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How to be a successful ex-pat

2009 July 25
by Greg Satell

In an increasingly globalized world, it’s tough to build a career without crossing borders and more and more executives are spending at least a few years overseas.  I’ve worked in foreign countries for more than a decade and I thought it might be helpful to for me to share some of what I’ve learned about being an ex-pat manager.

  • Focus on technical expertise: Your local employees are going to question everything you do, even more so than in your own country.  They are usually a bit resentful that they have to work with an ex-pat and not someone who shares their nationality, culture and language.  So, at least for the beginning, you will need to emphasize your area of expertise in order to gain their respect.  Once they recognize you as an expert, they will begin to respect your opinion in other areas.
  • Try to learn the language, but don’t embarrass yourself: Many ex-pats get by without learning the local language at all, but I recommend that you at least make an effort.  Even if you never achieve a high level of proficiency, your local staff will appreciate the gesture and you will be much more aware of your environment.  However, avoid using the local language when you need to be seen in a position of strength.  Unless your proficiency is very high, you will appear childish and not particularly bright.
  • Don’t hide your cultural identity: Your presence in a foreign office is not just a cultural experience for you, but also for those  with whom you are working.  There’s no point in hiding who you are, nobody is going to confuse you for a local.
  • Double check your instincts: As an ex-pat, you will tend to use the information that is most easily available:  What you see in your daily life and the people who speak your language.  In both cases, you are being given a warped view of your environment.  In many cases, people will use the language barrier to manipulate you.  You won’t be able to trust your gut feelings as you do in your home country
  • Re-examine your assumptions: One of the most difficult and gratifying parts of working abroad is that you will be working with people who don’t share your assumptions.  Often, when you state what is for you an obvious truth, they will ask “why?”  If you think about it honestly you will find the answer is one of three things:
  1. There is a good reason that you can explain coherently
  2. Your statement was one of several valid options but the one that you expressed became standard for your market.
  3. Your statement was either completely wrong or was valid at some time but not anymore.

It is probably this last point that makes working abroad such a valuable and enriching experience.

I hope this has been helpful.  I’m sure others out there also have some tips.  I would love to hear them.

– Greg

42 Responses leave one →
  1. August 12, 2009

    Thanks, greg. I spent 7 years working abroad and have had several overseas contract assignments, and found everything you said to be true. About the language, I found that becoming fluent in a crisis vocabulary was very helpful; it wasn’t hard, but having 10 or so “Clear the decks and get down to business” phrases, with impeccable accent and intonation, set off the right alarm bells in the staff and let them know it was time for overdrive. Sincere thanks and appreciation in the local language are invaluable as well. Be sure to learn a well-respected dialect that isn’t too formal.

  2. August 12, 2009


    Thanks. That’s nice of you to say and even nicer to hear!

    – Greg

  3. Innes Doig permalink
    August 13, 2009

    Greg, as a “serial expat” myself, I entirely agree with what you write. I would also recommend that advice from expats who have lived for a very long time in just one location only should be treated with extreme caution: more often than not there is a great difference between their expat experience and the modern-day expat’s experience.

  4. August 13, 2009


    It sounds like advice worthy of Dale Carnegie!


    – Greg

  5. Philip Larmett permalink
    August 13, 2009

    I checked out a comment you posted on Facebook and was led to your blog. I’ve been in this region just as long as you and can confirm your observations.

    Learning the language is an essential element if you want to be accepted by your colleagues and want to make an impression in your workplace. But, quite right, do not embarrass yourself. I still do not like to make formal statements in Russian, after 10 years in this region. It’s one thing socialising in the pub, when we all speak FLUID Russian, but another making a formal presentation to a client.

    By the way, we need to catch up on this market… And I’ll catch up on your blogs in the meantime

  6. August 13, 2009


    Thanks for commenting.

    – Greg

  7. Prem Bajaj permalink
    August 27, 2009

    Hi Greg…wanted to congratulate on the very important subject. while I agree with your views….must state, that with increasing mobility and new business models, there is a greater awareness regarding working with international colleagues/bosses and willingness to support expat on routine matters…and help brdge the cultural divide.

