I was joking around with an old family friend whom I’d known for years. My family had first met him and his family in Hong Kong in the 80s when we lived there. He was now living in a less-than-spectacular armpit of Southern California’s Inland Empire just east of Los Angeles. It’s a crappy place to live, boasting most of what is wrong with LA (traffic, pollution, crime) and few of the ritzy perks of Hollywood. He responded to my jab about where he was currently living and said, “Bjorn, you know as well as I that the people make the place.” He was referring to the humble outposts that our respective families had lived in while in Asia and reminding me that there was little in the way of glamor back then. Instead, we were surrounded by some of the most interesting people we would ever meet.
It was a little humbling. But he was right. Friends really are what make the difference in life. No where is this more true than when you are working abroad. Friends at your side abroad are essential to having a good experience. Not only is it important to have friends, it is important to have the right kinds of friends when you are working oversees. Here is a list of people you need in your circle:
The minute you land in a foreign country you want to make finding the local your top priority. This is the friend that makes all the difference. This friend is the local resident who gets it and is happy to help you. Fortunately, it is not hard to find local friends. If you are the “new person”, chances are that you will be approached by a lot of really amazing local people that you can make friends with. They want to know you because you are new and exotic and you want to know them because they are often a lot of fun and can help you navigate everything from local entertainment to negotiating apartment rentals and handling complaints. DO NOT make the mistake of ignoring locals in favor of “easier” relationships with other expats just because there is less of a cultural barrier. If you do this you may as well have stayed at home. You will isolate yourself and look pathetic.
The Social Butterfly
This is the guy who knows everyone. The gal who is on first name basis with the who’s who in town – the extravert that is the last one to leave every party and effortlessly flits from gathering to gathering. Ignore this person at your peril. Don’t assume that they are superficial just because they are masters of small talk. They have honed their game over the years and they can help you forge some of the most important strategic relationships that you will need during your stay in the country. Don’t be afraid to approach this person. He or she is the kind that generally loves meeting anyone.
From time to time something delicate will come up while you abroad, especially since you are working in a cross-cultural setting. Instead of getting all worked up and blowing off steam by giving people a piece of your mind, talk to the diplomat. This person is a chess player – several moves ahead of everyone else. He or she knows just the right words to say. Diplomats are masters of Public Relations. They are self-aware and sensitive to how communication is crafted. Have a fire to put out? Call your diplomat friend as if she were 911.
You need the resident genius when you are abroad. This friend is highly skilled, extremely knowledgeable and can help you with the detail work. Are you in over your head? Unsure how to write a grant proposal for a project you are working on? Drowning in contractual legalese? Having crazy-making technical problems? The genius can help and if you have cultivated a friendship with him or her, chances are you will be helped before everyone else.
Finally, everyone needs the backer. This is the friend who would take a bullet for you. He is loyal to a fault. She is a cheerleader. This person can talk you back up when you fall flat on your face and the world looks like a horrible place. You need this kind of person at home. You need the backer even more when you are abroad. So much of your success in international work lies in cultivating the correct frame of mind – it is about staying motivated. Your backer friend is there to encourage and give you a boost. The backer is indispensable.
One last word. As much as it is vital to have all of the five above friends, it is even more important to give before you receive. Warmth, generosity, humor and some compassion go a long way when you are working abroad. If you show that you are willing to be a great friend to those around you, chances are they will reciprocate. Whatever your talents are, put them to use for your friends. Be that buddy everyone wants to turn to in a time of need. If you can do this you will have very little to worry about as you pursue savvy, global do-gooding.