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Five Essential Friends (Working Abroad Part II)

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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 Local

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. 

The Diplomat

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.

The Genius

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.

The Backer

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.

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Bjorn Karlman

 

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.

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Bjorn Karlman