I fear your criticism.
I thought I would be better at this.
I sometimes feel like I’m faking it to get by.
If people knew ________ they would be SO disappointed.
I start things and never finish them.
I want you to think I look good.
I need you to think I’m smart.
I hope you think I’m funny.
I’m judging you.
I’d call it an epidemic . . . but it’s a subtle one.
Expats get pounded by perfectionism (more so than the normal-pats). That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
I’m not a psychologist but I am a bit of an expert on this topic. It’s a part of my job to help expats get real about their issues and perfectionism comes up A LOT. Sometimes it’s an annoying stressor. Sometimes It’s debilitating. Sometimes it’s toxic. I’ve spoken with more than a thousand expats over the past seven years and . . .
I AM a perfectionist and I’m just now discovering it. It’s not pretty.
It took me so long because I’ve been busy fixing the other perfectionists AND I don’t fit my own stereotype. I’m not “type A”, over-structured, anal retentive, detail crazed, unreasonably demanding or hyper critical.
Turns out perfectionism comes in a lot of different flavors.
Here are some (there are many more)
- The Self-promoter — “If I convince you I’m amazing you won’t know the truth.”
- The Self-deprecator — “I’ll put myself down so you’ll raise me back up.”
- The Workaholic — “I’ll prove my worth by never stopping.”
- The Procrastinator — “I won’t start until I can do it right.”
- The Never Finisher — “There is always one more thing that could be better.”
- The Paralytic — “The way it should be is out of reach, so . . . I can’t move.”
- The Pleaser — “If everyone loves me, they won’t see my flaws.”
- The Hater — “If everyone hates me, I don’t have to care what they think.”
- The Dominator — “If I’m in control, you won’t know that I’m not.”
- The Toxic Defender — “If I can villainize the people around me, I can be the hero.”
- The Loner — “If I stay over here, you won’t see my flaws.”
At a root level for all perfectionists is an unspoken fear. There is an irrational drive to be something (or at least be perceived as something) that is out of reach.
Perfection is never an option but it is always calling.
The internal tension is daunting and the fear of exposure is relentless. To feel constant pressure pushing towards an unattainable goal is a draining existence.
Here’s why expats are especially at risk
The Creamy Crop Syndrome
Most expats have to pass a test to get the gig. It’s (generally) a high-functioning, motivated, well funded crowd. That’s a lot to live up to.
The Invisible Baggage
International assignments come with a clean slate. No one knows all of the stupid things you did in your past. Don’t mess that up.
The Superhero Mentality
People move abroad because they want to fix something and Superheros don’t make mistakes.
The Lone Ranger Complex
International assignments often involve heavy burdens shouldered by a handful of people. Failure would be tragic for the masses, and likely all your fault.
The Facebook Facade
Social media becomes even more significant for disconnected friends and families. However, people tend to post their best moments which creates the facade that everyone else is happy and successful — so you should be too.
The Underestimated Transition
You were a superstar back home. That’s why they wanted you so bad — but it takes time to adjust in a new world. You are never your best in transition which can create a fear of exposure.
The High Hopes of Home
Whether you feel the weight of “we believe in you, (don’t let us down)” or fear the thought of “we told you this was a bad idea (just come back)” pressures from your homeland can intensify the need to succeed.
The Revolving Door
Vulnerability takes time and trust. The constant incoming and outgoing of an expat community can put a strain on both of those.
Risks are compounded by the other risks of living abroad. Isolation. Anonymity. Distance from your traditional support structures. Grief and loss. The stress and shock of ongoing, never ending adjustment.
Cross-cultural transition is a breeding ground for insecurity. Perfectionism is a natural response.
Here’s what we can do about it.
There is something rich about the three simple words, “I’ll go first.” Step out. Take a risk. Be vulnerable. Finish the sentence, “I’m afraid that if I . . . ” Open the door for other perfectionists to own it.
Write it down
Just start writing. Don’t think. Don’t craft it. Don’t use spell check. Don’t give it to anyone. Writing is a powerful tool to make sense of senseless things.
Drag it into the light
Once people have seen your challenges, your issues and your insecurities, fear of exposure loses it’s grip.
Ask stupid questions
It’s hard to ask questions when you should already know the answers (even if you don’t). Intentionally asking questions that feel stupid breaks down the brick wall between you and learning something new.
Own it when you mess up. Creating a culture of learning when we trip not only pads the fall, it makes it enjoyable to get back up.
Know where your drive for perfection comes from. Who did you have to please as a child? What kind of perfectionist are you? What is it doing to you? What about the people around you?
