Expat advice: Keep those rose-colored glasses handy

happy expats

If you read blogs from other expats or belong to any of their million forums and Facebook groups, then you will inevitably find a rant followed by a string of comments praising the author for “pulling back the curtain” and giving the rest of us a taste of what the culture/service/whatever is really like in their host country.

This week I read a post on another expat blog about the dismal state of customer service in Colombia. It started off that way at least, then quickly deteriorated into a diatribe concluding that the average Colombian-owned business will leave a person lied to and cheated. The comments that followed were as expected, meaning there was lots of applause for the author for chucking those rose-colored glasses out the window.

Venting seems harmless and maybe even a positive thing. It feels so good to get your frustrations out and be validated by your peers. But not so fast. I’m here today to tell you why this is such a slippery slope for expats.

Let me call out the first obvious issue with fault-finding in your host culture: it’s not your home culture. Before you get upset that the service is slow or that people don’t wait in line properly or are chronically late, remember that your interpretation of slow, a line, and late are formed by the place you grew up.

Of course, this can mean a lot of different things depending on where you now call home. Even so, expats need to pay special attention to their own cultural bias. It can be tricky because it is possible to stay in the comfortable bubble of the expat community. Just make sure you don’t hold so tightly to your own mores that they become a barrier between you and your new neighbors.

Grievance number two with host culture fault-finding is that spending all your energy being frustrated is not going to change anything. And it will make you grumpy. Everyone, no matter how many times you’ve moved, will have a period of adjustment—it’s called culture shock. Adaptation is the final stage, meaning that you adapt to your host culture—not the other way around. You’re not going to fix redundant government bureaucracy during your two years abroad. Or teach an entire country to conform to your standard of time. Being upset over things you can’t control is a major waste of energy.

By far, the most important reason to not give in too often to the need to vent is that once you develop preconceptions, you’ll always find what you’re looking for. Your “beliefs,” whether you’re conscious of them or not, will color how you interact with your world. It’s called attention bias and is one of the big reasons I think expats need to keep those rose-colored glasses handy. The more blanket opinions you form, the more evidence you’ll find to back up those thoughts. And if you’re struggling to feel happy in your new place, this kind of thinking makes it worse.

Listen, in no way am I saying to pretend everything is ok when you’re going nuts. And no need to make yourself a cultural doormat, either. Just try to loosen your hold on your expectations. Think of it as developing a more flexible ideology of “normal.” As you spend outside your comfort zone, you’ll see that things can be done in a million different ways. You don’t have to like them, but it’s not your job to fix any of them either.

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Everyone has their own attitude towards this topic and I’m anxious to know where you fall the spectrum. Especially if you disagree with what I’ve said here, please share your thoughts in the comments! You know, just to make me put my “we can all learn from each other” philosophy to good use.

2 thoughts on “Expat advice: Keep those rose-colored glasses handy

  1. Really good points you brought up. When I’m tempted to complain, I try to channel my energies into finding out *why* a culture operates as it does. By making it a research activity, I usually avoid prolonged whining, which like you said, changes nothing. There are often fascinating clues in a countries history that show up in our daily interactions with a culture. In the case of Latin America: tolerance for petty corruption, distrust of institutions, heavy-duty classicism, etc, and all of them going back to colonial times or beyond. Of course, It also helps, as in my case, to have a Colombian boyfriend who is also a historian :) Neverheless, unleashing our curiosity is so much better than the alternative.

    1. Ooh, I like that—unleashing curiosity! And I completely agree that simply understanding where behavior comes from is almost a surefire way to diffuse frustrations. You are lucky to have a historian close at hand. You may be repaying the favor of explaining strange habits when you go to the U.S. next year! :-)

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