by Polly Collingridge, Family Global Mobility Manager for Parental Choice
Research has shown that around 40% of expat employees don’t feel at home abroad and cite it as a major reason for wanting to end their overseas assignment*. But what does it mean to ‘feel at home’ and why is it so important for people?When people first learn they are moving overseas, they are likely to focus on the most obvious differences between their home country and the country they are moving to, such as the language, weather, food and architecture. If the weather in your new host culture is nicer than it is at home, and you are the sort of person that relishes new experiences and foreign food, you might even be viewing your forthcoming move as something of an extended holiday! The reality, however, is that after an initial ‘honeymoon period’ (not necessarily even experienced by all expats), the novelty wears off and the culture shock can kick in.
Before we have lived in another culture it is easy not to appreciate how effortlessly we operate in our own. Need to stop off at a post office on the way back from the school run? No problem, you know exactly where to go, how long it will take and that you can keep your toddler happy by visiting the playground next door to it afterwards. Running 5 minutes late for a meeting? Never mind, you know it won’t cause offence, but any later and you’d better call. Need childcare? You know how oversubscribed good nursery places are likely to be in your area, so you’ll make sure to apply early.
In short, we are highly skilled at navigating life within our native culture because we have been exposed to its systems, norms and values since birth. What’s more, when life gets stressful, we have a network of friends and family to lean on.
In contrast, when we move to a foreign culture, we lose – overnight – both that mastery of our environment that has been acquired over many years, and our support system. We are no longer equipped to carry out the most basic of tasks without considerable effort and feel as though we are reading from a different script to everyone else.
How do you know which of the 10 unrecognisable brands of butter in the supermarket to get? Are you breaking the law if your child refuses to wear a helmet when scooting to school? Everyone else’s children seem to be wearing them. Do people not introduce themselves to their new neighbours here, or are yours just very unfriendly? And who can you vent your feelings to about how hard this all is?
Being abroad and trying to start your life from scratch is like trying to write with your non-dominant hand – everything takes longer, is very frustrating, and doesn’t look or feel as good despite increased effort!
This feeling of not belonging is compounded by the sense that you have lost your identity. This is because you no longer have the power to ‘read’ those around you and, in turn, to be read and understood by others. This last goes beyond language skills and refers to the way your accent, your clothes and your accessories signal clues about ‘who you are’. The trouble is, these clues are targeted at those who belong to your own culture and are often entirely missed or misinterpreted by those who don’t.
What most people fail to realise before they embark on an international relocation is how important ‘feeling at home’ is for our wellbeing. In Maslow’s classic ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid, ‘love, affection and belonging’ are the next most important requirements right after physiological and physical safety needs.
Other scientific research has shown that recently relocated individuals experience a strong need to ‘attach’ to a new community in order to feel secure. According to social identity theory, we derive our self-esteem from belonging to social groups.
Small wonder then that feeling like a cultural outsider can have such a negative impact on mental health. Studies have shown that social exclusion lights up the same parts of the brain as the experience of physical pain, and that being in the presence of trusted others makes us less daunted by challenges. We also know that when someone is experiencing an overload of stress, they are less able to perform and fulfil their potential.
Global mobility policies need to recognise that providing support services that speed up integration after a stressful international relocation will result in greater productivity and effectiveness, higher retention rates and fewer assignments failing because expats ‘don’t feel at home’. The following are not fluffy ‘nice to haves’ but can contribute significantly to the success and longevity of the assignment.
Settling in/Orientation services. Being ‘in the know’ reduces our vulnerability by giving back a sense of mastery. DSPs and specialist agencies like Parental Choice can provide tailored, in-depth inside info and practical tips about life in your new community such as schools, transport, utilities admin, bureaucracy, leisure activities, shopping, and so on.
Language/Cultural Training. The same applies to language skills (if applicable) and cultural knowledge. If there is an option to take classes and training in these areas it can be invaluable to help you start decoding your environment. Not many people dispute the need for cultural training when moving from a Western country such as the UK to the Far East. However, there can be a surprising number of subtle but alienating differences even between two very similar cultures, such as the US and UK, where there are higher expectations for integration. Understanding the root causes behind different cultural beliefs and behaviour can make them easier to cope with and help you keep open-minded.
Social support. It is crucial to find access to social support such as childcare (if necessary), expat meetup groups, clubs and professional or social organisations where you can meet others who are either in the same boat as you or who share your interests. Spending time with other expats (or even Skyping home) can be very soothing initially but, for true integration, seeking opportunities to get to know the locals will ultimately be more beneficial.
Career assistance for the trailing spouse. It’s hard to feel at home overseas if your professional identity has disappeared and you don’t know how to replace it.
On a positive note, a great many expats do manage to adapt successfully and find their lives enriched as a result. Some even come to feel happier and more at home in their host culture than they do in their ‘real home’. This of course can lead to its own set of problems in the form of ‘reverse culture shock’ on repatriation! The point is it is a human need to feel like we belong, whether we are re-connecting with our roots or have just arrived somewhere entirely new.
Bowlby, J. 1998, Attachment and Loss (Volumes 1-3, cited in Ota’s book)
Coan et al. (2006), Lending a hand: social regulation of the neural response to threat (cited in Ota’s book)
Eisenberger et al. (2006), An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection (cited in Ota’s book)
Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition
Maslow, A.H. (1943), A Theory of Human Motivation (cited in Ota’s book)
McLeod, S. A. (2019, Oct 24). Social identity theory. Simply Psychology.
Ota, Douglas W., Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it.
Parental Choice (www.parentalchoice.co.uk) provide family-focused relocation assistance in EMEA and APAC. Our services include searching for childcare and education solutions as well as providing tailored orientation services and destination marketing documentation.
Contact our Family Global Mobility team:
020 8979 6453
+852 9717 0662