Do's and Don'ts of Talking to a Return Expat
or "How to Talk to Returning Expats at Parties"
A few years ago, I was sitting in Greece, sipping in the sun, and chatting about Nextpat with a friend who had lived overseas and another who had been friends with the repatriate before and after the move. This second friend asked a particularly interesting question about Nextpat; she asked me to write about how to talk to a returning expat. What are meaningful questions? What do they want to talk about, what is appropriate? How do you engage when you don’t have that experience? We tackle that question in today’s post.
As a quick aside: As with any engagement, half the responsibility is on the repat. We need to tell our stories in the ways that are relevant to our audience. Nextpat spends a class in our course on developing your story and can coach you for specific experiences if you are interested!
--Be prepared to actively listen! Focus on what the person is saying: remember to keep your face neutral or engaged but open to hearing more. Follow the narrative with nods, follow-up questions, and curiosity.
--Check your assumptions. The evolution of transition will go through stages – including joy at returning along with frustrations at things that seem quite basic, be prepared for a rant or a query about something you may not really think about.
--Recognize that you have likely changed since the person you are engaging left, and they certainly have as well. One person’s changes are likely more obvious at first glance, but mutual respect and recognizing the struggle to readjust will help both of you engage.
--It is sometimes useful to focus on one person in one conversation. The returned expat is likely to grant you the same in a future conversation. Don’t let the one-sidedness dissuade you – it’s not that they don’t care; it’s usually that they are still trying to grasp what is going on.
--Know that the person created a life overseas – it’s hard for them to express that, because it’s a big transition. As such, the person may not be able to articulate all that they are trying to express and back home may not feel as “homely” to them as you anticipate.
--Follow up over time – the way we relate to homesickness changes, and knowing that everyone is engaged or wants to hear your stories in the beginning can be difficult 3-6 months in as you settle in and unexpected experiences begin to crop up.
--Ask questions and listen
--Be prepared that the person changed – those experiences may still be being processed
--Create a safe space for the person to ask questions and wonder about things you think are normal
--Call it a trip! Never ask how your trip was? It is offensive as it pre-suppposes that it was vacation and not life
--Make jokes about the country the person just arrived from - we still are reeling from the move
--Interrupt the story or start with something mundane – if you are interested in the story dig deep immediately.
--Complain about first world problems. Things like laundry or how bad the football team is doing.
--Try to relate a trip you have taken to the experience. It usually belittles the individual who is still trying to navigate life overseas and upon return. Traveling and living in a place are very different.
QUESTION IDEAS (Conversations always beg substantive, contextual follow up questions)
--What has been the hardest thing for you to adjust to since returning?
--What do you worry you won’t get over?
--What has been really wonderful to return to?
--What did you really miss while you were away that has changed since you left? How did that feel?
--What was your favorite “missed communications” story?
--What do you feel like you can’t replace from overseas? What were you unable to replicate abroad?
--In what ways do you think you’ve most changed? How does that feel? What does it make you evaluate/reevaluate about your life here before and going forward?
--What skills did you acquire that you hope to maintain? (this is a great segue if it is something you can join in on or help with – it can make the person feel like there is still space to grow within their old friendships and relationships)
--How are your kids adjusting to the change?
--What new adventure back home are you looking forward to?
--What challenges have you faced in communication in a language and context you are familiar with?
As with all things, please feel free to leave your favorite question received or answered below. Feel free to also add to the Do's and Don'ts list! Just remember, be respectful - as in any conversation, that's what keeps the exchange flowing!