you care enough about the people, places and culture around you to want to be part of it, and no-one ever got anything right first time.
Don’t undervalue yourself.
Most relocation advice suggests voluntary work as a great way to develop a social network, and while this may be true, I have seen more people than I care to count take on the first volunteer opportunity that comes their way, only to end up in glorious isolation doing the photocopying for the PTA. (Actually, I met one of my favorite people doing exactly that, but I just got very lucky..). Find something that both gives you a sense of fulfillment and attracts like-minded people, and feel free to test drive opportunities before you commit. Tell them I said so.
Talk to anyone.
My mother does this, and it drives me nuts, but she can find a friend faster than anyone I know. Her favorite targets are anyone with a British accent, anyone in a book store, anyone wearing Marks and Spencer clothing, and anyone with grey hair. And if you happen to have a baby, your chances of escaping uninterrupted are nil. Feel free to choose your own victims target audience, but pursue it with the same singleminded passion.
At all costs, avoid asking “What does your husband do?”.
A little piece of my soul dies every time that question is asked in social circles, as if the person being spoken to is unworthy of interest. Add in the fact that you are assuming that they are a) married, and b) they don’t instead have a wife. My personal answer when asked is “Put a gun to my head and I still couldn’t tell you”; it conveys accurately both my knowledge of what he does, and my interest in finding out. As yet, no-one has taken me up on it, but feel free to find your own, less dramatic response.
Yes, I know I am biased here, because I literally co-wrote the book on this one, but seriously, start writing it all down. Journaling has been empirically proven time and time again to support cross-cultural growth and adaptation, help you manage challenges and maintain a positive mindset. So grab a pad and a pen, and start writing. If you need a little more help, the fabulous (yes, she really is) Trisha Carter and I wrote The Guided Journal for Adapting to Life Overseas, complete with a member website jam packed with relocation friendly resources. To find out more, click here, or if you just want to buy the book, you can get it here (US), or here (UK).
Remember, it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different.
It’s one of Trisha Carter’s favourite sayings, and is incredibly helpful in those moments when you are ready to scream, cry or start booking plane tickets home. You’ll see things that will enrage, infuriate or bewilder you, but you don’t have to agree, or even engage if you don’t want to. Try to suspend judgement, at least until you can dump it all on to paper or a trusted ear. And yes, I know it’s tough.