Category Archives: Happy Expat

Expatriate alphabet — the N, O, P that can make your expat experience better

by Margarita

Expatriate Alphabet: N is for NEGOTIATION

When I say negotiation I don’t mean the one that has to do with business deals Expatriate alphabet or peace accords. Neither am I using the word to indicate anything that has to do with dispute resolution. Instead, I am using the word to explain the delicate process of “negotiating the change” – and a journey of making lots of very new and difficult choices.

When you arrive to another country and emerge yourself into another culture, you begin to notice that certain things are done differently. People might be routinely late to appointments whereas you are used to always being on time. People may drop by your office unexpectedly whereas you are used to scheduling these impromptu meetings. People may expect you to spell their responsibilities out for them – when you are expecting a healthy dose of initiative.

All these changes may throw you for a loop – and worse, they may really wreck havoc in how you perceive yourself and your ability to succeed in the new environment. After all, if you are constantly frustrated and if you are struggling to understand why things are not working the way they should, you’ll find yourself arguing with your saboteur a lot longer than you ever want to.

And that’s where “negotiating across cultures” comes in. This negotiation process is actually very simple and consists of 5 steps:

(1)Determine which cultural variable is responsible for the behavior that drives you crazy

(2)Identify where you are for this cultural variable on a cultural continuum

(3)Identify where most of your host country nationals are

(4)Determine if you have a large gap – and, if you do, (a) are you willing to change your behavior or (b) will you prefer for people around you to adjust to your habits (this depends on the value structure and if the variable in question is the reflection of your values/identity or habits/behaviors)

(5)Create an action plan.

This 5-step process comes from Culture Mastery 4C’s Process™.

Expatriate Alphabet: O is for OPEN MIND

There exist many wonderful quotes about what an open mind is and what it comes to represent to different people. To start this section on an inspirational note, I thought I’d mention a couple of them – and I’ll mention especially those that resonate with me (apologies for not being sure who the authors are):

“An open mind is a mind of curiosity, wonder, learning, infinite possibilities and a beautiful desire for understanding.”

“A person open to all things and ideas is by default wiser than the one that is not.”

“When you are open to everything, nothing is impossible.”

And while these quotes are probably enough to confirm that open mind is one of things to have to be happy as an expat, I’d still like to explore a bit further. I’d like to explore what it is that closes our minds.

Making assumptions and passing judgments – these two attitudes are often to blame for keeping our mind closed rather than open. Let’s look at making assumptions first.

We live our lives by making assumptions. Sometimes we are right and sometimes we are not. After living in a culture for a long time (or for our entire life) we are full of assumptions that have been created by our experience with that culture. When we move, we automatically assume the same about the new place. For instance, if in our “old home” colleagues didn’t bother me when I closed my office door, then I am going to assume that things should be the same in my “new home”. And why not? Should not people know what a closed door means?

You see how this idea about “what people know about closed doors” becomes an assumption based on previous experience? And if we take this assumption to be the truth (which is what we do most of the time), then we encounter a lot of frustration in dealing with the new situation. Instead of keeping an open mind and inquiring about the meaning of a closed door in the new culture, I may assume that it’s the lack of respect and the lack of manners that makes people come in freely when I have my door closed.

And now about passing judgments. The new country we’ve ended up in has been in existence long before our plane deposited us there. People here are used to being and doing things their way. No matter how much it may bother us and no matter how much we disagree, a judgmental attitude will get us nowhere. Remember we don’t own the absolute truth of how to be. There are many different truths and realities out there. And when we have an open mind – free of judgments and assumptions – we are more able to see the different truths and realities.

Where do you assume? Where may you judge? And how does that affect your learning and your life as an expatriate?

Expatriate Alphabet: P is for PEOPLE

When I was living in Argentina, one of my friends explained his constant tardiness the following way: “I’ve gone native.” In Russia, “going native” often meant using your elbows in public transports, and in Uzbekistan it meant haggling over 5 cents at a market. Whatever the country, many of us often find ourselves absorbing and engaging in the habits and behaviors of people who surround us.