  8. August 27, 2009


    Good point. Thanks,


  9. Stan Voyda permalink
    September 10, 2009

    Dear Greg,

    I may be your “ultimate” expat. Born & raised in Poland. Defected to Canada. Learned English. Put myself through BA Degree. Met a nice gal from Singapore at the university & got married. Learned the hard way that Canadian business culture differs from Polish. Got moved to Singapore & learned in 3-1/2 years that not all of them there react like my wife does. Finished my MBA in Australia. Got moved to States & found out that “deep South” differs from Canada. Now, my daughter (born in Canada, raised in Canada, Singapore and USA) thinks that after her 1st year at University of Texas, it would be a good thing to continue her studies in China & my wife asks me where we are moving next. I guess, we all catch the bug of “expats without borders”.

    You had made some fabulous observations. Write more about expats coming back home & needing not only to scale their career expectations down but re-adjust themselves to their old country that seems kind of “strange”. Seen a number of careers and marriages ruined by re-adjustments blues.

  10. September 10, 2009


    Wow! You got me beat!

    I guess I’ll write about going home if I ever actually do it:-)) Milan Kundera actually did write a novel about it called “Ignorance.” I recommend it highly.

    – Greg

  11. Brian Evens permalink
    September 10, 2009

    As a 3 year expat veteran of Nanjing China I agree completely with short summary you provided. However, you left out the most important point of communications. It is paramount that a successful expat be a good communicator. Not just in the home land but in the global market place. Learning a little of their language to show interest is good and can earn you grace points but you do not need to know the language to be a good communicator. I found communications and culture make & break 9 out of 10 deals.
    One of the things I really enjoyed about being an expat was the local nationals challenging of my assumptions. You were dead on about establishing yourself as an SME. With out faith by your employees that you are an SME you’ll have a tough and probably unsuccessful assignment. The other aspect I really enjoyed was sharing US culture with my employees.

  12. September 10, 2009


    You make a very good point about communications. However, to communicate well I try to limit myself to five points:-))

    btw. Being in China, have your read Jack Perkowski’s book, “Managing the Dragon”. I recommend it highly!

    – Greg

  13. Douglas A Cummins permalink
    September 11, 2009


    Nice article – agree completely. One point I’ve learned is Body Language and Gesturing are very important, as well. One should be watchful of Body Language – watch subs, colleagues, and seniors and mind the appropriate Body Language so as to not show weakness or disrespect. Certain Gestures can also be a hazardous! e.g., the “thumbs up”, a diver’s “OK”, or pointing can be very bad things in certain places!


  14. September 11, 2009


    Good point. See Brain’s comment above about communication.

    (btw. Are you a copywriter for HSBC?)

    – Greg

  15. indranil permalink
    September 11, 2009

    Thanks for the info.
    I am working in middle east for the past 10 months & i have come across situations which you have mentioned.
    Your article was very informative & helpfull.

    Thanks for posting it for expats like us


  16. September 11, 2009


    I’m glad it was helpful.


    – Greg

  17. September 11, 2009

    Great article, and so true on phrases, sounding childish in positioons of authority, and language barriers as manipulation. Nice to know others out there with this point of view.

    I love working as an expat, almost 6 years now in Central America and Spain, however it commands a certain personality, and form, especially to not become one of those with separation blue that ruins an assignment, a marraige or more.

  18. September 11, 2009


    Thank you very much for your comment. Although, I must admit, after looking at your site I’m sure that you could teach me a lot about how to enjoy time abroad!

    – Greg

  19. Jacque Vilet permalink
    October 4, 2009

    Two comments:
    1) The most important thing I learned was to question my own assumptions about the world, the U.S. and our culture. By questionning, it helped me to sort out how I truly felt and why.
    2) Two most obvious things I noticed about coming home — it was obscene how many stores, etc. we have on every corner. In my host country we had maybe 2 brands of tomato sauce and in the U.S. we have 20. Who needs so many?
    The other thing was that while my friends professed interest in my experiences their eyes soon glazed over and I became depressed I had no one to “share” with.

    Good article.