Call it out
Practice the discipline of saying, “yep, there it is” when your perfectionist tendencies pop up. Then move on.
Find safe places
If you fear the consequences of vulnerability, who are the people that would never break your trust? Start there. Talk to someone.
Relationship, Relationship, Relationship
Perfectionism thrives in the shallows. You can hide, judge, please, dominate and appear perfect much more easily in a world full of surface relationships. All of that crumbles when people really know you and you really know them. Invite people into your space.
You’re not so perfect there.
Is this post about you? Do you live abroad and struggle with perfectionism?
If so, share your story. You are SO not alone.
I’ll go first.
I am paralyzed by the thought of criticism. When I write I delete 70% because it’s not perfect. I have started writing multiple books that are floating around on my hard drive,unfinished because they need to be just right. I start and stop ALL THE TIME. I love an accolade but lose sleep when I’ve offended someone. I tell jokes, which protect me, and keep me in the shallows where I’m safe.
I would prefer it if you thought I was perfect.
Hey, if you haven’t already signed up, don’t miss the free ebook at the bottom of this post: 99 Questions for Global Friends.
I love sitting down with people who have different lenses than I do.
I’m fascinated by the reality that we can look at the exact same thing and see something completely different.
The color red.
The number eight.
When it comes to understanding a different perspective there is NOTHING like the extraordinary power of questions. Not deep, scholastic, perfect questions — but simple ones that open up a whole new world.
If you are blessed enough to have cross-cultural relationships . . .
Here are ten tips for asking great questions that will take you deeper and give you more cultural understanding.
ONE: START EARLY
You’ve seen it over and over right? We kick off our our cultural research when it all hits the fan. When there is obvious tension and painful conflict someone in the mix recognizes, “hey, this could be cultural, let’s Google it.”
Too little, too late.
Questions (and answers) are so much better when no one is trying to win.
To be fair, simple questions don’t stop riots. They don’t fix racism. They don’t end wars, but asked in the right way and early enough they set a trajectory that leads to a different place where those things can be avoided.
TWO: BE WRONG
This is going to sting just a little . . . “You don’t know everything.”
Take a minute . . . continue when you’re ready.
Your understanding of any person or group of people has parameters. Expanding those parameters generally means discovering that there is more to it than you originally thought. In other words . . . you were wrong (or at least not completely right).
Did you catch that? Being wrong is actually an indicator that you are understanding more (which should be a good thing) BUT STILL, no one wants to be wrong.
If you can celebrate being wrong and create a culture around that you’ll be paving the way for people to go DEEP.
THREE: EXPAND YOUR STEREOTYPES
Can we skip through the awkward denial bit here? You have stereotypes. You just do.
They may be more informed and sensitive than others but you sum people up the second you look at them. Your expertise is based on all the information you’ve gleaned to that point.
What if you stopped fighting that, embraced it and then expanded it?
If you’re stereotype is, “Asians are bad drivers” just try expanding that statement a bit . . .
“I’ve always thought that — Asians are bad drivers — but there is probably more to it.”
That’s a COMPLETELY different thought. The first one shuts the door and the second one opens it. The first one convinces you that you already know, the second sets you up to learn.
The first one will see one bad driver, miss fifty good ones and say “see, I was right.” The second will see one good driver and say, “yep, I was wrong.”
Don’t ignore your stereotypes. Don’t pretend they DON’T exist just because they shouldn’t.
FOUR: CONFESS YOUR IGNORANCE UPFRONT
If you were Australian (and if you are please back me up here) which of these do you think you would rather hear from someone who is not?
(big cheesy smile and a slap on the back) “Ahh you’re from Down Under . . . (switching to a bad accent) G’day mate, let’s throw another shrimp on the barbie and then go on a walkabout through the Outback with some kangaroos . . . and koala bears.”
“You’re from Australia? I’m embarrassed to admit it but I know basically nothing except what I learned from The Crocodile Hunter. I would love to expand my understanding though.”
That first guy knows something . . . but he exhausted all of it in one sentence. He’s done. The second guy is ready to get started.
There is no shame in ignorance . . . unless you think you’re not.
FIVE: ASK IN THIRD PERSON
It’s usually less painful to tell you what someone else thinks of you than what I think — especially if I think you’re an idiot. Instead of asking directly for a personal opinion, try asking what THEY think someone else’s opinion might be.
So instead of “What do you think of my country?”, ask “What do you think your parents generation thinks of my country?”
This has at least three advantages:
- It takes the pressure of offending you off of your friend.
