Making friends outside the expat community is a good way to learn about the new culture, and according to experts, it may improve cross-cultural adjustment as well, says Jim Merril, a real estate agent who sells apartments in the Costa Blanca resort of Javea.
Living overseas can sometimes be difficult, especially if the host culture is dramatically different from the way things are “back home.” Many new expatriate spouses feel overwhelmed and disoriented by the shock of a novel cultural environment. Some respond by clinging to the familiar: they make a point of socializing only with other expats, and maintain minimal contact with the outside world. Others rise to the challenge of living fully in the unknown culture, embracing the uniqueness of the land and its citizens.
When one’s world feels topsy-turvy, it’s easy to slip into the welcoming arms of the expat community. There’s nothing wrong with building a support network of like-minded people; after all, no-one will ever understand an expat’s life like another expatriate. However, wrapping oneself in an expat cocoon won’t do much to smooth the adjustment process: it’s hard to relax with an “us versus them” mindset about the local population. The results of a 1998 study suggest that social interactions with members of the host culture play a big part in “increasing understanding and satisfaction with living in a foreign culture.”
Adjusting to Life Abroad
Adjustment can be broadly defined as having a sense of ease in an unfamiliar environment. There are two dimensions:
Psychological adjustment is internally oriented – it’s a feeling of well-being or satisfaction. An expat who has adjusted psychologically has discarded some features of the original culture and replaced them with new ways of living in the host society.
Sociocultural adjustment is externally oriented, and relates to how well one functions in the unfamiliar community. An expat who has adjusted socioculturally is easily able to manage the various nuances of daily life in the host culture.
While it’s possible to adjust along just one of these dimensions, the ideal is to achieve both. The successful expatriate is one who feels self-confident and happy, has achieved a certain amount of cross-cultural awareness, and is adept at navigating the uncertainties of expat life.
Expat Life — Better with Local Friends
The majority of expats arrive with the hope of settling in and feeling comfortable in their new home. Assimilation — the process of shedding the original culture and assuming a new one — is generally not the goal of expats on a two- to five-year assignment. A more beneficial approach is to maintain the original culture while adopting many useful aspects of the host culture.
Adjustment doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a fair amount of time and effort before most expatriates feel truly at ease. Widening one’s social circle to include non-expats is valuable on a practical level: local friends can serve as “cultural informants” to explain ins and outs of the new environment. Plus, as Swedish researcher Ingemar Torbiorn and others have discovered, they’re “an important determinant of satisfaction” in the host culture.
Where Expatriates Can Meet Local People
The level of difficulty involved in meeting the locals depends on the rigidity of the host culture. In extremely hierarchical countries where social roles are strictly defined, meaningful encounters with local people are likely to be limited. Language also plays a big role; it’s obviously much more challenging (although not impossible!) to communicate without a common language.
Here are several general suggestions on where to find friends:
Expats with children have a natural advantage; they can strike up a conversation with other parents at school, sporting activities, and social events.
Many cities have networking groups for professional women – embassies or local newspapers often have information regarding meetings.
Taking a course — in music, pottery, even the local language — throws expats together with people who share their interests.
Volunteering or becoming a member of a local organization (outside the framework of the international associations) is a rewarding way to meet new people.
Expats who don’t live in predominantly expatriate areas can chat with their neighbours.
Taking up a sport is good for body and soul, and athletic clubs often organize social activities for their members.
Getting a job — if allowed under the terms of one’s visa — is a sure-fire way to achieve immersion in the host culture.
In areas with a high concentration of expatriates, a little more effort may be required to make friends. The locals have seen expats come and go, and many aren’t prepared to put the effort into building a relationship with someone who may be moving on in a couple of years. However, even chatting with a street vendor or discussing politics with a taxi driver will brighten any expat’s day – and may even ease their adjustment to the new culture.