Breaking Out of the Expat Bubble: 5 Steps to Connecting with the Local Culture

Any expat knows how tempting it is to stick around with your fellow newcomers, but if you want to fully connect with the local culture, it can be difficult to break out of the so-called “expat bubble”.

Making friends with other expats is perfectly understandable. Arriving in a new place can be daunting, so it is natural to gravitate towards people who are going through a similar adjustment process. But if you have moved abroad for the culture or the language, or to meet people from your current country of residence, you may be looking to expand beyond the expat circle.

Here are a few tips to help you go from newbie to native!

Learn the Language

Maybe the local residents speak your language, or at least a lingua franca such as English, but nothing beats communicating with people in their mother tongue. There are endless benefits to being able to speak the local language, starting with the day-to-day uses.

No price can be placed on understanding the names of products in the supermarket or reading a menu without cracking out a dictionary. Even picking up the basics will help you stand out from the tourists.

If you already speak the language with some degree of fluency, you can still make efforts to understand the local lexicon better. Try listening out for any dialect or accent commonly used in your new home. Even if you cannot speak it yourself, recognizing the accent of your area can help you spot locals. Noticing the linguistic particularities — and peculiarities — of your area will also win you real brownie points with your new neighbors.

As Nelson Mandela so quotably said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Join In with Local Festivals

A lot of major customs have become fairly international, but every area has its own individual celebrations to brush up on.

While the festivities might be normal for local people, observing these celebrations can be fascinating for recent arrivals. Whether it’s the sinister-looking Austrian Krampuslauf, the dark history behind the UK’s Guy Fawkes Night, or Japan’s hanami (cherry blossom celebrations), these kinds of events are definitely worth checking out.

There is always the risk of looking like a tourist, turning up without the correct traditional outfit, or being the only one silently mouthing along to the songs that everyone else has known since childhood. But don’t worry about that!

On the whole people will be friendly and enthusiastic that you are trying to find out more about their culture. Besides, you can always play the “confused foreigner” card to get a bit of leeway and an explanation of what exactly is going on.

Take Off Your Headphones

On your morning commute, you might want to shield yourself off from the world, drowning out the unfamiliar environment with a few songs from home or a podcast in a language you can actually understand. But it’s worth unplugging your MP3 player once in a while.

Overhearing conversations, or even just the local equivalent to “mind the gap”, will make you feel much more familiar with your new city. Listen out for the announcement of each station. It’s a quick and easy way to perfect your pronunciation of local place names on your way to work.

Entering into a bit of harmless people-watching can also teach you a lot about the culture of your new country or city. The way other passengers talk to each other or the etiquette of giving up your seat can tell you a lot about how people interact.

You never know, you might even end up talking to some of your fellow commuters and enjoying a bit of small talk along the way!

Keep Up to Date with Local News

Your trusty news source from home might still be the best place to stay informed on current affairs, but taking an interest in the local paper or radio station is invaluable. If you want to blend in with the locals, you are better off knowing about the controversy surrounding the ongoing roadworks in town or the increase in daycare fees, rather than being well versed in the ebb and flow of international politics.

Try to follow local politics and read up on the issues affecting your area, too. You will easily find someone to talk to about these topics. If it’s about where they live, it will matter to them, and they will be only too willing to discuss it with an outsider.

Watch the TV Shows Everyone is Talking About

Even if you think it’s rubbish, local television is worth tuning in to. Whether it is a terrible reality TV show or a dodgy weekly talent contest — if people are talking about it, start watching it.

In Germany, the format for compulsory viewing is a crime series called Tatort, with a different city playing host to a murder investigation nearly every Sunday night. If you know the difference between the Tatort teams from Munster and Munich, you will fit right in, even if you would really rather be watching your own trashy TV shows from home.

It is great to bond with your fellow expats, but it is always worth trying to get to know the culture of your new country a little better. Most people are welcoming to newcomers, so just dive in and see what you can learn about your new home!

Katie Costello is a German and politics student at the University of Exeter, currently working for InterNations as an intern in the Editorial Office. She likes speaking German and is enjoying the laid-back Bavarian lifestyle in Munich.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

13 Responses to “Breaking Out of the Expat Bubble: 5 Steps to Connecting with the Local Culture”

  1. I am an expat in the Philippines and currently situated in BGC. At first, one thing that a foreigner would seek is to mingle or be with other foreigners around the metro. I am one of them as a matter of fact, but then I was able to grow my network and most of them are Filipinos when I started spending time on coworking spaces in BGC. Filipinos are very fun to be with and very professional about their work. They are indeed hard working and very reliable.

