Well I wasn’t expecting that: the top 5 expat surprises

3 November 2016

In the weeks leading up to departure, prospective expats always form expectations of the experience that awaits them in their new host country. And they are always wrong. 

While the unexpected is the very thing that makes travel so exciting, it still helps to be as prepared as possible. Thorough research on your new host country will help get you ready, but we thought we would list the areas that expats find most surprising. Whether you are a German going to work in the US, or an Irishman embarking on a three-year assignment in Thailand, these are the five key categories that will doubtless hold some fascinating, memorable and possibly terrifying surprises for you during your time abroad. 

Local rules apply

The variation in local attitudes is a whole subject in its own right. Suffice to say here that many expats have been surprised at the attitudes that prevail in their host country. An obvious example is the less-than-liberal attitude in many Arab states towards women, which most expats have seen well-documented and therefore to be expected. But be aware that you will encounter many subtler attitude differences too. 

One expat, for example, recounted how he used to ask London team members for direct and honest feedback as part of weekly one-to-one meetings. When he tried the same approach in Singapore, local staff were more reticent and frequently uncomfortable with the request. Here, it pays to check whether either high context or low context communication is most prevalent in your host country. In high context communication countries such as Japan, you should imply rather than explicitly state. This is especially the case for requests, critique and opinions, and contrasts with low-context cultures (eg Germany) where communications are more direct and explicit.

High context communication takes a detour | FIDI blog

Don’t stand so close to me

Western expats in Brazil often remark on the way that ‘personal space’ is invaded during one to one conversations. In fact, there’s a famous pair of pictures showing people queuing in both a Latin-American and Western-European country, where people in the former are standing much closer to each other than the latter. This is typical of how physical gestures and actions vary from place to place. What is important is to respond appropriately. Bow when bowed to in Japan. Avoid using your left hand in the UAE. Accept kisses from the Belgians. And don’t back down from the Brazilians – it will show you are weak.

Waiting lines distances differ | FIDI blog

Everyday habits, but not everywhere

To be fair, the novelty of different habits, traditions and customs is one of the aspects of travel that is endlessly fascinating. Those with an appetite for travel will absorb culture shock more readily – but it may be a shock nonetheless to find that Russians often do business in saunas, that the British will often joke about money to hide their nervousness of the subject, and that in Spain a hard deadline is often only considered a rough guideline.

Lost in translation

It is not until you go to a country that uses not only a different language but a different alphabet that you find out how hopelessly lost you can really be. Everything from street signs to restaurant menus are suddenly baffling, particularly in less cosmopolitan areas and away from the big cities. However, most expats see this coming and make their own preparations (or not). More surprising are the nuanced differences between languages that appear similar. Ask an English expat in New York to talk about braces/suspenders, pants/trousers, jam/jelly or anything involving football and you will see what we mean. 

English language subway map | FIDI blog

Surprises in store

You expect to be able to buy/access everything that you could back home. Well perhaps you don’t – but you will no doubt be surprised when you can’t. One blogger loved the bustle and excitement of her new life in Tokyo, but realized how different it really was when she failed at the simple task of buying a wholemeal loaf as she could have done easily back in New York.

Store surprises | FIDI blog

Vive la différence

This article cannot, of course, list every potential surprise that is lurking in wait. But you can be fairly sure that each of these areas has some unusual experiences in store for you. Do your research, and try to prepare yourself. But more importantly, enjoy the difference and go with the flow. Not only will your hosts appreciate your efforts to fit in with their culture, language and customs, but the understanding of those precious differences will help you to grow and develop as a person. 

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