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Life on the go: Expatriates

Updated on June 19, 2013

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Cultural Transitioning

Traveling to other countries whether for business or pleasure can be an exciting prospect, and people have traveled the globe for as long as history has been recorded and beyond. Man’s inherent curiosity to discover what’s beyond his horizon has kept humans traversing the earth for thousands of years; lately the horizon has extended to space though going on an extra-terrestrial trip may not be a likely phenomenon for the masses for many more years to come.

People’s yearning to experience what’s yonder has led to a huge industry, tourism. Today, an aspiring holiday maker needs only to decide on a location, select a package tour and all the logistics are taken care of; thus the stress of planning a trip is eased. Upon arrival at the chosen destination, there are contingents of individuals whose obligation it is to make the experience a stellar one for the traveler(s), and more often than not, holiday makers come away with nothing short of a truly memorable experience. But what happens when the traveler is not just visiting briefly but rather must live and be productive in the host country. Who is there to ensure that the social, emotional and personal needs of expatriates are adequately met?

Living Abroad

Relocating abroad is a tough decision and definitely not recommended for the faint hearted. Successful expatriation starts with meticulous planning and education even before the bags are packed, and should not end when the plane touches down (assuming one arrives by air). For example, heading out to a region where the lingo is different requires learning sufficient functional words and phrases in the native language in order to be better able to meet one’s basic communication needs upon arrival, while traveling to volatile political climates might require training on staying safe in the host country. A successful expatriate experience is one that is pleasant, productive and personally fulfilling but unfortunately, that is not always the case for a fair percentage of expatriates despite being immersed in cultural transitioning workshops prior to physically leaving to embark on foreign assignments.

Failure

It is difficult to put an accurate figure on expatriate failure due to the complexity, if not the impossibility of collecting accurate data. Still, it is estimated that 1 in 4 expatriate assignments end in premature return, costing corporations tons of revenue as replacements must be sent. Culture shock, complex dynamics of the new environment, and difficulty adapting to the new society’s norms and expectations are common reasons for failure. The statistics on premature return indicates that perhaps cultural transitioning training should continue in the host country and be available on a needs basis throughout the duration of an assignment. This provision might be a more cost effective way for companies to retain employees in overseas posts for the long haul.

Problems in the Host Country

The majority of problems encountered by people on tour of duty abroad arise from cultural misinterpretations of situations they encounter or misunderstanding cultural cues. Factually, human beings share more similarities than differences, however, one’s thought processes and actions are culturally rooted and this is where problems can arise. Living effectively amidst people of an alien culture may call for a new lens for perceiving the new terrain or making personal adjustments.

Sometimes, the problems have little to do with the environment per se as expats can experience emotional upheavals such as anxiety, homesickness, loneliness or a sense of detachment from loved ones. Couples might encounter marital strife especially when the spouse feels out of place, or settling the kids becomes a challenge and Grandma is no longer round the corner to provide assistance and support. Self-doubt, uncertainty, lack of confidence, and social issues such as isolation are all realities of expatriation and require intervention.

Supports in the Host Country

The diversity of issues that plaque expatriates has led to a booming industry known as expat coaching. Expatriate coaches make it their business to ensure clients maximize their productivity in the host country. Executives can be coached on tactical skills for managing the local workforce; a business’ current performance can be assessed and make recommendations for developing strategic plans that will potentially help it grow and maximize profit; key employees can be supported during transition to different roles within the same organization or when moving to completely new establishments; coaching support and learning opportunities can be provided for employees to ensure positive interactions within the organization, and individuals can be helped to flourish and realize peak performance if taken under the wing of an expat coach who’ll work with them to enhance their skill in a particular field or facet of the individual’s life.

As role models, expat coaches personally exhibit a high level of self-knowledge and pride themselves on their own extraordinary high self-imposed standards. They are goal-oriented folks who focus on the present in order to influence the future. Thus these coaches can help individuals or families identify personal social or behavioral issues hindering their ability to progress and then work with them to define realistically attainable goals that will ultimately help them overcome their challenges. This collaboration requires a trust based partnership within which open conversations can take place and though the coach plays the role of expert, he does not impose or dictate to the client. Instead, suggestions and plans for reaching a target goal are mutually agreed upon and the coach acts as a facilitator by providing guidance, motivation, and support. The coach remains a good listener and provides feedback without being judgmental. When social behavior training is involved, the coach provides a safe environment for the expat to ‘test’ the newly acquired behavior to ensure it is a good ‘fit’ before it is exhibited in public. Expats coaches monitor the progress of their clients through scheduled follow up appointments and stay by them until the goal is attained.

In a nutshell, expat coaches are intuitive, visionary, committed and passionate about human development and believe that given the right tools and supports people have the potential to succeed. Without the highly dedicated services of these guardian angels, the enthusiasm of living, working, and thriving abroad can gradually be transformed into a nightmare from which one might not necessarily wake up long after the proverbial towel has been thrown in.

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