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So, what does “care of the community” really look like when living abroad? There are many ways to cultivate habits of community care, and here are three suggestions that have really moved the needle for my clients:
1.) Don’t be afraid to tell stories
It can be confusing to find ways to connect with people from different countries and backgrounds. It is often a good place to start by asking about family, but then what? How do you make real connections? I encourage clients to take every opportunity to tell stories. I find that US Americans are reluctant to tell stories because stories take time, and time is money. But this is not the case in all cultures. In many countries, there is always time to put away what you were doing and sit down with a friend to visit. Although this is uncomfortable for some Westerners at first, I find that after spending time living aboard this is one thing many expats learn to value.
The encouragement is, what if you dropped the concern of taking up someone’s time and told some stories- about yourself, your heroes, your culture, your values. Among other things, stories activate mirror neurons in the brain of the listener. This means that when you get excited, sad, or upset as you tell a story, those emotional centers also light up in the brain of the listener. Stories literally connect us on a physiological level, no matter what your cultural background is. Furthermore, your storytelling is an implicit invitation for others to share stories with you. I have personally found that the more personal and vulnerable stories I tell, the more honest people are with me. This type of connection eases stress for all involved.
2.) Make a safety net out of digital spaces
I can’t say I am a big fan of our dependence on technology and the rise of social media. Yet there are ways in which technology’s lightning-fast connections can help us-- but we need to be intentional. If you mindlessly jump on social media when you are having a hard time abroad, it is highly likely you will find content from friends back home that will make you feel worse. Friends smiling in familiar locations from home or laughing at a wedding you cannot attend. But if you are intentional about your use of digital spaces, you can focus on supportive communities. For example, I am part of:
- Trova Health’s online community of experts where we not only help clients, but we also support each other personally and professionally.
- A Facebook group of intercultural practitioners where I can crowdsource ideas.
- A Facebook Messenger thread of seven moms where we support each other daily with toddler related conundrums.
- A Slack channel for a group of white women who are trying to unlearn whiteness.
I think of each of these groups as a string in a net of support. Nets become stronger when there is more string and more knots. Leveraging access to support through digital spaces is a great way of meeting these needs, in a world where face-to-face contact isn’t always possible.
3.) Ask for help with small favors (I saved the best for last here)
Stressed about needing to do paperwork for the embassy and making sure you have a doctor for your children? Reach out to a neighbor to see if they have an hour to spare to play with your kids while you sort that out. Can’t handle a quick grocery run for a single onion? Ask a neighbor if they have one.
I get that it feels hard to ask new acquaintances for little favors, but the number one way to create a bond where people feel they can depend on you, is to ask them for help. It seems counterintuitive, but it is true. We all want to belong and feel people have our back. This requires dependence. Dependence must work in two directions, or else it feels like a drain. For most of us, asking for help when we really need it can feel impossible. This is a strength you can develop with practice. Start with small asks, then build up to larger acts of community building through the offering and receiving of assistance with those around you. Everyone stands to benefit from this type of reciprocal relationship.
As we all get pulled deeper into distraction and isolation via our devices, building community will take more of an effort. Don’t take my word for it: try these simple habits and see how your nervous system shifts. Safety in community is the antidote for expat related stress of all kinds. It will require that you step out of your comfort zone shortly, but the benefits to your mental health and wellbeing are exponential.
New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. (2018) By Ellie Polack. Retrieved from https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/
Dockray, Heather (2019) Self-care isn't enough. We need community care to thrive. Retrieved from https://mashable.com/article/community-care-versus-self-care/
Sweet, Jacob (2021) The Loneliness Pandemic: The psychology and social costs of isolation in everyday life. Retrieved from https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2021/01/feature-the-loneliness-pandemic