Adonis Diaries

A guide to expat etiquette? Stockpile near-death experiences

Posted on: May 30, 2016


Stockpile near-death experiences and look anguished: a guide to expat etiquette

Are you a foreign aid worker who only talks to other aid workers?

Here’s how to survive – and maybe one day escape – the trap

There are two unmistakable signs that you live in an expat bubble.

First, the only time that you talk to non-expats is at work.

Second, you look around at any social gathering and realise that no one is actually from the country where said gathering is taking place.

As always, you have choices.

You can strike out on your own, boast of your friendships with local shopkeepers and street children, and tell everyone that you didn’t travel overseas to spend your time drinking with Americans and Europeans. This is an honourable path, but might leave you lonely.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“The expat bar is a place to get very, very drunk. It’s also a place for more anthropological pursuits, where – if the conditions are right – one can see almost every species of war-zone and disaster-porn expat gathered in one place, including:”

Alternatively, you can embrace the expat bubble. Like any social situation in which a group of random people is confined to a small space – like a high school, or prison – it promises immediate transitory friendships, drama and the opportunity to scorn new arrivals.

As ever, striking the right balance between these two extremes is up to you, but here a few tips to help you navigate the process.

How to talk to expats

Nod frequently. Look thoughtful. Especially when people are talking about a) horrific things, b) how terrible everything is, or c) how awful their boss is.

Refer to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, as just Addis. Johannesburg should always be Joburg. Say ciao, even if you’re not Italian.

Aid workers are notorious for speaking in acronyms and you might, after a time, feel the irresistible urge to make some up.

This is healthy. Just remember that most acronyms are three or four letters long. Try to use the most common vowels and consonants. If you can’t think of a decent one on your own, then just use airport codes – KHT, NBO and so on.

Acronyms describe things that invariably sound or work better on paper than in practice.

Hence, when using your new acronym – the NBO process – try to look thoughtful and frustrated and resigned, yet still willing to fight the good fight.

Also use the same expression when saying words like “governance”, “participatory” or “sustainable”. These words should be used as frequently as possible.

How to drink in expat bars

Most large cities will have an expat bar or three. It will be crowded – unless there’s been a recent bomb scare or police crackdown.

It will be loud and you will pay far too much for mediocre drinks.

The expat bar is a place to get very, very drunk. It’s also a place for more anthropological pursuits, where – if the conditions are right – one can see almost every species of war-zone and disaster-porn expat gathered in one place, including:

  • Twenty-something aid workers drinking loudly in large groups
  • Thirty-something aid workers – looking worse for wear – drinking in smaller groups
  • Journalists, huddled together
  • Private sector or government contractors in suits and semi-sensible shoes
  • Private military contractors in short-sleeve shirts and cargo pants – sometimes wearing sunglasses indoors
  • And, older white men of indeterminate background dancing with much, much younger local women.

Persuade others of your overseas credentials

Never brag openly about your experience. It’s uncouth.

Never start a conversation by saying how long you’ve been in the country. This not only makes you seem insecure, but also leaves you open to embarrassment if your interlocutor has, in fact, been there longer than you have.

Even if the person has actually been in the country longer than you have, all is not lost.

Ask where they were before, and then casually mention either that a) you were there, but at a worse time, or b) you spent the past few years in a country that was even more dangerous.

Stockpile near death experiences, especially those involving rickety airlines.

Instead of listing the number of countries where you’ve lived and worked, it’s far more effective – not to mention socially acceptable – to prove your credentials by casually describing the time you almost crashed on a runway in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in the mountains over Kabul.

Dress like a missionary

The problem with travel is that it alters our finely-tuned cultural compass.

Suddenly, it’s disrespectful to look older adults in the eye.

Suddenly, revealing your elbows is a sign of moral depravity.

Suddenly, it’s alright to say ciao, even if you aren’t Italian.

This is the general advice for navigating different – and at times interesting – cultural waters that won’t have you running to the safety of the expat bubble.

  • Treat anyone older than 50 with pronounced – if not semi-exaggerated – respect, until told otherwise.
  • Wear more conservative clothes than you would otherwise. Though one wants to be mistaken for a missionary, long-dress missionary-chic is sometimes preferable to being propositioned by every man on the street.

And never, ever make the a-ok sign – stick to a thumbs up.

This is an edited extract from the book Expat Etiquette – how to look good in bad places

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