This section, however, isn’t about going native. I am using the example to illustrate another human tendency – and that is, to repeat after people who surround us. In NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) it’s called modeling and there are techniques that are built upon this tendency. For instance, people are encouraged to succeed by repeating what successful people do – that is, by modeling them.

Specific NLP techniques aside, we can all benefit from repeating – and thus, benefit from surrounding ourselves with people who we would want to repeat after. At the same time, we don’t benefit by surrounding ourselves with people whose energies drag us down. So, if you want your expatriate experience to be happy and successful, consider who you hang out with. Do you spend a lot of time in the company of upbeat and open-minded people? Or do you find yourself dragged down by those who complain and judge?

Finding a circle of acquaintances and friends who offer positive energy is important everywhere – and it is especially important when you are living in another culture and need all the support you can get.

Who are you surrounding yourself with?

Thoughts, comments, additions?

These ABCs form part of the A to Z of Successful Expatriation™ Guide and Workbook which is available as a free download on our main site. This Guide and Workbook doesn’t only discuss the expat alphabet but also offers activities and exercises you can do to improve your expat life. Sign up for Expat VIP list and get this free download here (right hand column).

 

Expatriate alphabet — the D, E, Fs that can make your expat experience better

by Margarita

Expatriate Alphabet: D is for Discovery

Traveling always brings about discovery and for many of us one of the goals of Expatriate Alphabet becoming an expat is to discover something new.  We discover new cultures; new foods; new ways of dressing; new friendships; and new fun things to do.  The whole expatriate experience is about discovering – and while there are tons of things to discover around us, I want to focus on discoveries that we make within us when we move.

Moving to another place creates change in our lives and, as that change challenges us, we get to discover how we are around that change.  We get to discover and learn things about ourselves we may have never known.  And with it we may even discover new callings in life – a new career, a new line of education, a new business opportunity.

So the D in the A to Z of Successful Expatriation isn’t only about discovering the world outside of ourselves – but it’s also discovering and exploring our internal world.  Seeing for the first time things that we’ve had all along but never paid attention to is also a discovery.  Kind of like the discovery of things you’ve forgotten you had… those of you, who move frequently and take most of our household with you, may remember the giddy feelings of unpacking and seeing things you’ve forgotten about because they spent a few months in transit.

What have been your discoveries – external and internal?  And what other D’s are out there?

Expatriate Alphabet: E is for Exchange

When I was growing up, my friend and I used to exchange clothes.  Living in a closed society where travel abroad was rare, the most prized clothes were, of course, those that came from outside the country.  And it was not just the fashion statement that drew us towards those clothes; it was the ability to be part of something new, something unique, and something completely foreign.

Fast-forward many years ahead and I find myself equally fascinated by the different ideas and different ways of doing/being that I encounter whenever I live in another country.  And while ideas and experiences are not physical things and cannot be swamped one for another, they too can be exchanged.  It’s this fascinating EXCHANGE of what we know with what we don’t know but are willing to learn that makes expatriate life all the more attractive.  I mean, where else can you find a ready-made environment for such an exchange if not in expatriation?

What has been your experience with EXCHANGE –and how has that experience benefitted your life abroad?

Expatriate Alphabet: F is for Fun and Friendships

If I have to think back to all my expatriate assignments, a couple of things in particular always come up.  FUN and FRIENDSHIPS were really the two cornerstones that made each assignment worth it.  Most of my good memories revolve either around having fun or making new, amazing friends and having fun with them.

Let’s start with FUN.  I know that the word fun has a different meaning to all of us, but without having fun (whatever it means to you), our lives would be dull, uninteresting and boring.  What’s your definition of fun?  What do you like to do for fun?  What opportunities do you have for fun in a country where you live now?  Schedule them!

And now the FRIENDSHIPS.  The friends we make in distant lands support us, encourage us, laugh with us and cry with us (well, when we really need them to).  Thanks to the internet and Facebook in particular we can now keep in touch and continue to follow the lives of those friends who we leave behind as we move on to another destination.  I don’t want to speak for everyone, but the friendships I have developed during my overseas assignments have been among the most special in my life.

