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Managing Expat Communications – A Balancing Act

Updated 13 Jul 2010

The ups and downs of adjustment created by expat assignments can generate emotions that range from excitement and wonder to loneliness and despair.

Staying in touch with family and friends is critical. Years ago hand-written letters travelling slowly across the ocean were all that connected expats to their loved ones. Today we have telephone, email, instant messaging, social media sites, web-based forums, blogs, expat websites and other tools at our fingertips. This article considers how these tools support each stage of adjustment.

Stage 1: Euphoria

Euphoria is the initial period of excitement tinged with uncertainty when you first agree to move. Communication centres on gathering information as you prepare for change.

  • Use information dense websites to discover the pros and cons of your assignment location. Join forums to seek advice from savvy expats.

  • Find blogs maintained by expats in your destination city and communicate with them.

  • Email family and friends to secure contacts in your new city. If possible, connect with these contacts prior to moving.

  • Talk, talk, talk. Don’t neglect the need to talk honestly and openly with family and friends. Make sure you acknowledge the opportunities, challenges, uncertainties and expectations.

Stage 2: Logistics maze

Logistics maze is full of checklists and decisions as you prepare to move. You may experience ‘cold feet’ and a dip in emotions.

  • Often your spouse is ‘in situ’ so regular communication with him or her by phone, Skype (or alternative VoIP technology) and email is essential.

  • Revisit expat websites and blogs for sample checklists, suggestions and cautions. Make no assumptions; advance awareness is essential.

  • Keep the lines of communication open amongst your immediate family, both those who are going with you and those remaining behind.

Stage 3: Discovery

Discovery begins on arrival and, like a honeymoon, is full of excitement.

  • Skype (VoIP technology) – set it up so you can see familiar faces and they can see you in new surroundings.

  • Family and friends remain your lifeline. Group emails are a wonderful way to stay in touch while keeping a diary. Respond individually to every reply.

  • Use social media sites to post pictures and commentary so others enjoy your adventure. These tools also allow you to keep up to date with your friends so check in and comment regularly.

  • Don’t discount more traditional mechanisms like letters and parcels to show people you care.

Visit newspaper websites to keep abreast of news and reduce feelings of isolation.

Stage 4: Dislocation

For most expats disappointment and loneliness mark the dislocation stage. Your instinct might be to communicate even more with those at home, but this is the point at which you need to change tactics and focus on connecting within the community you have joined to make new friends who will provide support during a potentially difficult transition period.

A key finding in the Prudential Financial study Many Women, Many Voices is that expat spouses “had better adjustment if they had local social support in the host country rather than relying on international connections through email, telephone calls, and home visits.”

  • If you haven’t already done so, activate those contacts you collected prior to leaving. Arrange to meet and begin to build a network of friends and colleagues.

  • Seek ideas from expat websites and bloggers on how to adapt, take comfort from others who have had the same experience. Whenever possible, meet them personally.

  • Participate in blogs and forums by adding your voice to the dialogue or writing a guest post.

  • Create your own blog. Describing your experience fosters insight, allows others to comment and opens pathways to friendship.

  • At this stage, you need friends to talk to and be active with. Many Women Many Voices determined that expat spouses get half their support from face to face conversations.

  • Search for local organizations that can connect you with other expats or locals in the community.

Those at home will empathize but cannot truly appreciate or provide advice on the difficulties you are experiencing.

Stage 5: Sizing up

To truly enjoy an expat experience, you need to adjust. Sizing Up is the stage where you discover possibilities and create new focus for yourself. By embracing change you can learn new skills, take on new roles, explore opportunities, and challenge yourself emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Face to face encounters and local organizations continue to be the best support mechanisms but complement these with other strategies.

  • Social media & expat websites – learn from expats in similar circumstances.

  • Blogs – facilitate questions and dialogue.

Through email and telephone, contacts back home can offer support while allowing you to vent your frustrations.

Stage 6: The second settling in

The second settling in fosters feelings of confidence and contentment. Balance ongoing communications to those back home with engagement in your expat location. Ultimately you will find the combination that allows you to get the most of your expat experience while staying connected with friends and loved ones.

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