- It gives you the potential of more than one answer (see number six).
- It gives your friend an indirect way to share his/her own thoughts (more significant in some cultures than others).
Mix it up. Ask the same question from multiple perspectives?
SIX: GET PLURAL
Cardinal sin #1 in cultural understanding is saying “Ahhh, now I get it.”
Unfortunately we generally arrive at that spot after talking to one person. That’s how questions and answers work right? We ask, they answer, problem solved.”
Repeat after me — “There is ALWAYS more to it.”
No matter how strong your sources are there is always a different perspective. Even if one answer is right and five others are wrong you will understand the whole picture more by hearing them all.
Ask different people.
Ask one person about different people.
Ask locals and expats. Ask idiots and experts.
Ask Wikipedia but don’t think you’ve got it regardless of your source.
SEVEN: DON’T PROVE YOURSELF RIGHT
There is a psychological phenomenon called “Confirmation Bias”. It basically states that humans tend to embrace information that supports what we already believe to be true.
Click here to read “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” from the New Yorker
It is the loudest voice in politics, religion and law. We not only love being right, sometimes we can’t hear otherwise. That’s dangerous when your goal is to learn something.
When you think you know something about a culture you may find yourself intuitively perched, waiting for verification of your rightness.
If you come away from a cross-cultural conversation simply affirmed in what you already knew . . . you probably missed something.
EIGHT: ASK FOR A STORY NOT AN ANSWER
“Why do Brazilians love football so much?”
Fair question right? You’re even being savvy by not calling it “soccer”.
Here’s the problem. This question puts all of the pressure on ONE person to give a definitive answer on behalf of 200 million others. They need to package the history and the passion and the politics of the entire question so you can carry it home with you.
Here’s the other problem. They will. And you will walk away with your answer — not needing to ask anyone else.
Maybe consider asking from a different angle.
“What’s your football story?”
“Did you play when you were young?”
“How did people in your home feel about it?”
“In your neighborhood?”
“What’s it like when the world cup rolls around?”
You won’t get your definitive answer, but by the end of this conversation you will know something about football in Brazil . . . and families . . . and neighborhoods . . . and passion . . . and politics . . . and history . . . and so much more about your friend.
Stories beat answers every time.
NINE: RESPECT THE BOUNDARIES
This is tricky because boundaries aren’t always clear and they change with relationship. A typical cross-cultural faux pas is to presume a deeper relationship based on misread cues.
A smile that means, “we’re best friends” where you come from may just mean, “I’m uncomfortable” for them.
The best way to respect boundaries is to keep it simple, especially in the beginning. Let the relationship grow and the boundaries will move. Eventually you’ll have a friend that you can ask anything without offense.
THAT is cross-cultural GOLD.
TEN: TRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO GO FIVE DEEP
We all do this — They’re telling a story . . . it triggers a thought . . . AS they are talking we start forming our own story in our heads just waiting for a pause to pounce on.
If you are normal it is difficult NOT to reroute conversations. It’s also NOT a bad thing to have a story.
Timing matters though. Develop the discipline of forming questions before you form responses. Don’t check out because you thought of a better story. Hear the whole story and dig some more.
Try going FIVE DEEP . . . proactively determine at the BEGINNING of the conversation that you will ask 5 questions before you add your story to the mix.
Know going in that 5 is not a magic number. Ask 20 if it feels right and don’t ignore them if they ask you a question after you’ve only asked 2. However, changing your posture on the front end will take you to places you won’t get to otherwise.
Were only scratching the surface here.
The art of asking questions, though, is more about doing it than learning how.
Sign up in the blue box below to get a free ebook: 99 Questions for Global Friends.
Pick a number from 1 to 99 and start asking.
I’d love to hear your story.
If you are living cross-culturally lean in a little bit here. This is important and frankly a bit confusing.
Here we go.
Asking questions is quite possibly the most significant determiner of your success or failure abroad. The evidence is in and the case studies (centuries of them) support the hypothesis.
Learners do this well.
Know-it-alls crash . . . hard.
Ignorance is never the problem. We’re all ignorant. Pretending you are not though is stressful . . . and unsustainable . . . and toxic.
That’s the important part. Here’s the confusing bit.
Even the good ones. The right ones. The correct and absolutely true ones. In fact the more solid, convincing and complete the answer is, the more problematic the end results are.
Follow my logic.
When we get an answer we are left believing that we no longer need to ask questions.
We’re good. Problem solved. Case closed. Now we understand so there is nothing left to explore . . . and that is NEVER, EVER TRUE.