  20. October 4, 2009


    Good points! Although. having lived overseas since 1997, I’ve come to appreciate the greater service and selection in the US.

    Milan Kundera, the Czech writer of “Unbearable lightness of Being” fame, wrote a novel about coming ex-pats who come home. It describes very well the situation you mentioned. You should pick it up. It’s called “Ignorance.”

    – Greg

  21. Marc Kneepkens permalink
    October 4, 2009

    Hi Greg,

    I agree on most of everything being said. The main thins is your attitude, no matter where you go, people will understand a smile and a smiling/grateful/understanding attitude. You’ll get back what you put out…

    Born in Belgium, lived in Canada and the States for 20 years (interesting to be an ex-pat over there too), and doing some international schools now with my wife all over the world.

    It’s a choice to meet new people and new cultures. They will understand that immediately by your attitude.


  22. October 4, 2009


    I think you’re right. Some things are universal:-)))

    – Greg

  23. October 8, 2009

    Indeed a good article and important points added by fellow members.

    Few Important things noticed by me are:

    1) Try to learn few key words that touches local people’s heart.
    -In Japanese Culture in you say “Eta daki mas” before having food, they are impressed.

    2) Find out those things that are allowed in your Culture but not in Foreign Land. Otherwise the things you take for granted will pull you in trouble for granted.

  24. October 8, 2009


    Good points. It is always good to get a guidebook before you go. You’ll find basic information about customs and phrases.

    Another good idea is to read a novel about the country you’re going to be living in. Although, novels tend to be from a certain point of view so I would be VERY careful before sharing the perspectives you picked up in the book in mixed company before you know have same idea how it will be relieved.

    Some countries hate national writers who are beloved internationally (i.e. Borges in Argentina).

    – Greg

  25. October 23, 2009


    Thanks for the article, very good and the best: It has the most important information on very little space. I would like to emphasize the importance of your own assumptions towards the host country as well as the assumptions of the host country towards you.

    After “living abroad in Russia” and its neighbor countries since 1996, I had to revise my assumptions concerning “the Russians” very much.

    First: There are no “Russians”, there are citizens of Russia but these can be ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and so on. And second: each of these ethnic groups have their own traditions, behaviors and their assumptions to foreigners.

    For me as a German their assumptions are in most cases that we are always punctual, very organized, all our doing is quite effective. We are the “BMWs, the Mercedes, the German football guys”. Let me give you a small anecdote how we, the ex-pats, can severely misunderstand the “other culture” and how this misunderstanding can lead to a complete failure in communication.

    It is a story I heard from a Russian friend and I have no doubt that it happened this way.

    A German business delegation was invited to dinner in Moscow in the 90th. The delegation consisted of high ranking officials and business people. They were invited to dinner into a restaurant in the Moscow Danilovski monastery, the place where the Russian orthodox church has its “Vatican”. At that time a disco song was very famous in Germany as well as in Russia. The group “Dshingis Khan” had a song called “Moscow” and the refrain of the song was “Russia is a wonderful country, let us smash the drinking glasses onto the wall…”.

    Later in the evening when the atmosphere of the dining group had been already been a little bit “less formal” the Germans decided to “follow Russian traditions”, as they thought. So one of them said a small toast and at the end of the speech he took his empty glass and smashed it with full power onto the restaurants wall as a sign for his “typical Russian” behavior.

    What he did not know is, that there is not such a “common Russian” behavior and that the glass he threw was not a simple glass but a chrystal glass, very old and expensive. His country fellow men did not knew this either, however, they all wanted to be very “typical Russian” as well and followed his sample. No wonder that the Russian partners were more than surprised, to say it mild. The visit of the delegation was no big success in the end.

    So, always check your own assumptions towards them as well as what you know about their assumptions towards you.


  26. October 23, 2009


    That’s a great story! Thanks.

    I’ve had some of my own “adventures” in Moscow.

    – Greg

  27. October 26, 2009

    Hi Greg, I’d like to link to this on my blog at I’m sure that’s fine with you but just thought I’d check. I’ll put it together with a few lines of bio and let you know when it’s ready to go. Because it’s not time sensitive, I’ll use it whenever…probably not for another week or so. Ok? Thanks!

