Tag Archives: Expat

Localer than Thou – Overcoming Expat Snootiness

A few posts ago a friend and loyal CultureMutt reader, Tristan complained about overseas travelers that are in a phase where they refuse to talk to any other foreigner.  If you’ve tried to socialize with fellow travelers abroad at hostels or elsewhere, you’ve probably come across some of these types.  They somehow think that if they ignore all the other obviously foreign people and focus on being super “local”, they will somehow transcend the ranks of the mere tourist and become honorary citizens of the host country.  It’s gross.  And it only gets worse with long-term relocation expat types.  They are convinced that their three years and counting automatically qualify them as connoisseur insiders and that you have to spend at least as long as they have in the country before they will fraternize with you.

Here are my tips for how to deal with these types if and when you run into them:

Avoid them

This might be the easiest option.  If you are only visiting for a short time and you want to dodge the patronizing looks and condescending comments of expat know-it-alls, learn to spot them and then avoid them.  Expat snobs will name-drop, speak pejoratively about the US and a lot of the other typical tourist home bases and constantly act surprised at your lack of knowledge of some quirky local custom or hot spot.  As soon as you get these comments or as soon as you hear them being dished at someone else, get away from the source.  They are seeking some kind of complex validation and are never satisfied.  Better to actually talk to a real local, they are more likely to be receptive to honest questions and interest in their culture and way of life.

Speak the local language to them

But suppose you do want to engage the snobs, how do you do it?  One thing I noticed about “localer than thou” language students was that if you speak to them in the local language, you automatically win points in their book.  I remember a guy I met in France.  He ignored or rolled his eyes at most of his fellow language school students.  I came to the school on a recruiting trip and during my down time I started to speak French to him.  That seemed to be the magic switch that turned him into an engaging, enthusiastic conversation partner.  He was apparently sick of language students that he felt were holding back his progress by speaking English to him.  A lot of people disliked him for his seeming arrogance.  But he finished his year in France speaking superb French, something 90% of his classmates did not.  The key to engaging him was to help him achieve his goals by speaking French to him – simple as that.

Talk local

Going with the same logic, if you want to neutralize the snootiness of the localer than thou, get local with them.  If you ask them the right questions and show respect for their feel for the lay of the land, they will typically be willing to share.  However the will NOT want to hear about how expensive/cheap, big/small, quaint or ordinary local products and attractions seem to you compared to what they are at home.  A lot of American expats especially, are sick of being associated with American tourists that come bumbling into town with their potbellies, fanny packs and constant comparisons to how things are in Texas.  DO NOT embarrass or harass them with such observations, it does not help you or your bid for acceptance.

Traveling or working abroad is an art and you learn as you go.  Take the above into consideration, remember to respect and learn from the local way and you will set yourself up for success.



Bjorn Karlman

Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked

At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines
At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines

I can go from zero to awkward, mumbling mess in no time when Western pop culture predating the late 90s is brought up in conversation. I have no clue what to say because a lot of the time, I have never heard of the actor/singer/quirky 80s celebrity of ambiguous sexuality being discussed. It is painful. I sound American. My Northern European genes make me look like I’ve got straight-laced, Mayflower Puritanical blood.  But I grew up next to sugar cane fields and coffee plantations in the Philippines and I have never seen a single episode of Miami Vice.

Luckily I grew up with other expat kids who were just as lost. We were all Third Culture Kids (we’d grown up in a culture different from that of our parents.)  Instead of being perpetually bummed about the fact that we didn’t completely fit into any culture or country, we bonded over our oddball similarities.  The transition to adulthood has changed very little so here’s my list of TCK traits:

1) Most of us speak English better than our mother tongue and are stumped if some zealous patriot asks us to recite the words to our own national anthems.

2) Whether or not we’ve ever stepped foot on American soil, our accents are often, to one degree or another, American.

3) We are flakes when it came to growing roots anywhere.  I’ve kept in touch with a number of my fellow TCKs and a lot of them have kept moving, never staying in the same place for more than a few years.

4) TMI!  We are used to sharing a lot very quickly because growing up we knew that we didn’t have much time to make friends before we had to leave again. But there is a flipside to this. Steph Yiu on denizen-mag.com puts it well:  “once you get to know us, you might find that we keep you at bay. We’re just so used to leaving (or being left by) people who are close to us that sometimes we don’t want to form very deep relationships, for fear of losing them.”

5) We were raised watching cultures clash on a daily basis so we are OK with grey areas.  We don’t expect life to be black and white.

6) We may have been mature teenagers but for some reason, we take our time “growing up” in our 20s.  For more on that, check out this article by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art3.html

7) We are unlikely to take jobs in government or the corporate world that involve a lot of red tape/bureaucracy.  Neither do we often follow in our parent’s footsteps professionally:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

If you are a TCK or if you know one well and care to add to this list I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment.  Just don’t ask me about the Jetsons.


Bjorn Karlman