It’s not an easy task to always have to make friends and then leave them when you leave the country (a helpful article on “How to make friends again… and again … and again” here).  But it can be done and the effort is totally worth it.  What are your thoughts on this?  And what friendship moments do you remember?

These ABCs form part of the A to Z of Successful Expatriation™ Guide and Workbook which is available as a free download on our main site. This Guide and Workbook doesn’t only discuss the expat alphabet but also offers activities and exercises you can do to improve your expat life. Sign up for Expat VIP list and get this free download here (right hand column).

How are change and happiness connected — and is there a place for each in 2014?

It’s no secret that the one thing, which unites us all, is our desire to be happy.  New Year 2014It’s also no secret that at the end of each year we look forward to the next and consider the ways in which we can become happier.  Perhaps a change of job, or a change in relationships, or a change in business-as-usual approach to life, or a change of a routine, etc.  Change is central to our pursuit of happiness – for without change there is no progress.

All this seems pretty straightforward but it turns out that when it comes to initiating and maintaining change, we really suck at it.  Just think of the New Years resolutions that come and go.  As much as we, humans, always want to grow and evolve, when it comes to this growth being propelled by change we stumble.  In their book, Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey give an example of a study that showed that if heart doctors tell their seriously at-risk heart patients they will literally die if they don’t change their lifestyle, only one in seven, on average, is actually able to make the changes…”

One in seven!  Imagine that.  At the risk of dying, only 1 in 7 people would change their ways of being in the world.  How is that for resisting change?

Kegan and Lahey go on to say that one of the reasons changing is so difficult for us is that by not changing we are honoring a “hidden commitment” – a commitment to something entirely different, something that conflicts with our desire for change.  It’s hidden because it’s so deep in our subconscious that it resides completely outside of our conscious awareness.

Because this commitment is hidden, we don’t get to examine it closely.  But if we do, we may discover a couple of things:

1.  The hidden commitment is based purely on fear and/or guilt.

“How can I take time away from kids to have a massage, take a photography class, or a history course in a local university?  I am already not working so it’s my job to always be with the kids.  What would my friends and family back home say if they find out that I regularly leave them with a nanny even though I have all this time I can spend with them?”

2.  The hidden commitment expresses the things that are truly important to us – and the change we want to initiate doesn’t agree with them at all. 

“I must look for work in the new year – I can easily get hired here.  We don’t really need the money but I’ve worked all my life and not working feels kind of weird.  My friends back home are making fun of me for all the time I am wasting on my hobbies.  Although I really like concentrating on them now …”

In scenario 1 digging deeper helps us see that at the root of this “hidden commitment” is our subconscious understanding of what makes us safe – on physical, emotional and social levels.  We come to realize, thus, that we live our lives the way we do because we are scared.  And more often than not – we are scared of things that are either not really valid for us or seem scarier than they actually are.   Staying at home with kids at all hours of the day and feeling guilty when leaving them to take time for yourself may be scary in the realm of social acceptance/safety — yet it does nothing for either your or their happiness.

In scenario 2 digging deeper helps us discover the values that we hold dear and makes us realize that only by living those values will we achieve happiness and fulfillment.  Working because you’ve always done so isn’t a good enough reason to give up on what’s important to you now and what makes you tick.

So what can help us to initiate and sustain change – the change that will bring us closer to being happier in the new year?  Try these three steps:

Step 1: Learn your hidden commitment – what’s really stopping you from going for that change?  This isn’t an easy exercise and requires a process that’s like peeling an onion – digging deep until you expose the fear or the values at stake.

Step 2: Make a choice.  Either consciously choose to continue as before or commit to change.  Make it your choice rather than an automatic behavior you’ve engaged in until now.

