Thinking About an Expat Assignment? Careful, It’s Addictive!

Matthew MacLachlan

30 Jan 2017

Expatriates are nothing new. One could consider the earliest expatriates to be military and diplomatic postings as the Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, British, Spanish and other empires expanded and with them the need for people to run far-flung outposts. Are you thinking of an expat assignment? Be warned – it can be addictive!

An Expat Assignment

The rapid globalisation of the last few decades has seen more and more people taking up an expat assignment, with all of the benefits and challenges an expatriate relocation can bring.

While Roman soldiers posted to the desolate north of England to guard Hadrian’s Wall famously complained about the food and weather, modern-day expatriates have a somewhat easier life.

Work or Play?

But what about the changes an expat assignment (or two) can have on an expat? While Romans soldiers posted to the desolate north of England to guard Hadrian’s Wall famously complained about the food and weather, modern-day expatriates have a somewhat easier life.

The Wall Street Journal made a note of Ernest Hemingway’s opinion of expats – addicts who spend more time talking than working.  We might though question whether that was an accurate description of Hemingway’s experience, given his prolific work while being an expat himself.

Today’s corporate expats may find their experience to be closer to ‘work hard, party hard’, at least in some postings, including in some unlikely locations.  But the days of a perpetual expatriate holiday posting are over.  Few organisations can afford to support an expatriate relocation that serves no specific purpose or that produces no financial return.

Reluctant Expatriates

Expatriates: addicts who spend more time talking than working (Ernest Hemingway)

But not everyone is explicitly drawn to an expatriate lifestyle; some choose to become expatriates due to limited opportunities in their native country, perhaps becoming reluctant expatriates at best.

Others may be building their CVs.  Many others may see expatriation as a blatant chance to earn and potentially save a lot of money and enjoy an improved economic lifestyle, regardless of where they are living.

Some of these can be found in expatriate bubbles, generally living a lifestyle emulating conditions they are familiar with their culture.  Other expatriates, while initially reluctant, learn to adapt and make the most of their new environment. Companies often offer expatriate training courses for expats and their accompanying families can help them to understand the benefits and allay any concerns they may have.

Enthusiastic Expatriates

Another group of expatriates were identified:  those who have relocated abroad with the goal of exploring and embracing their new culture.  Some have been called adventure junkies and would be called enthusiastic expatriates.

Successful expatriates are much more likely to embrace the challenges of an international assignment and develop as an individual

Common Characteristics

The WSJ points out some common themes amongst expatriates.  Successful expatriates are much more likely to embrace the challenges of an international assignment and develop as an individual. They can ask the deeper questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and explore their identity without the distractions and mundane obligations of everyday life.

Successful expatriates often say they hesitate to go home again

Different Responsibilities

Given time to develop their addiction, some expats discover there is no one home to go back to – they are global citizens and home is everywhere.

Expatriates may also regard their posting as an opportunity to experience and enjoy a culture without the same responsibilities as those who are citizens of the country.  Many identify with the enviable position of being long-term honoured guests, enjoying the pleasures of their new environment without the obligations of being a host.

Expatriates who are culturally aware and have an open-minded attitude to difference may find they develop a new perspective about their temporary home – and often the wider world as well.  This leads to a reduction of arrogance and selfishness and an increase in tolerance and empathy.

Citizens of the World

Over time, expatriates often express the feeling that they have become citizens of the world.  Although some pessimists may say they feel as though they don’t quite fit in any one place, optimists usually say they feel comfortable almost anywhere.

They also have the ability to meet and make new friends with people from diverse cultures more easily than their counterparts back home, especially those with limited experience with diversity in their environment.

Successful expatriates often say they hesitate to go home again.  Given time to develop their addiction, these expats discover there is no one home to go back to – they are global citizens, and home is everywhere.