Expat Life

Are Expat Friendships Superficial?

Happy New Year! How was your holiday? How long have you been in Brunei/China/wherever? What does your husband do (cringe!).

In expat communities it seems at first glance that most of our conversations are centred on the same topics. In China it was about the air quality, in the Netherlands the standard topic is the weather and in Brunei it is the endless holidays (lucky us) as the weather is pretty much the same every day.

During school runs or coffee mornings we have a lot of these short conversations.

And they are safe conversations to have.

Superficial, Lonely Life Abroad?

It can feel like life is superficial abroad. And worse, it can feel like we have no friends when most of our conversations are at this level. We know many people, but do we really know them- and do they know us?

At the same time, I’ve made some close friends abroad over a relatively short time- having deep conversations about life and career. Conversations that I rarely conducted with friends back home before we moved. Hopefully you have the same experience. So what is different?


5 Levels of Communication

When I read a very insightful book by Lois Bushong recently (Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere), I learned about a communication theory that offered a lot of insight. She refers to J. Powell’s theory on 5 levels of communication.

Level 5: Cliché Conversation

Level 5 is called Cliché Conversation. This is about small talk and breaking the ice. At this level, people exchange pleasantries and statements, not even really expecting an answer sometimes. “How are you” or “Nice to see you” are in this category.  It reminds me of my first French lesson in high school. “Comment ca va?” “Ca va bien, merci, et toi?” Very present in (expat) life as we know many people by face/name but not much more. And where many people’s first language isn’t English perhaps.

Level 4: Facts

At this level, we do not reveal much about ourselves, but report facts (Where are you from? In which class are your kids?). We “(…) talk about what others have said or done,” writes Lois Bushong. We do not share about our life.

In the small community that I am part of, there is a lot of “gossip.” People know many things about each other, but rarely from the person(s) in the story. When I saw this model, it made me realise that this “gossiping” is probably not out of malice. Rather, it seems part of making conversation, as it is safer to exchange (so-called) facts about others than revealing about your own life- as that may start leading a life of its own.

Level 3: Opinion

Here we talk a little about ourselves, “(…) we share ideas and reveal some judgements and decisions, yet we remain very guarded in what we select to disclose (…). Perhaps sentences like “I love that book about expat life, especially the chapter about over the top kids parties.” Or “I have no interest in learning Chinese.”

Indeed, especially in a small expat community, complicated by people working at the same company, kids attending the same school etc, this level can already feel being too familiar with a stranger.

Interesting enough, writes Bushong, many Third Culture Kids actually jump straight to level 3 when meeting new people. The reason is unknown. Bushong cites 2 hypothesis:

  • There may be little time to develop a friendship, or
  • As the other person will move again anyway there are no long-term consequences of sharing.

I wonder whether Third Culture Adults (who only moved abroad as adults) do the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, especially after a few moves, looking for people who “get” your experiences in other countries or even know these countries intimately.

Level 2: Emotions

At this level people share who they truly are, and talk about their feelings and emotional reactions in situations. This is a vulnerable level to communicate at, as it makes us vulnerable to rejection (or so we fear). It is also the level where you feel deeply connected to another person. It can happen at level 3 as well, but there it is more about ideas, theories, head stuff, and less about feelings from the heart as at level 2.

For example, many expats are afraid to speak out about feelings of loneliness or loss that they experience abroad, but when they do, they are often met with understanding and shared stories. Or you could think of “I’m so frustrated by the incompetence of my boss, I wish I could get out of this country ASAP.”

Especially in the early days of a move, when you do not know people well yet, this is a level that you do not reach much, except perhaps with your partner. It can make you feel lonely, as your friends back home do not understand what you go through abroad, and you do not feel ready to share with your new friends.

However, when you do reach this level in a friendship abroad, it feels like you have known each other for a long time. A strong bond is forged. Situations where I have experienced this type of bonding was when I had a baby abroad. Being in a similar situation as another expat, such as being pregnant, losing a loved one, or divorce, may lead to fast, strong bonds.

Level 1: Peak Communication

Complete openness and honesty is prevalent at this level. It can almost feel like two souls are merged, two individuals being completely aligned. Conversation flows back and forth naturally. This level of communication is rarely reached, not even in relationships. Sharing at level 2 is essential before you can reach this peak level.

In Coaching

As a coach, I try to spend most of the time on level 3 and level 2. These are the levels where people hold themselves back from stepping out of their comfort zones. As level 1 is reciprocal, it is not something to aim for in coaching I find, as the focus is on the client, not on the inner world of the coach.

And still, even in a good coaching relationship it can be scary for clients to open up. Not just scary because there is a witness in the room (the coach), but mostly because they have inner beliefs that tell them they shouldn’t think or feel “that way”. With my own coach I also notice, sometimes almost feeling embarrassed before the next session as in “I can’t believe I told him that last time, he must think I…” But then I realise this is about me, not about him.

Moving Towards Meaningful Conversations and Friendships- A Tip

How can we create more meaningful conversations, leading to deeper friendships abroad?

It is no magic secret.

The key is in ourselves.

Sometimes we need to risk a little to share more of our thoughts or (gulp!) feelings. Little by little, peeling away a layer, revealing something about ourself. You will notice from your friend’s reaction if they are comfortable, and if they will also become more open. 

It is tricky, I know. Especially in small communities. Perhaps you have been burned before because you thought that what you shared in confidence was instead spread around by someone you considered a friend. So tread carefully but with intent.

For expats who have been on the road a while it may be the same- you may hold back in friendships as so many of your dear friends have moved away, or you have moved. And what’s the point in making new friends if they will move away again, it will just be another painful goodbye and for what? However, if you think back at previous postings, you will notice that it is the connections with people that made it special.

How about you? What level do you allow your conversations to be? Feel free to send me a private message if you do not want to share it in the comments.     

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