Expat life: big challenges, bigger rewards

A new survey from Berlitz shows that expats find life abroad to be rewarding, but going home again can be tougher than expected.

Published: Fri 16 Sep 2011 12:27 CEST
Expat life: big challenges, bigger rewards

Life as an expat is hard before you leave and tough while you are away. Then when you move home again, settling back in can be more difficult than you expect. Yet most expats still find living abroad to be an overwhelmingly positive experience, according to an extensive survey carried out by Berlitz Cultural Consulting.


The survey quizzed a focus group of 404 expatriate workers and 124 spouses between April 2010 and March 2011. It found that people moved abroad for one of three main reasons: professional purposes, personal reasons, or to fulfill the desire to break from the norm and try something new.

The vast majority of people - 85 percent - said they had high expectations before departure. Among these people, the main worries were the language barrier and whether they would be as efficient at work as they were in their home country.

”This is a recurring theme that remains constant in our reports over many years,” says Patricia Glasel, director of Berlitz Consulting, which runs cross-cultural management courses and is part of the company known for its travel books and language courses.


One of the more surprising results from Berlitz’s survey comes from those with prior experience of such a move.


”The more experienced they are, the more they recognize that adapting to the new professional environment is going to be tough. We would usually expect that the more experience someone has, the easier it should be for them to adapt, although this proves that will not necessarily be the case,” adds Glasel.


Whatever concerns people have before setting off, these tend to ebb away once they get used to their new environment. Some 75% said that they “have learned to play the game using different rules” and that the experience has given them a keener awareness of their own culture.


In the workplace, attitudes differ greatly from country to country, depending on where the expat is and where they come from originally.  The conclusions drawn by the study from those based in Scandinavia will make familiar reading to many expats already in Sweden.


Scandinavians are perceived as extremely efficient and pragmatic, says the report. What strikes many coming to this part of the world is the consensus and compromise involved in the Scandinavian decision-making process - something that many said they found frustrating at first. The flipside to this is that once actions were agreed upon, they are quickly put into effect, with a high degree of efficiency. Expats in Scandinavia are also struck by the depth of respect people demonstrate, both for each other as well as the company for which they work.

While many of the findings of the survey will come as little surprise to those already experiencing expat life in Sweden, there are some unexpected observations and warnings of what may be in store if and when you move home. 

Expatriates returning to their home countries deeply appreciate the benefits of the experience abroad, from a personal and particularly from a professional point of view. Their initial concerns are usually assuaged more rapidly than expexted, and they adjust more easily to their new environment than they thought. They also stress that it is key to master the language as well as learn local norms and codes.


It’s not all positive though, especially for Western European expatriates - particularly when they go back to their home countries. Many report that their employer has problems fitting them back in, in a role that suits their newly grown abilities and competences, while for many the much hoped-for career advancement fails to materialize. In fact this can be one of the main disappointments.


“To become an international manager after gaining experience of working abroad is neither a natural development nor is it an easy step,” says Glasel. “They are very excited because they have acquired new knowledge, but they face real challenges on a professional level, even though they have excellent skills,” she adds.


Although the return is often difficult, interviewees all gained much from their experience abroad in terms of knowledge, culture, mastery of foreign languages, or open-mindedness and self-confidence. Some 68% of expatriates no longer feel “quite like the same person” upon their return, particularly in terms of “knowledge of cultures, tolerance, and open-mindedness.” Hard work it may be, but the for most expats, the rewards make it worthwhile.

Article sponsored by Berlitz


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