Expats – The true story of building a portable social network (and why it matters)

Starting all over again?

You have no energy left. This is your third move in 10 years. You’ve just unpacked all your boxes, settled the children at school and established a new routine. You know you should also rebuild a social network. But really, you feel exhausted.

Each time, it’s the same story.

It’s not that you don’t know what to do. You’ve developed some strategies to make friends. But just thinking of the effort you’ll have to make to break the ice, introduce yourself for the xx time, explain where you come from, why you’re here, for how long, attend coffee mornings or organize dinners, you want to hide under the duvet.

What if you had a portable network of supporting people who wouldn’t disappear when you (or THEY) relocate? Portable social network

Of course, this wouldn’t replace the need for local acquaintances. So why does it matter?

Both networks could support you at different moments and for different purposes.

Wisely chosen, an (online) portable social network offers you a continuous circle of friends in an ever changing expat environment.

Through the use of targeted keywords in a search engine (‘unhappy trailing spouse,’ ‘grief when moving country,’ etc.), you can find communities composed of individuals dealing with the same issues.

But what about the emotional connection?
How does it happen?
What are the differences between online and offline?
Can you really trust the people that you don’t see in person?

For the last two years, I’ve organized online support groups with expats located all around the world. Complete strangers gather together for an hour on a weekly basis during a month. We meet on Skype and share our stories in a safe space. Some participants found the experience so rewarding that they stayed around and we’ve now been meeting online for six months.

Kaye is one of those participants. She’s currently living in Hong Kong with her husband and youngest daughter. She also has two daughters back home in Australia studying and working. Building community is a priority for her as it adds stability, support as well as many wonderful and surprising experiences.

So she went a step further. She embraced the whole experience: online and offline.

A few months ago, she and I met here in Hobart and a few weeks ago, she visited another group member in the UK. Social portable network

She’s generously accepted to share her experience with us.

Anne – Expatriate Connection: How did you make the leap from being a blog reader to becoming part of an expat support group?

Kaye – I’ve always shied away from online interactions apart from family and long-time friends because it’s like walking into a room full of strangers, but with that missing dimension of seeing people in their entirety.

However, when I felt tempted to participate in this online group, our one-on-one video conversation before the start of the group cracked it for me. It was the human connection we made at that moment: I felt safe.

I knew I would do it.


Anne: You’ve had the experience of meeting group members first online and then offline. What differences did you find?

There are several differences:

1. Use of the 5 senses

Online, there’s no possibility to use smell, touch, taste. We’re only assessing head & shoulders (at most) which means a limited view and the sound quality means that voices are slightly distorted.
Due to the restriction of the screen, we have little access to full body language. It’s rather a ‘head language’.

2. Group interaction

When we meet online, we’re sitting in front of our screen and we aren’t moving very much. We’re not mingling around, having a cup of tea or shaking hands. Our online process is also very well defined. We all have a set time to speak so we avoid interrupting each other. We interact differently – in a more formal way – compared to a physical encounter.

3. Perception of the environment

You know much less of a person online. You don’t have any context, in which area of town she lives, her clothes, her family, her friends.

Note from Anne: there’s also a desynchronization in the time and space we’re in. For some group members, it’s early morning. For others, it’s late at night.
For some, it’s summer and 30C. For others, it’s snowing and -2C.

4. A shared history

When I met each of the group members face to face in their own surroundings, we created a bond, shared our histories and that brought us immediately closer emotionally. It sped up the process.

Later in our online meetings, I experienced an ability to use short cuts in language and make off-the-cuff comments because of this closer emotional connection.

Let’s not forget other challenges we’re constantly dealing with in our expat meetings: we have different cultures and different mother tongues (even if some do theoretically speak the same language). On the other hand, we’re really drawn to each other by the commonalities of our experiences of living abroad.

Meeting online is one step up from a phone call, but there are still a few elements missing. I have the picture of a jigsaw puzzle. With the online connection, there are lots of missing pieces especially around the edges. After meeting in person, some of those pieces are there now.


Anne – Did you have some surprises when you met the other group members, face to face?

Kaye – Yes, it’s hard to tell online how tall someone is!

People are a little different in person. It has to do with animation, body language and the 3 dimensional aspect, the voice difference and the ability to touch, to shake hands and hug.


Anne – What did this new way of building relationships bring you?

Kaye – I really appreciate our online group and meeting offline has deepened and enhanced my personal experience. I feel more connected, more comfortable and I have more information.

I also believe there is a roll on effect within our whole group, there is more communication outside the online platform and real lasting friendships are being forged perhaps a little sooner.

I feel very fortunate to have found myself serendipitously in the right places at the right times to make these offline meetings possible and the insight that has accompanied them. My growing confidence in the group and the idea of building community online is an absolute bonus as I navigate my ongoing expat experiences.

There are differences between online and offline relationships. But it’s possible to experience both in a very meaningful way.

In our expat lives where discontinuity frequently happens – change of house, school, country, language, food, climate – it’s essential to keep a haven of stability to avoid losing yourself. In my opinion, building a portable social network is an asset to provide a stable anchor.

Now over to you: do you have a portable social network? How does it work for you?

If you’re tempted to start one, you can join us. We start a new group in Feb. 2016.


Speak Your Mind