‘Toxic’ Expats: How to Spot and Avoid Them

Last week, I mapped 5 reasons why you need to talk to other expats.

There are more: Carla mentioned availability and Franck underlined work, Betty acknowledged the power of this network, to find special services like medical help in your native tongue!

But what if the expat community you live in is not interested in the local culture? Credit image @Wikimedia Commons
What if fellow expatriates complain all the time?
What if they’re continuously longing for home or if they’re cut off from reality in their isolated bubble?

These are the very valid questions some of you asked me last week.

After reading this article, you’ll understand:

  • Why it’s important to choose carefully the people you want to be surrounded with
  •  Why only connecting with any random expat community is not enough
  •  How to find the right community for you

What is a ‘toxic’ expat community?


Have you ever heard of the 5 C’s rule?

As Jharna Gupta, leadership and cross- cultural diversity trainer mentioned, the 5 C’s can summarize some expats’ attitudes pretty well.

I liked the idea. It goes like this.

1. Complaining

“This is not civilized here. It’s so hot. And there’s no air conditioning. Yesterday, we could not even get some ice.”

2. Criticizing

“What a horrible language! it’s like German but with a sore throat. Learning it is useless. Dutch is only spoken by 20 million people and everybody in the Netherlands speaks perfect English.”

3. Comparing

“Back home we have high speed internet. It’s so horribly slow here. Back home, we used to have a canteen with warm meals for lunch. Here only sandwiches. And there is not even decent cheese to put inside. Back home, we used to go to the museum, and visit great exhibitions. Forget it here. We’re in the middle of the jungle.”

Compare and despair…

4. Controlling

“My son is enrolled in the best soccer club in town. He’s got his private music lessons, he’s playing the difficult solo in the next concert at school. My daughter is having a private dance tutor. She’s going to the “Conservatoire” in Paris in 2 years. I don’t let them play during the week-ends. They don’t have time for it. They have to do their homework.”

5. Competing

“Did you see the Smiths? They got the best house from the whole compound. And a new car! He, at least, knows how to speak to his boss.”

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Eleanor Roosevelt                                            Click to tweet

Who can say he/she has never had one of those thoughts? Can you remember how you felt when you were in that place?
Probably not very well: frustrated, bitter, sad, anxious, fearful, tired, discouraged, jealous.

It’s fine to experience all those feelings but it’s a problem if it becomes a habit.

People remaining in that stage are people who are emotionally wounded, people who are suffering.

They’re deeply UNHAPPY.

At that stage, it’s up to you. Either you feel like the good samaritan and you lead a mass therapy to save their souls, change their mindset, and open their heart… or you just keep them at bay.

But remember: if “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with” according to prominent personal development expert Jim Rohn, you’d better not hang out too much with people who are dragging you down.


Only connecting with any random expat community is not enough


Let’s first have a closer look at yourself. What defines yourself?

Your identity has many attributes. It’s not restricted to the trailing spouse, stay-at-home mum of 2 children.

Here is a short list of only some of the traits defining you.

Identity traits

Picking up only one of those traits is not enough.

Indeed, would you agree, if you’re a woman, that you’ll automatically connect and be friend with ANY woman on earth?
If you’re a mother, that you’ll automatically have a deep bond with ANY mother?

Surely not.

For the same reason, connecting with other expats just because they’re expatriates may not be the ultimate solution.

According to my experience, we connect best with people who share our values and a common purpose.

Remove one of those 2 elements and the relationship fades out.

The corporate world is a great example. I remember when I was working for a big multinational, I had dozens of colleagues. Because we were working for the same company, we had a common purpose: ensuring that all business transactions went smoothly for the success of the company. The day I left, I lost most of them. Not because we had an argument but because we had different priorities.


How to find the right expat community for you


  • Like performing an advanced search, you’re looking at combining several defining traits. One word (expat) or even two (expat woman) is not enough.

Say, for example that your profession is an essential component of your identity, look for business associations in your field. Here is an nice example. If not possible, explore other professional oriented not-for profits like Toastmasters to master the art of leadership and speaking in public.

If you’re passionate about arts, join a cultural club.

Take a look at this list of diverse English-speaking groups for Switzerland.


  • Look for the expats who are building bridges with the locals

By performing a quick search with the words “Chinese Swiss associations in Switzerland”, I found this and this.

For Japan, there is a list here on pages 5 and 6.

And if your nationality is not well represented, build on your previous expatriations.