There is ALWAYS more to it. Especially when it comes to cultural understanding.
I am a question asker by nature. I am curious about people and what makes them tick. I get giddy about the graphs and the charts and the infographics that compare and explain cultures. I geek out on the broad stroke data that paints the picture of how people group A is collectivist and B is individualistic . . . or high context and low context . . . or honor and shame . . . or time sensitive and people oriented.
I have to poke myself in the eye though to keep myself from declaring the four most fatal words of understanding people . . .
“Ahhh, now I get it.”
I DON’T get it. In fact with every layer that I peel back I recognize, just a tiny bit more, how complex IT really is. The more I learn about any group of people the less I know.
And I’m ok with that.
Answers are a slippery slope.
Personally, I think there is a better way to ask questions and gain understanding.
I think we should ask LESS SIGNIFICANT questions to FEWER NUMBERS OF PEOPLE for a MUCH LONGER TIME.
That sounds ridiculous and a little bit horrible but follow my logic.
Show me an outsider who sits down in any group of people for two months and asks the same question every day to a different person — something simple like “what do children want to be when they grow up?” and I’ll show you someone who understands collectivism and individualism better than any chart, graph or infographic.
Why? Because you get more than a single answer when you keep asking. You get nuance and personality and contrast and opinion and history and frustration and dreams and tension and hope.
But only if you listen.
Show me two very different friends who meet once a week and ask each other multiple simple questions like, “how do you define family?” or “what does the color red mean?” or “when do you dance?” and I’ll show you two people who get each other . . .
Who get IT.
There is something rich about understanding THEM by asking HIM or HER simple questions versus understanding HIM or HER by asking complex questions about THEM.
If you are blessed enough to have relationships with people who see the same world from a different perspective then don’t miss the opportunity to ask questions because you already know the answer.
If you need a place to start click below to get my free ebook, “99 Questions for Global Friends.”
Spoiler alert for the young and in love . . . marriage is hard.
One more for anyone considering a life abroad. That’s hard too.
You read it here first.
My wife and I have been living both of those realities for a good, long time and to be honest we thought we were pretty solid on both. Oh we knew they were hard (we crossed those bridges ages ago) but we’ve pushed through that part. We’ve survived BOTH honeymoon phases and the crashes that followed. We’ve learned (through repeated trial and even more repeated error) how to be on different pages and stay in the same book. We’ve set up systems for everything from fighting better fights to dealing with my crazy travel schedule.
We’re good at this. That’s what we thought.
Until we found out that we’re not.
Here’s the thing — we recently discovered that our brilliant systems have been skillfully (if not consciously) crafted for the sole purpose of protecting us from the hard stuff.
We call a “time out” when things get heated to protect ourselves from saying stupid things that we don’t really mean (man, I wish we had known how to do that in our first year). We “switch modes” when Daddy travels so she can focus on home and I can focus on work (because both of those are really important).
They’re not BAD plans . . . but they’re not enough either.
Our systems protect us. They have us playing good, solid defense but the best case scenario in any ALL defensive endeavors is that you break even . . . and breaking even only happens when your defense is perfect. Ours is not.
We want more than a break even marriage AND we want more than a so-so life abroad.
So here is my Expat Husband’s Manifesto
My wife will be my first choice.
I am blessed. Super blessed. Hyper blessed. Hashtag blessed with good friends. I genuinely feel guilty sometimes when I think about the number of BFF’s that I have all over the world and I absolutely love spending time with them. They are worth every long trip and every late night.
But my wife will ALWAYS be the one that I pursue the hardest, invest the most in and sacrifice more for.
I will connect when we are disconnected.
I won’t turn our relationship off when we are apart. I won’t “check in” periodically but I will work so she knows that I have never checked out. I’ll tell her when something funny happens. I’ll let her in when I’m stressed out. I’ll text her pictures of things that remind me of her and I’ll do my dead level best with those emoji things.
If she is out of sight I will be intentional about keeping her in my mind.
I will make it real.
There are so many things in my head that rarely make it through my mouth. I will work to change that. She is so incredible. So beautiful. So smart. So creative. So fun. So many things that go unsaid and consequently never become real. I will choke the assumption that she already knows what my brain is thinking.
I will turn my best thoughts and my heartfelt intentions into tangible, touchable realities.
I will close the gap.
I travel for work. She stays home. I’m the extrovert. She’s the inny. I go places and I meet people and they become a part of my world. She has never seen those places or met those people. There is a whole part of my life that is a blurry fog to her.