  28. October 26, 2009


    Sure! Thanks.

    – Greg

  29. Greg permalink
    November 5, 2009


    Great post and comments. A while back I went on a 1 year overseas working holiday that extended to 17 years expat assignments in 6 different countries. The article and contributions are valid and very useful for the expat worker. I would like to add:

    High expectations of the expat worker can lead to an imbalance in work vs. life. Don’t waste the opportunity to enjoy the country and its people.

    I totally agree about re-examining your assumptions. A key rule and one that I sometimes forgot was “never assume anything”. Life in one country and the way things work will not be the same from one country to the next. Never assume that you are understood. Try to avoid the trap of comparisons and comments such as ‘this is not the way things are done back home’; enjoy the diversity.

    “There’s no point in hiding who you are”- This is important. As an expat you are viewed as a ambassador/representative of your country. Keep keep that in mind and make it easier for the next expat who follows you. In some places where expats are sparse, you may feel like you are the only goldfish in the fishbowl with lots of people watching. You get used to it.

    Aside from the culture, check up on past history. You will then not be surprised if there are some remnants of local resentment that could be a carryover from a colonial past.

    And as mentioned above, when returning your old home may be another ‘foreign’ country for awhile. It takes time to adjust.


  30. November 5, 2009


    Great points. Thanks.

    I especially like the point about history, which varies by region. As you mentioned, in former colonies the resentment remains just below the surface. In post-soviet countries, they still assume most westerners are spies. However, in Eastern European countries, Americans were like heroes in the 90’s.

    – Greg

  31. Fred permalink
    November 10, 2009


    Good post and good follow up comments. It takes me back when I was on some extended work assignments in China and Indonesia in the late 90’s when I worked for a small company that was involved in the mining industry in which I provide project management in the embedded control engineering arena. It was a little tough on the family as my daughters were younger, but now that they’re older and pretty much out the house I’d like to explore finding some expat assignments. So I’m wondering you could point me in a direction where I might explore finding some contracts or assignments? I’m employed right now so I’m not in dire circumstances, however I have stagnated where I’m at and so I’m looking to move on with my career and work with people from other cultures and backgrounds which I was successful at and enjoyed immensely. I’m also thinking that this actually might be a good time to move forward as a number of global economies are expanding. So what’s a good way to find these opportunities, I’ve been looking at the traditional big job boards, but they don’t really have these types of situations. I’m hoping that there’s a better way to go about this and hate to think that people just fall into these situations by stroke of luck or through private personal connections. What additional training and self-learning do you think would be helpful? Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.


  32. November 10, 2009


    To be honest, I’m not sure. Younger people can always teach English or join the peace corps, but for senior people it’s a bit more difficult. High priced “ex-pats aren’t exactly flavor of the month right now”

    Probably the best way to go is through a multinational in your industry.

    – Greg

  33. November 12, 2009

    Greg: This is a great post that I just came across the other day. I appreciate you sharing your insight into the ex-pat world.

    As someone who is interested in working in places other than the US (having spent my career up to this point working in the US healthcare IT market, including the last 10 years as a CIO), I’m interested in what you and others have to say about the following questions:

    1. If you started your career in the US, how did you move into the ex-pat world? Was it through an overseas assignment with the company you were already with, a change of companies based in the US with an opportunity to work overseas, or a wholesale move to a position with an overseas company.

    2. For those of us who have never worked overseas but are interested in doing so, what things do you recommend us focusing on to gain a foothold into careers overseas.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  34. November 12, 2009


    The truth is that most people I know went overseas in mid career just sort of fell into it. For young people in the US the best way to go overseas is either as an English teacher or through the Peace Corps. Often those who are business oriented overlook these possibilities but I know of many who started out that way and then went on to big careers. MBA programs usually have an international track as well, so that’s another option.

    For those of us who are older, it’s a bit harder. One obvious way is going through a multi-national corporation. Most global companies encourage executives to spend some time overseas.

    Another thing you might want to look at is becoming a USAID contractor. The US government spends billions on foreign aid and most of that money is spent through private contractors. You can go to their site to find a list of projects.