Suppose you’re from Spain and you don’t find interesting groups. But you just had a great experience in Australia. Join their clubs. You’ll get the best of both worlds: the expats and some continuity with your previous experience while smoothly integrating the local culture.


  • Find the locals who have travelled or lived abroad.

They will act as interpreter of their culture. Because they had this experience abroad, they’ll be much more likely to be interested in other cultures. They’ll be looking for an exchange while the local sedentary might be very nice but not interested in you.

Your support network should be stimulating and nurturing.

Happy hunting!

Do you have any ‘toxic’ expats in your life and what do you do about them?

Are you going to try the tips mentioned above? I’m eager to hear from you.

Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music pianosociety


  1. Ute (expatsincebirth) says:

    Anne, this is brilliant! I was looking for articles about this and found your post and got all the answers. I had several “toxic” expats in my life. Some time ago I tried to convince them that not all is “black” and impossible, but I realized that this took to much energy of me and I wasn’t feeling well. Today I tend to avoid spending too much time with them and if it’s inevitable, I stick on a small talk. I did learn how to recognize people who share the same experiences, values and interests with me. I think this is something we have to learn as expats. And we can become pretty good at it.

  2. Never met any long term toxic expat. May be because countries I have lived in have been great, or I meet only with those, who sher my “great to live here” attitude, but then again am myself just the third year part of expat community, so still have chances 🙂

    • Never met any toxic expat? Lucky you! Hope they’ll stay away from you or that your positive attitude will be contagious 🙂

      2013/5/3 Disqus

  3. Very interesting because my biggest problem is with single expat women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who want to glue themselves to my side. They want to travel alone and live in other countries alone, but they don’t actually want to be alone and they hunt down the first female foreigner they find. Sorry, but I prefer to speak only in the language of the country I’m in and to really get to know the culture and the people. I also work as a sociologist and do lots of deep research on big problems with the goal of finding solutions. Not interested in talking about the best vacation spots and who to date or listening to their long stories of woe. This causes me no end of problems, especially when I happen to live in the same apartment building or area of town. However, there are also restrictions in many countries for where a single foreign women can safely live alone, so you’re kind of stuck renting places that are frequented by foreigners. It’s a tough balance and they mostly like to complain to the landlord that I’m not spending time with them. Weird, that, because I PAY RENT to live in a place and find it irritating that my presence in any particular location would automatically obligate me to spend my free time giving out free therapy sessions or tourist information to visitors.

    • Dear Akasha, that’s a weird situation indeed! It shows once more that it’s not because people are expats that they share the same interests. Thanks for stopping by. Much appreciated 🙂

      2013/8/27 Disqus

  4. Not in agreement says:

    Good for you all able to stay away from and avoid those who are struggling and finding their move difficult. Isn’t it nicer to shine a little light for those who are in a very dark place? Show them all the stuff you find so wonderful? Anyone can find themselves in a difficult situation. Lucky for those of you who prefer to shun them or class them as pains in the ***.

    • I feel there’s a misunderstanding here. The goal is not to let you down when you’re struggling after a move: we’re all struggling one way or the other, at various levels. The goal is to avoid sinking with people draining all your energy and your resources. We need to support *each other*. this is the very purpose of this community 🙂

      2013/9/9 Disqus

  5. Here in Japan I’ve experienced a slightly “unique” type of toxicity in the expat community, which I think is rooted in the vast cultural and racial differences between East Asia and the West. Instead of the qualities mentioned in the article, toxic expats here look down upon and outright verbally attack and ridicule newcomers to the country, especially those who are rather naive and come here with preconceived notions. There’s a difference between telling the straight truth and being a jerk, and these expats are the latter. There is also great backlash when one expat expresses a reasonable complaint. Instead of a civil discussion about the complaint, these toxic expats will chide him and tell him to go back to his home country. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

    • Thanks a lot, Neal, for this very interesting insight. I wonder whether these “older” expats take revenge on the newcomers because they struggled so much when they arrived themselves…


  1. […] the local etiquette. It also means finding the right place to meet the right people. Creating a social network is not straightforward. It requires time, effort and a good dose of […]

  2. […] d’entre vous ont vécu LE choc culturel, peut-être pouvez-vous partager votre expérience?   Tags: amis, expat, friends Share This : Tweet !function(d,s,id){var […]

  3. […] this at the same time as starting a new job. Also, many families decide it is a priority to make some friends before they do anything else because it helps to reduce the sense of isolation in a new […]

Speak Your Mind