We’re going to close that gap together. Not all at once and not in huge overwhelming doses but over time and as we are able I am going to take her to the far off places and connect the faces to the names.
I will get the order right.
Our marriage does not exist inside of our life abroad — or my job — or even our family. On the contrary, our lives together are the setting for all of the rest of it. The traveling, the adventures, the bumbling foreigner stories, the good things and the hard things are all side plots in a bigger story. Our story.
We could lose our visas tomorrow. “THIS THING” that we are doing could change a hundred times but we will still be doing this thing together.
I will stay on course.
We have set our trajectory towards “old and gray.” We have unanimously decided that, as we grow old, we want to do MORE of our lives together instead of less. We want to be THAT old couple who always go together.
We’re not there yet. We’re still in the crazy pace, divide and conquer, you pick up the kids and I’ll stop at the veggie shop phase of life . . . but we’re pointed in that direction. As we are able and on a consistently growing scale we are going to move towards doing more and more life together.
I will fall forward.
This would be so much better if I was already good at it. I would love it if I could just write words in a blog post and make it all true, unshakable and resolute — but we’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s not how it works.
I WILL ABSOLUTELY and UNAPOLOGETICALLY DO ALL OF THESE THINGS.
Until I don’t.
And then I’ll do them better the next day.
I love my wife and I love our life abroad.
There is nothing in the world like the beginning of a cross-cultural experience.
It is a jumbled, beautiful mess of every possible emotion, wrapped in giddy wonder, coated in absolute confusion.
Chances are, if you’re just beginning your expat adventure, you’ve read the books and the blogs. You’ve watched every Youtube video and you’ve tested the gracious limits of a been there- done that with endless questions like, “can I get ketchup there?” and “does Mcdonald’s taste the same?” Maybe you’ve even been through the training and learned all about cultural dynamics, dimensions, profiles and contrasts.
You’re prepped. Ready. Excited. Confident.
But regardless of what you have done to equip yourself, the inevitable reality of stepping across cultural lines is that a significant dose of unpredictablity is waiting on the other side. It’s a part of the deal.
Here’s the good news — wrapping your head around the inevitable but unpredictable realities early on will lessen the impact that they have on your healthy transition.
So tuck these five things away for those irritating moments in the not too distant future when you’re feeling blindsided by the stuff they didn’t cover at the seminar.
ONE: It’s not what you thought it was
This place. These people. That food. The experience altogether . . . as it turns out is not exactly like you had it pictured in your head. It may be worse. It could be better but to be sure . . . it is different.
I know, I know — it’s a bit of a “well duh” point but you would be shocked at the role that the gap between pre-going expectations and first year realities plays in the overall success of an expat experience. The biggest problems happen NOT because we are wrong but because we still think we should be right.
This will save you a world of stress — when it comes time, be willing to acknowledge where you were off and adjust your expectations accordingly. To be fair, you can also adjust the realities but that requires tremendous energy that would be better spent elsewhere in your first year. Save that for later and be willing to adjust your own understanding first. That’s where the good stuff is.
TWO: The devil is in the details
I have never (not once) spoken to someone who is about to go abroad and would look me straight in the eyes and say “this is going to be easy”. They may be PAINFULLY naive and even irritatingly oblivious to their actual capacity to handle what is about to happen — BUT — NO ONE goes in thinking it is going to be easy.
However — there is a huge difference between knowing it is going to be hard and finding out HOW it is hard. The HOW is what get’s you. When the speculation materializes into actual problems it is a whole different game.
Humans in general tend to be both overconfident in our future capacity to handle problems AND oversensitive to our present state. The result is pre-goers who get strangely excited about the potential of a military coup and have a meltdown when their plane is delayed.
Brace for the details.
THREE: Relationships are harder than Culture
This one kicks people in the teeth. We come in thinking that the biggest challenges will be figuring out the quirky little cultural bits like when to hug and when to bow or what kind of gift to bring to a dinner party. So we focus our prep time on crash coursing high culture.
HOWEVER the big shocker often comes when we discover that the most painful part of cross cultural life can be the colleagues and teammates that speak the same language and come from the same place we do.
- The loudmouth expat who constantly gripes about the locals.
- The nosy neighbor who needs to know every part of your business.
- The over-helpful co-worker who thinks you’ll fall apart without him.
- The standoffish longtimer who has no space for newbies.
- The overreaching parent who yells at your kid.
- The judgy purist who thinks you’re not legit unless cancel your facebook account.
Am I getting close yet? There are more.
Be warned — people are hard — no matter where they are from.