Step 3: Get a support network together.  Surround yourself with people who will help you through this process of adopting change.  This is difficult, so make sure your support network is 100% behind you, holds no judgement over your choice and the outcome, and doesn’t have any hidden agenda.  Family and friends are probably not the best people to enlist here – a buddy system or a coach is your best bet in sustaining a new behavior.

Good luck on your dreams, wishes and aspirations in the coming year!  Remember that if you are not feeling completely happy in any area of your life – you can choose to make a change there and begin moving towards greater happiness.  Why continue to settle when you can create an amazing life for yourself?

Expat appreciation moment or five things I love about living in…

Summer has come and gone and for many expatriates in the Northern Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 1.00.02 PMhemisphere the summer is the time of shuttling between taking a vacation, going home to see family, and/or surviving heat/rain/major exodus at post while staying put. And with travel, either home or to another country, come comparisons. Sometimes these comparisons flatter our post countries—I longed to be in Madrid every time I prepared to cross a street in Rome this summer. And sometimes they don’t (in my humble opinion the food in Italy is much superior to what Spain has to offer).

If your case is the latter and your summer made it difficult for you come back because the place where you went on vacation felt/looked/seemed so much better than the place you currently call home, I have a suggestion. Find five things you love about living where you live now. Find at least five. And then be on the look out for more.

So, to start the ball rolling, here are my five for Madrid, Spain:

  1. The taxicabs are the best. The drivers are honest, courteous, and nice; taxis are easy to find, safe to get into, and are not outrageously expensive.
  2. The coffee and wine culture. I love it that it’s so easy to meet a friend for coffee or for a glass of wine. Neither will break the bank, both will taste exceptionally good, and either occasion will allow you to catch up with people for longer than the usual grab-your-Starbucks-cup-and-run moment.
  3. Public transport. When not on strike (!) it’s efficient, organized, clean, and extremely user-friendly.
  4. Barrio life. Even though Madrid is a large, cosmopolitan city, you still have the barrio life where you have a neighborhood place to buy your fruit, your fish, or your meat, fix your shoes, and meet your neighbors for a drink and some tapas.
  5. Climate. I know this is something we cannot control but it’s something I love anyway. I like the fact that even though it gets really hot in the summer and sometimes quite cold in the winter, it’s dry. And so the heat and the cold are much more tolerable.

So these are my five (inspired by a post in St Petersburg Times although not quite along the same lines).

What are yours? Share them in comments below!

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Expat Mothers in Transition or “Where do I go from here????”

In the expat world we talk a lot about transitions. Transitions from home to a TRavelforeign country, from one culture to another culture, from one school to the next, from headquarters to a country office… I can go on and on. Yet today I’d like to speak about another kind of transition – a transition that’s very specific to mothers, and more so to expat mothers.

I’ve been off the radar for the last few weeks because I was co-leading a workshop for expat women looking at their next steps. Most of them were mothers whose children have reached an age where they no longer needed their constant care and involvement (read – teenagers!). And after dedicating their lives to moving their families from country to country, settling everyone in, caring for adjusting kids and spouses, running the household, and in general being the backbone of the family during the turbulent expat years, these women were finding themselves with additional time on their hands. And a huge desire to begin something just for themselves – be it go back to work, re-invent themselves professionally, or re-discover parts of themselves they’ve ignored and start something entirely new.

Many mothers around the world who have had the luxury to take time off work to care for their kids find themselves in the same predicament. In addition to the sadness of “one-moment-I-am-needed-and-the-next-I-am-not”, there is a lot of confusion over “where I am going?” What does this transition have in store for me? Where CAN I go?

And, I think, expat mother have it tougher. We are away from friends, family members, and support networks. Our resume is devoid of part time jobs and professional development courses… unless we count the freelance jobs of packing, taxi service, and nurse. Our confidence is often low because we’ve had our share of glazed over eyes every time we answer the question “and what do you do?” And our opportunities may be limited precisely because we might be living in a country where we don’t speak the language; have no permission to work; or if we already know that we’d be leaving within a couple of years.

Sure we’ve had an amazing life and sure we’ve had access to learning things that others may not have. And we are as resilient as they come. Yet this transition can be tricky.

