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6 Things Successful Expats and Their Families Do While Abroad

When living abroad, there is a lot to keep track of. In this blog post, we share some of the most important things to focus on so that you can have a rewarding expat experience.

Living abroad is a dream for many, but it can be challenging to make the experience live up to your expectations. In this blog post, we discuss some of the things you can do to have the best expat experience possible.

This blog post is the second of a three-part series about how to have a successful relocation. In part two, we focus on what you can do while abroad to get the most out of your relocation.

The inspiration for this series comes from Terry Dunne, C3 Consulting's U.S. specialist. Terry has more than 20 years of experience working and consulting globally and has developed a handy to-do list for families who are planning to move abroad for work.

The blog posts based on this list were written by Annette Dahl, C3's CEO and chief trainer, who has prepared many hundreds of employees and families for their future lives as expats, and Phoebe Berke, an American expat in Denmark.

Find their top 6 pieces of advice for how expats can have a successful experience below.

1. They’re quick to set up their homes, and they maintain family rituals

When you first arrive in your host country, try to get your home set up as quickly as possible. Having left behind everything that is known and familiar, it's important to create a comfort zone in your new home, especially if you have kids who may feel overwhelmed by all the changes they're experiencing.

This is sometimes easier said than done, since you may have to wait for your boxes and belongings to arrive. So rather than packing everything to be shipped, make sure you have some of your things with you in your suitcase.

Identify some items that make you happy and bring them to your new home so you can begin to settle in right away. If you have children, this could be something like a favourite bedtime story book.

Setting up your new home also means incorporating rituals and family traditions.

Think about what is important to you because it brings you joy and makes you feel comfortable. It could be birthday rituals or different things that you do at home and also plan to do abroad. Take a Danish tradition for example: will you still have flags and singing in the morning on your birthdays? Remember to pack the flags then!

2. They find one or more cultural informants

A cultural informant is someone who knows about the local culture and has the knowledge and skills to be receptive about it. They will be your go-to person, someone who knows that you have questions about what is normal in the new culture, how different situations are handled, and how things are done.

Your cultural informant can be a colleague, a manager, a neighbour, a parent at your kid’s football team, a cultural trainer, etc. There are so many different places where you can find a cultural informant. Very often it will be someone from your work, but if you have a member of your household who is not going to work, it's important to identify who they rely on as a cultural informant.

You can ask this cultural informant about stuff that you know you don’t know. We always recommend using the words "normally", "typically" and "generally" when you ask questions. For example: How do you normally handle a conflict? What do you typically do during the weekend? How do you generally go on a date?

3. They integrate and establish strong local networks

You want to establish a local network as soon as possible, but that might mean different things to different people. "Local" doesn’t only have to mean within the host culture, it can also mean in the area where you’re living.

If you have a goal to have local friends from the national culture within which you're living, you need to recognize that it may require more steps than networking with locally-based internationals.

We recommend creating a strategy that will help you open up to new people and find a community where you feel comfortable. Choose your strategy based on what suits your personality and the culture you’re living in. If it's easier for you to talk to people who are more similar to you, go somewhere where you aren’t the only international person.

Sometimes you have to think creatively when creating a new network, such as the parent group at the international school.

When forming your local network, imagine how you would feel if you were not an expat and not in this situation where you have tons of questions and don’t know anything: Would you also be friends with this person at home? What is it that actually connects you? Do you have the same values? It’s not wrong to become friends with people or connect with people with whom you don’t have much in common, but it’s also important to realize that sometimes you need a deeper connection.

There will be some people who you probably won’t stay in touch with in the long term, and that's perfectly fine. Just make sure that it’s not more than half of the people you're connected with because that will make it difficult to relax and be authentic. It's important that you truly enjoy spending time with these people.

4. They remember their goals and support each other

We often talk to families about their goals before they go abroad and what they want to strive for. It can be anything from losing weight or spending more time together as a family to pursuing a career within a certain field or nurturing a child’s skills. There are as many different goals as there are individuals.

Once you've set these goals, remember to revisit them after you're abroad and see if you're on track. Are you embracing the opportunity? An expat relocation is a temporary situation, usually about 2 or 3 years, so make the most of it.

If you discussed with your partner beforehand what your fears, strengths, and challenges are, this is the perfect time to revisit that. Once you're abroad, it can be easier to talk about these things because you've left your comfort zone and you actually need each other's support, skills, and experiences.

It can be challenging for partners to have a greater dependency on each other while abroad. If both partners worked before, they may have been able to be somewhat independent, but when you go abroad you need to align and collaborate more. It’s not a one-man show, and sometimes couples and families need to face the question: What does it mean to be a ‘we’ and not an ‘I’? What happens when you're dependent on one spouse's salary instead of two?

This doesn't happen automatically – you need to talk explicitly about what it means to build your life abroad together.

5. They stay curious and adopt a positive attitude toward the host country and culture

It can be easy to fall into the habit of staying within your comfort zone of work and home and family, sitting on the couch, watching a movie. Going out can take energy because things are unfamiliar, maybe even strange or worrying. Feeling this way can shut down your curiosity and make you avoid going out to see what's going on in the community.

We believe you should explore and stay curious if you want to get the most out of your stay, but you can also find a balance that includes doing simple, comfortable things that don’t force you to think too much.

Try to take one step at a time so that you feel more comfortable and open towards exploring the local culture.

We suggest a strategy such as committing to one trip per month to explore something new. You can involve the whole family in coming up with a list of things to do and take turns deciding what that month's activity will be. In this way, you can delegate the initiative to different family members. Consider keeping a running list of things you want to do in a visible place (like the refrigerator) for inspiration.

Part of staying motivated to go out and explore is staying positive and curious about the host culture – because what you focus on creates your reality.

Especially for families with children, we ask the parents to be considerate about what they're saying at home about the host culture, how they evaluate behaviour they don't understand or don't agree with, and how they interpret things they think are strange or unpleasant.

It’s okay to talk about these things, but you need to realize that where you put your attention is also what you will be looking for. You can criticize the local culture, but don’t always do it to your family because it will influence how they look at people.

Try to level out your bias. When you’re biased, you will always feel like you're right and the other person is wrong, and that's not a constructive mindset. Ask other people to play devil's advocate sometimes and say: OK, let’s look at what you did that they might think is strange.

Have open arms and warm hearts, as we say. Have a laugh about it! Remember that it’s just a different way of doing things and acknowledge that you also have different ways of doing things, and that’s okay.

6. They maintain strong relationships with friends and family at home

While it's important to build relationships locally, you might also feel really connected to your home culture. That's perfectly understandable, but if you want to stay in touch with people back home, you need to be proactive and reach out to them because they have busy lives and, from their perspective, you are the one who has gone away. You can't always expect that they will automatically reach out to you.

There are ways to stay in touch with people back home while still giving yourself space to explore the new culture. For example, you can write a blog or set up weekly video chats.

Consider also seeing people on a more informal basis, such as having your laptop or tablet out on the table so you can video chat while eating breakfast. If you’re on the other side of the world, you can have breakfast coffee while your friends have afternoon tea. If you schedule these chats in the calendar and treat them like real meetings, you will be more likely to follow through.

Just be aware that if you stay more connected to the people back home rather than the new culture you're living in, it will have consequences for how much you're actually going to experience while abroad.

Want to learn more about how to have a successful relocation?

This blog post is the second of a three-part series on successful relocations for expat families. You can find links to all parts of the series here.

Are you preparing for an international assignment? Read more here about our cultural training for relocation or contact us to chat about how we can help with your specific situation.

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