FOUR: Adventures are boring
Maybe you never dreamed you would do something like this in a million years. Maybe this is just the first in what you fully anticipate will be a lifelong string of global journeys. You are a born explorer. A true thrill seeker. An adventure lover.
But guess what.
The dishes still need washed and dinner isn’t going to cook itself.
Sometimes, in the excitement of a whole new normal, we lose sight of the reality that real life stuff travels with us. There is a significant percentage of cross-cultural life and work that is just plain mundane.
That stuff never makes the brochure.
FIVE: Grief is a part of this
I tread lightly around this one for good reason. I would never draw direct parallels between standard expatriate transition and a major life loss like death or divorce. Those are different and they deserve a different space.
However — with that disclaimer established — there is a lot of loss that comes with cross-cultural transition. Often times, BECAUSE we can’t put a label on it (like “death” or “divorce”) we have no idea what is happening to us.
You let go of some things to do this. People. Places. Things. Memories. Experiences. Dreams.
That is legitimate loss and the natural result is grief. You don’t have to feel guilty for that and you’re not selfish simply because you are sad.
Recognize that grief is a heavy process. Talk about it with a trusted friend or write it out on a trusted notebook — regardless, don’t just carry it.
Three action points:
ONE: ADJUST YOUR PACE
Slow down. You’re not supposed to be moving at full speed in the beginning. It probably drives you crazy that it takes you longer to accomplish to simplest tasks. That’s normal and it will get better.
Go slower. Learn more.
TWO: CREATE SOME SPACE
Be as student of yourself. Know what it takes for you to recharge and be intentional about creating places for that to happen. Need down time? Make it a priority. Need people? Go find them. Need to take a retreat to a place where there are only familiar things? Do it but don’t stay there. Recharge and re-engage.
Take care of yourself.
THREE: GIVE GRACE
It is crucial to a healthy transition to recognize that you are not the only transitioner. Cross-cultural life is a transition that never ends so look around . . . it’s everyone. You are allowed to bumble your way through this but you don’t own exclusive bumbling rights.
READ The Transition That Never Ends: The ongoing cycle of expat Stayers, Goers and Newbies
Be good to people — even when they haven’t earned it.
If you are just getting started don’t be discouraged. It is hard because it is good.
If you’ve been doing this for a while, what would you add? Comment below.
If you know someone who could use this — pass it on.
Let’s start with a quick summary of this whole post.
This is a longer one (at least for a blog post) so let’s break it up. I’ll give you all ten questions up front and then you can work through the rest as you please.
There are lots of resources and extras below but first things first:
Here are 10 QUESTIONS THAT EVERY EXPAT (OR REPAT) PARENT SHOULD ASK ABOUT THEIR KIDS
#1. What are our ROCKS? (What stays the same when everything else changes?)
#2. What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?
#3. If my kid were in Star Wars who would they be? (what is their personality profile?)
#4. What is my kid’s Love Language?
#5. When my child grows up how would I like them to finish this sentence: “When I was a kid, we always . . .”
#6. Same question, only flip it around: “When I was a kid we never . . .”
#7. What pictures (that I haven’t taken yet) do I want to someday show my grandchildren?
#8. What do my kids love about their international lives? (and do they know it?)
#9. What do my kids hate about their international lives?
#10. What is our family culture?
There you go. Feel free to chew on that or move ahead. This is a great conversation to have with your family, your friends and your community.
And Here is the long form version:
Raising kids with an international twist is hard.
Scratch that. Raising kids is hard – doing it internationally just adds an extra, very specific layer with specific challenges and specific benefits. I’m actually a big fan of the whole concept.
Read When I was your age: An Expat Father’s note to his kids
I love what my kids are getting out of this experience. I love what is being built into them. I love who they are becoming . . . but I’m not an idiot. This is hard.
It’s hard for us and it’s hard for them. So as a parent I want to be in touch with the realities — the specific realities, good and bad — of who my kids are and what they are going through.
Here are ten questions that every expat (or repat) parent should ask about their kids.
NUMBER ONE: What are our rocks?
It’s a simple concept. The lives of global families are marked by change (did I hear an amen?). Packing, moving, airports, new people, new places, new languages, new foods, new friends and old friends constantly running through the revolving door of expat community.
Even when you are not the one moving, life moves around you.
Here’s the thing . . . When everything changes, something needs to NOT CHANGE.
Those are your rocks. That’s where stability comes from.
