Global employees often struggle to completely adjust to living abroad. While remaining in an expat bubble might provide comfort and familiarity, it can also prevent foreign assignees and international hires from settling into their new home country and integrating completely, ultimately causing them unhappiness.
Foreign assignees and international hires face similar difficulties when they relocate abroad. Although organizing all of the logistics involved with moving can be tedious, it is often only once they are in their new location that they experience the more challenging aspects of relocation — settling down and fully integrating into their new home country. Taken out of their comfort zone and away from friends and family, and already faced with considerable changes and disruption to their lives, it can often be easier for global employees to remain within an expat bubble.
What is the Expat Bubble?
Although global employees may be viewed as adventurous and open to new experiences, adapting to different countries and cultures is not necessarily something that comes easily. For this reason, many foreign assignees and international hires continue to remain in an expat bubble — staying exclusively within their expat community and not really understanding and immersing themselves in the local culture.
Jordan Coutout, Head of Community Management at InterNations, the world's largest expat network, says: ‘’The expat bubble can be likened to an ecosystem made up of expats who only interact with one another and remain separate from the local culture.’’ While such a bubble can facilitate social and professional relationships with other expatriates, and often enables global employees to speak their own language and preserve cultural ties (International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 2005), remaining exclusively in this segregated group can also harm efforts to settle in and socially integrate abroad.
Establishing Local Friendships
Establishing new friendships in general can be a challenge for global employees, however making local friends stands out as an even larger issue. This is one of the findings from the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition, a report based on the Expat Insider survey with 18,135 respondents. The report looked at how different expat types experience life abroad, and the various aspects impacting on their happiness and unhappiness. While 29% of foreign assignees indicated that they had trouble making new friends, a much larger percentage (41%) expressed difficulty making local friends. For international hires, the picture looks even bleaker — while 30% said that they had trouble making new friends, 43% reported difficulty making local friends.
Many respondents commented on this difficulty establishing local friendships, making it stand out as a real pain point when moving abroad. A Russian female foreign assignee living in the Netherlands said: ‘’Finding friends among locals is difficult within my age group, because most locals already have their circle of friends and family and are too busy with other things to make new friends’’.
Another survey respondent, an American male international hire living in Denmark, highlighted the importance of establishing friendships with locals: ‘’I normally make friends easily and while I have made many international acquaintances, there is not a single local person that I can call a friend despite being here for over 14 months. For me, if you cannot connect with the local people and make friends, there is very little meaning or purpose to your life abroad’’.
From the survey results and respondents’ comments, it is clear that friendships play an important role in the lives of global employees. This difficulty in making local friends — despite a desire to establish such friendships — may be one of the reasons that global employees often remain in their expat bubble.
Feeling at Home Abroad
The lack of local friends may also contribute to the difficulty global employees have feeling at home abroad. While 60% of the total survey respondents agreed that it was easy to feel at home in the local culture, the average was less for foreign assignees (57%) and international hires (52%).
When looking at different time periods of their life abroad, the findings are even more striking. Only 50% of foreign assignees reported that it was easy to feel at home in the local culture between the time periods of less than six months living abroad, and six months to two years. For international hires in these same time periods, 48% said that it was easy to feel at home in the local culture. These percentages increase as time goes on, indicating that it is particularly difficult for global employees to feel at home in the local culture in their first few years of living abroad.
The strength of relationship networks abroad is one of the key influencers on feeling at home in the local culture (Population, Space and Place, 2010), with friendships providing valuable peer-to-peer support to facilitate social integration. ‘’Working expats who stay in their expat bubble will never really feel like they are at home in their host country’’, says Coutout. ‘’Socializing with locals is key to creating an understanding of the culture, and an awareness of cultural differences.’’ Lacking this cultural knowledge can cause discomfort and fear for global employees, and may result in foreign assignees and international hires who turn towards the comforts of home, rather than integrating successfully into the local culture (Population, Space and Place, 2010).
Beyond the Bubble
While it is often assumed that global employees prefer to stay within the comfort zone of their expat bubble and remain detached from their new home country, for many, social integration is essential to the decision of whether to remain abroad (Population, Space and Place, 2015).
Coutout recognizes the importance of integration beyond the expat bubble, and the impact this has on the happiness and productivity of foreign assignees and international hires: ‘’Global employees with local friends are more likely to settle down and integrate more quickly, resulting in happier and more productive employees, and a heightened morale in the workplace.’’
This raises some interesting questions for employers who send employees abroad or hire internationally: What do companies currently do to help global employees to settle in and feel at home in their new location? How can foreign assignees and international hires be better supported to integrate into the local culture, and beyond the expat bubble?
Read the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition: Expat Insider is one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive surveys on life abroad (18,135 expats from across the globe took part in the 2018 survey — of the respondents, 19% were international hires and 10% were foreign assignees).
International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance. 2005. Managing Global Careers: Challenges for the 21st Century. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227285053_Managing_Global_Careers_Challenges_for_the_21st_Century
Population, Space and Place. 2010. From 'fish out of water' to 'fitting in': the challenge of re‐placing home in a mobile world. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/psp.575
Population, Space and Place. 2015. Beyond Cosmopolitanism and Expat Bubbles: Challenging Dominant Representations of Knowledge Workers and Trailing Spouses. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/psp.1839