    – Greg

  35. November 20, 2009

    Hi Greg,
    Your points are well taken. I have worked in many countries in Asia and Latin America. My experience is that one should not be a flag waver and say “In my country we do it this way”. Be yourself and at the same time be part of the community where you are. Accept invitations to dinner (one local once told me “nobody from other countries ever accepts invitations to lunch or dinner because they think that we are not clean”). I have never considered myself an expat but rather a global citizen.
    Hvala lipa.


  36. November 21, 2009


    Good points. Thanks.

    – Greg

  37. Richard G. Mulles, PhD permalink
    November 21, 2009


    Most interesting article… I enjoyed reading all points made.

    My family and I have been living and working abroad since 1972 and I must note the Ex-Pat life can be your one of your greatest experiences OR it can be some of your worst if you do not quickly understand and appreciate the fact that “you are no longer in Kansas”. So often our Expat colleagues and their families spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to create a local version of their little corner of America and they miss the vast number of wonderful experiences available to them or worst of all they fail professionally and must return home.

    I will not disagree that language is very important… I speak conversational versions of three Asian languages. While my language skills are very limited, they have served me well including supporting me in several university and corporate lectures. Nonetheless, I believe respect for local customs (religious and secular) are most vital. People will forgive a language gaff or two they normally appreciate your willingness to make the attempt; but they find it very offensive if you disrespect their religion and/or their national treasures. We must remember as Americans we have freedoms, privileges and customs the citizens of many other countries do not and we all too often take them for granted or attempt to impose them on others in an inappropriate way. Leave this task to the politicians.

    My family and I have been blessed with experiences that most will never understand… and we thank God for them each day.

    Dr. Richard G. Mulles, PhD

  38. November 21, 2009


    Wow! Thanks a lot for sharing your story.

    – Greg

  39. November 28, 2009

    Great article Greg and great comments too. I would be very interested to hear an African perspective on this discussion too.

    We have successfully placed a number of international expats with several organizations on the continent. I would like to share that it pays to treat people with respect and that friendliness and humility do go a long way. I believe true greatness is humble ala Federer, Ghandi, Mandela and both parties have a wonderful opportunity of exchange – the knowledgeable expat with skills and knowledge and how to impart and the company and adopted community with a fantastic, rich environment, culture and customs for the expat to learn from.

    I could share a lot of stories of the successes we have had in international placement of foreign nationals, but I would like to share the story of a placement that went wrong. A candidate was invited for an interview and flown in for a face to face meeting and psychometric evaluation with our client for a high-level Engineering Management opportunity. It meant a lot to us financially as well as reputation if we were successful in placing such an executive and challenging position, so he was prepped very well. However from the moment he arrived at the airport he complained about EVERYTHING. Why he didn’t get treated this way and not that way, that the drinks were too hot and the food too cold. He went on and on about how ‘in my country’ we are treated like this and this way, he used a lot of ‘you people’ and ‘them’ and the ‘3rd World’ and the ‘1st World’ in his language as well. His arrogant behaviour did not stop there, but continued to the clubhouse and the hotel he was staying at. Unbeknownst to him, however, his behaviour was noticed by several executives on the plane and the airport and the club house as well as the very psychometrist who was to evaluate him the very next day. Needless to say he did not get the job. In this part of the world attitude is everything and it pays to have a giving, knowledge-sharing, humble one.

    P.S. Greg I too would like to ask for your permission to link your discussion on my website at and I just need to get the go-ahead from my Business Development Manager International as well as fix up our corporate website and we’ll be good to go.

    Thanks and Kind Regards,

    Tinashe Hove (AIRS) CIR, ACIR, CDR, CSSR

  40. November 28, 2009


    I agree 100% respect goes a long way.

    Please feel free to link my blog.

    – Greg

  41. December 30, 2009


    Thank you for sharing personal insights and those of others. These perspectives will be useful as we contemplate international expansion of the firm.

    Best regards,
    Michael Sarlitto
    Managing Partner
    SummitPoint Management
    (312) 441-1400

  42. December 31, 2009


    I’m glad it was helpful.

    Have a happy and healthy New Year.

    – Greg

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