Read Rock, Paper, Scissors: Helping Kids Thrive in Transition (part 1)
Knowing what your family rocks are frees you up celebrate them, emphasize them, debrief them and critique them. Sit down with a piece of paper (an iPad if you’re under 30) and ask yourself “what are our rocks?”
What are the things that you can do, will do and do do no matter where in the world you are? (I know . . . I said do do. Grow up.)
Think in terms of:
- RELATIONSHIPS: What people will be a ongoing presence in your children’s lives regardless of time apart or distance?
- STUFF: What physical objects (toys, pictures, blankets, collections etc.) can and will travel with you no matter where you go?
- ROUTINES: What do you do daily and weekly as a family that can be reproduced anywhere in the world?
- TRADITIONS: What do you do annually that can be reproduced?
NUMBER TWO: What is a Third Culture Kid (TCK)?
I tread lightly here for two reasons. One, some of you have heard this so much you’re bored sick with it.
Fair enough — however, for many it is a brand new, mind blowing concept worth repeating.
Here’s the textbook definition (and the starting point):
“A TCK is an individual who has spent a significant portion of his/her formative years in a culture that is different from their parents.”
“A TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
Buy the book here: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
This concept (and the narrative around it) has shed light and breathed life into global families that didn’t exist 30 years ago. It has given life-changing insight to befuddled parents and hope to kids who just thought they were weird.
It is brilliant. Genius. And good.
However (and this is my second tread lightly reason) like any culture TCK’s are fair game for stereotyping. If your kid is a TCK, learn everything you can. Read the books and the blogs. Go to the seminars.
BUT — Don’t forget that they are completely unique.
In fact . . . the books will all say exactly that. You’re kid may fit into the TCK category but don’t put them in the TCK box.
NUMBER THREE: If my kid were in Star Wars who would they be?
Don’t like Star Wars? Not a problem. You have a ridiculous number of options (hold that thought).
Let me pause and make my point before I jump down this rabbit hole. You should be a student of your child’s personality. It’s what makes them pop. It’s who they are. It’s how they process the world. If being a TCK is what connects them to a group then personality is what sets them apart.
There are a billion tools to help you define and assess a personality. Pick the one you like.
If you weren’t a Psych major and you just need a place to start then go with Myers Briggs (MBTI).
You can learn about it here.
You can take the test (for yourself or your kid) here.
It’s simple, insightful and people have gone insane expanding on it which makes it crazy fun . . . oh look, a rabbit hole.
It’s one thing to know your kid is an INTP but it’s way cooler to know that makes him like YODA.
Click here to find see the Myers Brigg Star Wars Chart
Now buckle up because this is nuts:
Click here to see the Harry Potter one.
And here to see Frozen
Or other Disney women
DC heros and villains
Marvel heros and villains
The Lord of the Rings
Phineas and Ferb
Pride and Prejudice
Parks and Rec
Big Bang Theory
Fictional book characters
Christmas show characters
And I kid you NOT — click here to find out which dinosaur personality . . . dessert personality OR SHOE PERSONALITY your kid has.
Have fun with that but learn something about your kid.
NUMBER FOUR: What is my kid’s Love language?
Love Language goes one layer deeper than personality. Knowing how your kid gives and receives love is golden insight into what motivates them. It is also likely to shine the light on your most common miscommunications.
In a nutshell the Five Love Languages are
- Words of Affirmation
- Physical Touch
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
So if you keep telling your little girl how great she is but what she really needs is a hug, you’re missing something. And if your boy keeps bringing you a bouquet of weeds it might tell you something about how to love him back.
You can learn about Love Languages here.
Take the test (for yourself or your kid) here.
Get tips on Kids ages 5-8 here.
Ages 9-12 here.
Buy the books here:
The 5 Love Languages
The 5 Love Languages of Children
The 5 Love Languages of Teenagers
NUMBER FIVE: When your child is grown, how do you want them to finish this sentence: “When I was a kid we always . . . “
There are so many directions this could go right?
. . . we always moved around.
. . . we always fought.
. . . we always ate dinner together.
. . . we always stayed connected to Grandma and Grandpa.
. . . we always tried to guess which row of the airplane we would sit in.
. . . we always ate pizza and popcorn on family night.
Memory is a funny thing. It is selective and fuzzy and at the very same time vivid and emotional. If you ask this you are answering a question that won’t even be asked for years.
What do you want to be the FIRST THING that pops into their brain when they hear this question years from now?
Once you have the answer you can be intentional about moving towards it.
Here’s a tip — If you’re not sure how to answer for your future kids, try answering for your present self first. How would YOU finish the sentence about YOUR childhood? Do you hope the same for your kids or something completely different?
