6 Things to never say to an expat (and what to ask instead)

Written by Diane on. Posted in on life in France, Uncategorized

What to never say to an expat

Living abroad can be the best and worst experience of your life all wrapped into one. As an expat, you’ll have so many different adventures and eye-opening moments that you’ll be bursting with excitement to tell your friends and family back home. But what happens when the conversation comes to a halt because of one of these questions?

As an expat, I’m sure you’ve heard at least one of these things to never say to an expat.

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People everywhere say stupid things (me included) and sometimes they realize it in the moment, sometimes right after and sometimes they never realize what they said was annoying/offensive/dumb/hurtful. I believe that most people have good intentions. Maybe they just don’t know better or didn’t think before speaking. Guilty!

But how we react is what’s in our control. It’s how you handle yourself when you’re face to face with someone who just doesn’t get it. Do you make a sarcastic remark? Get angry? Laugh it off? Ignore it? Calmy explain your point of view?

Here are questions to never ask an expat:

But you live in FRANCE!!! How bad can it be?????

When you live abroad, you learn very quickly who you can be completely candid with. You can’t be 100% real with certain people — and almost always those people have never lived abroad. Many out there seem to think that everyday life problems like health, family, relationship and career issues just disappear into the ether when you start breathing in that magic French air. People assume that every day is like a vacation day full of gallivanting around and doing tourist things. The reality is that every physical place on earth has pros and cons, and issues you have at home will still be there when you move abroad. Sometimes they’re even magnified because of situational factors making them seem even more dire. So steer clear of people with myopic views who think that your new country is pure paradise 24/7. Yes, certain things might be nice in your new country but the positives don’t make life problems nonexistent or easier to manage.

expat i am home

When are you moving home?

Home is a complicated concept especially when you either grew up in a bunch of places or when the place you grew up is no longer an option to go back to. Maybe we don’t want to return to where we came from. Or maybe we do but it’s not an option right now — so when you keep bringing it up, it just makes us feel worse. Or maybe we have no idea what the future holds. In my case, we bought our house almost two years ago and have put a lot of effort into making it feel like a home (painting is harder than it looks, OK?). So for me, I am home. Will we end up living in the US at some point down the road? I think so. But is it going to be anytime soon? Don’t think so. I’m OK with that. For now, let’s just enjoy our time together when I’m home on vacation!

I wish I could live abroad. Must be nice!

“Must be nice” is often said in a sarcastic tone. Yeah, it IS nice. Thanks! But moving abroad was a careful choice and something I stressed over, planned for and saved for. It isn’t all roses and rainbows. There are pros and cons to everything. Living in France isn’t the same as a vacation in France, so don’t idealize it. You can travel or move abroad too. There’s nothing special about me and my decision to move abroad. We all have circumstances in life that hold us back but I truly believe that if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make things happen for yourself.

I didn’t invite you to the party because I knew you wouldn’t be able to come.

Ouch! This one happens allllll the time. While it’s probably true that I won’t fly back to the US for a relative’s graduation party or a friend’s child’s birthday, it’s nice to feel included and remembered. Even if you know I can’t go, just the fact that you thought of me means a lot. No need for fancy invitations — a simple FB message that takes 10 seconds to write is sufficient. What sucks is when expats are just passed over. And guess what? Maybe once in a while I WILL be able to make it home and might just show up at that party (if I know about it)…

They all speak English there right? So you don’t have to be good at French?

No and no. You’ll find English speakers in larger cities but the language spoken here is French so it’s better if a newbie in France (who plans to stay for more than just a vacation) learns enough to get by. Sometimes French people are shy when it comes to their level of English so even if they know a little, they’re hesitant to use it. Besides, perception is everything so if you put forth an effort to learn the language, I think you’ll gain the respect of locals a bit more than if you refuse to utter a single word of French.

Are you fluent yet?

Fluency doesn’t just magically happen because you live in a place for a certain amount of time. Also your definition of fluent may differ from mine. There are so many factors that play into a person’s level of fluency. By asking someone if they’re fluent, you may make them feel self-conscious or like their progress isn’t good enough. And what does someone else’s fluency change for you? Not much. So let them go at their own pace. I guarantee you they’re trying really hard to get by in their new language.

Try one of these questions instead:

  • What’s your favorite part about living in France?
  • As your friend, what can I do to help you?
  • How have you adapted to your new life?
  • Is xyz what you expected?
Those are expat questions that will help get the conversation started off on the right foot.

Anything you’d add?

 

If you missed these posts, check ’em out now…

The 2 truest things about expat life no one is talking about

Expat life: Things to never stop doing for yourself

Expat or immigrant? Why the distinction matters  

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Comments (15)

  • Joy @MyTravelingJoys

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    Probably the number one thing I get tired of hearing is: “You’re so lucky.” Yes, I’m lucky because I have a husband who wants to live abroad like I do, but luck had nothing to do with becoming an expat. We wanted to live abroad and we made it happen. You can too! 🙂
    Joy @MyTravelingJoys recently posted…Free Fountain Lights in Warsaw during SummerMy Profile

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    • Diane

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      Hi Joy, yup I actually wrote a post on that 6 mos ago and it’s still sitting in drafts because I don’t want people to take it the wrong way. I do feel I’m fortunate to be where I am but luck didn’t have much to do with it. Couldn’t agree more!

