One of the most vexing challenges of living abroad is how to re-create that important network of friendships you had back in your home town. Once the first rush of excitement at the prospect of an interesting job in what sounds like an interesting place has waned, the reality of everyday life starts to sink in. This is particularly true if you’re one of the brave souls who ventures off alone, without partner or family to share the delights and pitfalls of living an expatriate life.
We hear a lot about how the digital age has collapsed space and time, borders and boundaries, connecting us all in a global village where our nearest and dearest are a mere click away. Mobile technologies and Web 2.0 have enabled real time and face-to-face interaction through phones and video applications such as Skype, with the added bonus of visibility. You can see your child/partner/sibling in situ!
And then there is the internet’s capacity to connect us with people in any given location through interest-based web sites such as meetup.com and a range of websites dedicated to expats that provide advice and connections in cities throughout the world. This is all supposed to make the whole process of mobility and re-settlement much easier. But does it?
A recent survey by HSBC (Expat Experience) found that while Australia was a relatively popular destination for expats from across the world with lifestyle being the key attribute, for Australians living overseas, the story was not so upbeat. The financial rewards of working overseas for Australians, often came at the expense of well-being and lifestyle.
The report revealed that Australian expatriates found the pressures of work and life meant that they were less active in their newly adopted countries. Individual well-being is the domain of extensive psychological research, and while there are a number of factors which are central to the creation and maintenance of robust well-being, in the psychosocial arena the consensus points to the importance of social connectedness and participation in social and civic activities.
For the expatriate, the workplace might provide some of those social connections, but it can’t be assumed this is always the case. The internet has certainly provided the conduit with which to connect with others, any place and any time, but the quality and satisfaction of those relationships forged and maintained through the internet remain to be rigorously evaluated.
The Expat Experience report shows Australians are frequent users of internet technologies for communication, with 52% of expats using it to stay in touch with friends and family twice a week or more. The uptake of social media is increasing across the world, with 39% of Australian expats using Facebook more than twice a week to stay in touch and 36% connect via video calling services such as Skype. These channels are more popular than traditional methods such as landline or mobile phone, perhaps, as the report concludes, because new technologies are cheaper now.
Facebook tends to be less frequented by those earning higher incomes (above $250k), which could point to a combination of financial and age-related factors. Statistics tell us what we intuitively know, that the bulk of Facebook users are a younger demographic with the majority, 52% of users under the age of 34, and 71% under the age of 44 (). It could be that the majority of high income earners fall outside these age groups.
So Australian expats are digitally connected to their loved ones, and the type of emotional and psychological support this provides when removed from kith and kin can be significant. The apparent ease of managing relationships with those back home may well be a factor in people’s decision about living and working abroad. However, a couple of points arise from this assumption.
First, although connecting back home is far more accessible than it was in the pre-digital era, it raises the question about how effective communication technologies really are in ameliorating feelings of isolation and discomfort, especially in the long term? Certainly communication technologies come into their own in emergency situations, connecting us with vital and often instant support, but it is the hum drum experience of everyday life that the expat, like the rest of us at home, is faced with on a daily basis.
The other question to consider is that, while expats may find some sustenance in maintaining relationships back home, might this occasionally happen to the detriment of stepping out and making an effort in the expatriate’s locale? Although the web provides ways of connecting expats in their adopted cities, it could be more tempting and comfortable for some people to while away the spare hours on Facebook or email, neglecting opportunities for local interaction.
Digital technology is still in its infancy, and we are yet to see how, and to what extent its impacts are experienced in the psychosocial dimension and in people’s everyday lives. The initial claims about technology reducing place to insignificance (Castells 1996) have been cast aside and replaced with research that points towards the reassertion of place – across economic, social and cultural dimensions. In a world increasingly characterized by mobile populations, inter-cultural interactions and digital communication, how we all get along among culturally diverse others, raises some interesting questions that have implications for the social cohesion of cities across the world.