Especially if we don’t give it proper attention.

Have you – or has anyone you know – ever go through this transition?

Note: the program we ran for expat mothers in transition will now be available to women around the world via the web! Please check here for more information. 

What can comedy teach us about expatriation?

I’ve always found humor to be at the forefront of tools that I turn to when I don’t Humor and Expatsfeel so well about my life. It helps so much, in fact, that I included it in my three strategies of managing culture shock. And so when at the last night’s writer’s group we had a session on how to write humor, I thought – why not find a few jokes that can help expats take another perspective on whatever is troubling them?

And while humor isn’t my talent and there are not that many (or any!) comedians that focus specifically on the always-on-the-move cohort, I found a few jokes that can still serve their purpose and help.

Feeling like you’ve given up a lot to move half way across the world? A job, a career, a family, and friends? Not to worry:

Cheer up! Remember the less you have, the more there is to get. (Unknown)

Having a frustration-full day? Cannot communicate with anyone? Want to lock yourself up at home and never come out again? Consider this alternative thinking:

Eat a live toad the first thing in the morning and nothing worse can happen to you for the rest of the day. (Unknown)

Experiencing guilt that you don’t have to clean your house and can hire someone to do it for you while all your friends at home don’t have that luxury?

Housework done properly can kill you. (Unknown)

Terrified to move to yet another place? To pack, to unpack, to start completely anew in finding friends? This may help:

I have a new philosophy, I’m only going to dread one day at a time. (Charles Schulz, “Peanuts”)

Worried about your next destination? Heard a few things you didn’t like and spending hours making assumptions on how they will affect you? Leave those assumptions behind because:

I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.  (Mark Twain)

This one needs no introduction:

There’s no such thing as fun for the whole family. (Jerry Seinfeld)

Tired of constantly receiving wise advice when complaining? Sick of too many expat coaches out there telling you to learn from your experience? Well, you don’t have to listen to them all the time. And not everything has to be for learning. Because:

“Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.” (Jerry Seinfeld)

And finally, there will always be times when your days will suck, when the outside looks grey, and when watching old re-runs of your favorite comedy shows is the only thing you want to do. Don’t worry. We’ve all been there. Give yourself permission to NOT be perfect and learn to swear.

Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words. (Unknown)

Any good additions?

How to take charge of your negative thoughts during expatriation

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone suggests something new? Like a new travel destination for the weekend, or a new restaurant for dinner, or a new activity to attend, or a new expat post to consider? If you begin to think of why you should not, may not want to, not really psyched about that new thing, don’t worry – you are very much like the rest of humans. If you say – great, bring it on – congratulations, you’ve somehow trained yourself to stay clear of the negativity bias so many humans suffer through not fault of their own.

Apparently the negativity bias is our natural inclination.  Being negative about change, being suspicious about new things, and giving more weight to the negative information rather than positive information is our inbuilt tendency. Just think about the proliferation of all the scary news reports on your local news channel – they do it because negative news sells better than positive.  Our brain actually exhibits more activity when we are receiving negative information, which means that we are hard-wired for negativity! This negativity bias is also largely the reason we tend to dwell on things people have done wrong and remember their wrongdoing better than those other good things they did.

Our natural predisposition to give more weight to negativity is the reason that a new thing may not excite us at first and that we are more inclined to consider the reasons for not engaging with that new thing. And that’s the bad news.

The good news, however, is that we are highly trainable species and, if we really want to, we can teach ourselves to ignore that negative bias. All we have to do is–

(1) notice the first thought that appears when something new is suggested;

(2) recognize the negative bias; and

(3) change our perspective and find some positive reasons why that new thing is worth doing.

Try it this week. Train your mind to recognize and switch. If you stay with this practice, pretty soon you’ll notice that your negative bias has been replaced with the positive bias.

Trust me, it works. And it makes you much, much happier as a result.

Want to get rid of your negativity bias but prefer to do it in a company of like-minded expats? Join our Expat Women Academy program in November! More information and to sign up here.