      Reply

  • The Guy Who Flies

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    Hi Diane,

    As a former expat I can certainly understand the reality of all these questions that you’ve listed.

    As you highlight these demonstrate how people who haven’t been as fortunate enough as ourselves to travel like we do just don’t quite understand the complexities (pro’s and con’s) of a life away from home.

    As for those people who assume everyone speaks English in France, may I suggest as an Englishman myself, that you recommend they go and spend a week in Paris. Just tell them the Parisians love to speak English. They should go there and not make any attempt to speak French at all and the French will love it! (Of course this is my British sarcasm coming to the fore.)
    The Guy Who Flies recently posted…Air France Travel Amenity Kits ReviewMy Profile

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  • Karine

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    That so true 🙂

    I have the same thing in the opposite way!
    But you live in CALIFORNIA!!! How bad can it be?????
    (sun, palmtree, beach, Hollywood and surf all the day of course!). It is totally true that people think the problems are far far away just because we move abroad.
    And there’s a huuuuge american dream in France! (it is well known, US is always better than France – maybe except for food – less taxes, more sun, more jobs, freedom, less troubles, less all, travel every day).
    Karine recently posted…Il y a un an… mon enterrement de vie de jeune fille! (EVJF)My Profile

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    • Diane

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      Yup, people everywhere always seem to have a warped view of how life is in areas that are popular for vacation. California is great but it’s also very expensive and when you’re not on vacation, life can get in the way regardless of where we live. I think it’s hard to 100% understand what it’s like living somewhere until you do it for yourself.

      Reply

  • Cynthia

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    So very true Diane ! Unfortunately most people who’ve never traveled much or lived abroad make judgements. Most often people take the safe route in life and they live in bondage and never experience the true art of living. They become jealous of others who are bold enough to think for themselves. They can’t think outside of the box. That’s why they ask such stupid questions. I believe that we grow spiritually and mentally by thinking for ourselves and living our own lives. I live in California and I get the same thing. I’m also a belly dancer and musician by profession. I get asked stupid questions all of the time ! You did the right thing ! Keep on with the great work on this blog !

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks for your perspective, Cynthia. I think some people will have a perfectly fulfilling life living in their home country and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Traveling and living abroad isn’t for everyone. My issue is with people who have close minds and don’t think their silly comments through!
      So happy you enjoy the blog. And keep on dancing 😉

      Reply

  • Jo-Anne

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    Must say I have no interest in living anywhere else then right here in Australia surrounded by my family
    Jo-Anne recently posted…Five things FridayMy Profile

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    • Diane

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      And that’s A-OK 😉 Different things for different people.

      Reply

  • Neal DeRidder

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    Fluency doesn’t magically happen? Damn!

    Diane (my Diane) and I are newly minted expats in France. I was counting on some sort of spontaneous “prise de conscience” to reach fluency. Guess I’ll have to keep studying…

    Love your blog, nice writing and photos!
    Neal DeRidder recently posted…Chez Nous – Home Sweet Home in ToulouseMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      It’s definitely a gradual process and you won’t just have a light bulb moment one day like “wow I’m fluent,” but a series of moments where you feel confident and realize you’ve come a long way. Best advice I can give you is to talk with native speakers as much as possible and put yourself out there. 😉

      Thanks for the compliments!

      Reply

  • Sara @ Simply Sara Travel

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    I can really identify with these questions – I think I’ve been asked all of them! The one that really got me upset was when people would ask me “How are people treating you over there?” So many people have this idea that French people are nasty, especially to Americans. It made me so upset, because on the whole, French people had shown me so much grace and patience as I butchered their language and tried to acclimate to their culture.
    Sara @ Simply Sara Travel recently posted…Paris’ Newest Must-See Museum: Fondation Louis VuittonMy Profile

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    • Diane

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      Hi Sara, yup I’ve gotten that one too. I think sometimes it’s just a way to phrase “how’s it going over there” but sometimes people are asking how the French are treating you because they have a notion that the French are rude, arrogant, etc. I agree with you that on average the French have been kind.

      Reply

  • Lori

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    I used to work at a small hotel on the Ile-St.-Louis where many U.S. and British tourists stayed. I was hired for my ability to serve hotel guests in their native language. Whenever the U.S. guests started asking questions in a well-meaning way, I felt uncomfortable. The dreaded, “When are you going back home?” always came up and I felt like telling them that I had no “home” to go to. I ended up saying my father was French, I had been born in the U.S., and my mother and I followed him to live in Paris. I became a very good storyteller because this very story belonged to a friend of mine.

    I stayed a total of 12 years and had to contend with my share of smirks at the Préfecture de Police when the officials saw my little blue passport. Year in and year out I had to renew my “carte de séjour” and finally in the year 2000, I was able to change from student to salaried worker status. By then I had had enough and I returned to my hometown. I would still go back for a visit.
    Lori recently posted…Heading to BlogHer ’15? So are we!My Profile

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