    When you go to the Philippines, expect the warmest welcome ever and get ready to experience their rich culture.

  2. @Jon:

    It’s great to hear that you have had such a positive experience in the Philippines! Co-working spaces where both expats and locals can meet and network are a great tip for getting to know new people abroad.

  3. Hello,

    What is written is the obvious, nothing unknown to any expat. Reality might be different. Getting integrated to your new country is a 2 way work. Obviously you gotta make the effort first, you’re the guest, the one needing to settle, but… the host country’s treats are NOT always the same. Having been and expat around Europe and also, having been an organizer for expats’ events in my own, I can undoubtedly assure that there are countries where you, as expat, will find welcoming people, where you don’t need expat’s events because they’ll accommodate into their lives, i.e. south european countries; and there are other countries, especially those where the parliamentary representation shows up the significative racism among their society, such as UK, Netherlands, Germany, etc, moreover if you are from the south (of Europe), they will see you as somebody inferior. Not easy to get integrated with such people.

  4. @Pepe:

    Thank you for your comment! I do agree with you that settling in and making friends is definitely not a “one-way street” and that it can be easier in some places than others. Our article is supposed to offer a bit of inspiration for those who might be reluctant to make the first step or leave the comfort zone of their expat community. But of course, there’s unfortunately no guarantee that such efforts will always succeed everywhere in the world.

  5. I’m an expat in the United Arab Emirates for the last two and a half year and been visiting the beautiful country many times in past as a tourist. I speak the language and am quiet familiar with the culture as I was born and raised in a similar country with the similar language and culture but I find it hard to actually get along with locals here as they are too little a population and usually stay away from most foreigners distinguishing and categorizing them by nationality. Most festivals and celebrations are somehow attended by all expats and only a few locals who usually mentain an unseen boundary line with most forieners. Many foreigners are not welcomed in the feasts and celebrations which are attended by locals generally. Although it doesn’t effect the quality of life in the UAE which is a variety of fun and learning experiences midst one of the best working atmospheres in the middle East, one still may feel unwanted and unwelcomed by locals.

  6. @Parvaiz Raja:

    I’m sorry to hear that you are not feeling quite welcome in your new home. I hope you can still make the best of your new work opportunities in the UAE and all the other friends you’ve made so far.

  7. Thank you for the advice. I am living in China and my apartment is more within the community than in an expat area. I am therefore finding it easier to make friends. Yes, people are helpful and friendlier and I try to go to places that local people use

  8. @Mabel:

    It’s good to hear you seem to be settling in in China. Living in a local neighborhood can sometimes be a bit overwhelming, but it can also be an easier way of getting to know more people. Great that it’s working out so well for you.

  9. I live in the Sahara Bab Sahra Guelmim Le Maroc.

    Beautiful here but there different dialects and subcultures in Morocco.

    I moved to Morocco for the FANTASIA LA TBOURIDA MAROCAINE. I am a horsewoman from childhood.
    The indigenous horse to North Africa: THE BERBER

    I am from Southern California. Here, in Guelmim, so much like Southern California. Uncanny! Except the cost of living is 75% less expensive across the board.

    My faith is Al Islam and I am Spanish Arab heritage on my maternal side: BURGA

    So, life is beautiful when you are happy in your heart.


    Shams Burga

  10. @Shams Burga:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I must admit that I hadn’t heard of this festival before, but it sounds absolutely fascinating. That’s a very unusual reason to move abroad, but it’s nice to hear you are feeling at home there and that it has brought you so much happiness.

  11. A beautiful and insightful post, I must say!

    I can personally vouch for these 10 steps as I followed them 2 decades back when I came to Australia to settle. I love the country! Time passed.
    I became an Australian citizen and kick started a migration firm for sheer passion of helping people like me! It’s fulfilling!

  12. @Amitava Deb:

    Thank you for your feedback! I’m glad to hear that Katharine’s article resonated with you and that you made such a positive experience when settling down in Australia. Best of luck with the business you feel so passionate about!

  13. Thanks for sharing, nice post. Australia immigration looks tough for many of us. But you boost us with positive energy. Keep on sharing the same with us.

Leave a Reply