NUMBER SIX: Same question only flip it around: “When I was a kid we never . . .”
. . . we never traveled for fun.
. . . we never had family dance parties.
. . . we never ate out.
. . . we never missed a family night.
. . . we never played outside.
. . . we never listened to music.
Same basic concept but you’ll learn something new if you ask it this way.
NUMBER SEVEN: What pictures (that I haven’t taken yet) do I want to show my grandkids?
Someday your grandchildren may climb up on your lap and say, “what was my mommy like?” or “tell me about daddy when he was my age.”
Pictures are powerful story tellers but lives marked by transition tend to have missing chapters. In the chaos of consistent moves and constant changes you typically end up with the highlights (portraits, birthdays, Christmas and selfies in front of major global landmarks) but . . . the real life stuff gets missed.
None of these really answers the question — what were they like?
Build your list of pictures that tell the story. Family portraits? Sure. Eiffel tower and Pyramid selfies? Absolutely.
But don’t put the camera away when they’ve painted the baby’s face or thrown a ball through the window or fell asleep in the airport or created a superhero costume out of underwear.
Get the day to day stuff, the frustrating stuff, and even the painful stuff . . . it all tells the story.
Here’s a tip: Don’t keep everything.
At the very least have a file for “keepers” that is separate from the massive, multi terabyte wasteland of “every picture ever”. It’s the paradox of living in a digital camera age.
Think about how you want to tell their story and go get the pictures to illustrate it.
(Again, if it helps to frame the question, think of it this way — What pictures do you wish you could see of your parents now?)
NUMBER EIGHT: What do my kids LOVE about this experience (and do they know it)?
I’m pretty vocal about the fact that I love raising my kids cross-culturally. There is so much to love but a fair pushback goes something like, “well that’s nice, but do THEY love it?”
I think that question is unanswerable. It only has two possible answers and both are wrong . . . “YES” or “NO”. One way everything is perfect and the other they are falling apart. Neither is the case.
Some of this life is awesome and YES they absolutely love it.
Some of it is NOT.
As a parent I can’t answer, do they love living abroad BUT I can have a pulse on what they do love.
My kids love airports. They love going home in the summer. They love it when Dad gets to drive a car. They love their international school (even though they’re not thrilled about school in general). They love having friends from all over the world. They love eating seaweed.
They love a lot of things that are unique to an international life. Stuff that I never dreamed of at their age.
Here’s the kicker . . . they don’t think it’s international . . . it’s just life.
For me the contrast is huge but for them it’s just day to day stuff. Knowing what they love helps us as parents do more of it and do it well.
NUMBER NINE: What do they HATE about this experience?
Don’t be the Happy Stamper parent (I have to fight this tendency). Some of this is hard and it is hard specifically because you are living (or have lived) internationally.
You’re a foreigner — so are they.
Know what my kids hate?
They HATE saying goodbye over and over. They hate getting stared at. They hate not having a big house with a big back yard. They hate not having roller coasters nearby. They hate not having a car.
My daughter, who is ethnically Chinese, absolutely HATES it when people expect her to speak for our family. She hates it 6 levels deeper when they make her feel stupid because she can’t.
I hate that too.
And it’s ok.
Global life is not multiple choice. It is a sliding scale. My kids can love it and hate it at the same time but I should know where they’re at.
NOT so I can fix them — so I can know them.
NUMBER TEN: What is your Family Culture?
Hands down the greatest definition of culture that I have ever heard came from a 5th grade girl.
Ready? Here it is.
“Culture is the personality of the group.”
Simple. Brilliant. She said it one time and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
Read The Best Definition of Culture I’ve Ever Heard
Every group has a personality. They have distinct characteristics that set their herd apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Countries do for sure. Continents too. Churches. Schools. Rock bands. Basketball teams. Chess clubs. Protesters. Gangs. All of them.
Anytime people move together in a group they take on a personality.
That is their culture and your family is no exception.
Your family has a culture.
Why not take some time to deconstruct it?
- What are your values?
- How do they show up in your actions, your clothing, your language, your relationships?
- What makes you weird?
- What makes you the greatest family on earth?
- What about your history makes you proud?
- What would you rather forget?
- How do you celebrate?
- How do you mourn?
Any question you would ask about a country — ask about yourselves. It will give you a whole new perspective.
There they are. Ten questions that we should all be asking. They are not the only ten. There are many more.
What would you add? What questions have given you a broader, better perspective? Which conversations have strengthened your family in the context of global life?