The Expatriate Family: Practicing Practical Leadership

The Expatriate Family:

Practicing Practical Leadership
By Barbara F. Schaetti and Sheila J. Ramsey, Ph.D.

Reproduced with the permission of the Employee Relocation Council
from the May 1999 issue of Mobility.

Families on expatriate assignment can greatly influence the quality of the experience by choosing to embrace the assignment.

An internationally mobile lifestyle offers both significant challenges and opportunities for tremendous reward. Whether the challenges or rewards predominate depends in very large measure on the ability of an expatriate family to practice personal leadership of its own experience. What this means fundamentally is that expatriate families live from the “inside out” (Covey, 1989) rather than the “outside in;” that they distinguish their internal experience from external circumstance, recognizing that they are the creators of the former, and never the victims of the latter. Indeed practicing personal leadership means using external circumstances, even the most challenging, to deepen self-understanding and enhance creative expression. Consider the particular dynamics of the expatriate family experience.

Expatriate Family Dynamics

The family bubble. An expatriate family really is the ultimate of nuclear families. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors, teachers, and friends, all those who surround a family with support and a community of relationships are necessarily left behind when a family moves abroad. Father, mother, children, the immediate members of the nuclear family, must look to one another for the support provided other families by their external community. When that support is absent, the risk to expatriate family members of serious family dysfunction can be extreme. When family members do find that support, then family ties bind all the more strongly and the “family bubble” is born.

Family separation. Expatriate family bubbles share many unique dynamics, of which separation from an extended community is only one. Separation of family members from each other also is a real issue. Travel demands on expatriate employees typically are high. Required business entertainment may regularly involve both parents. Educational needs also may separate family members if, for any number of possible reasons, boarding school becomes necessary.

Intergenerational differences. A third separation confronting the expatriate family is the separation from “home” culture. Consequently, expatriate families sometimes experience a dynamic common also to immigrants and refugeesÑintergenerational differences in cultural orientation. Just as first-generation immigrants bring with them the values of their original countries, so, too, do expatriate parents typically promote their mono-national identities abroad. Children raised internationally, however, are necessarily influenced by multiple cultural traditions. They typically reject a mono-national worldview in much the same way as do second-generation immigrant children.

Family visibility. However acculturated an expatriate family may become to its host country, it will still typically stand out from the society in which it lives. Expatriate family bubbles face the pressure of visibility. As such, family members also face the pressure of high performance standards. It is not uncommon to hear expatriate parents monitor their children’s behavior with the admonition, “Be careful how you act; you are an ambassador for your country.”

Sponsor relationship. The sponsoring organization plays a significant role in the daily life of the expatriate family. The sponsoring organization, in fact, forms the basis of an expatriate family’s identity. “What does your father do?” is one of the first questions children typically ask of a newcomer to school. “What does your husband (or wife) do?” is the comparable question among non-salaried spouses. The answer places the newcomer in the web of expatriate relationships and in rank on the expatriate hierarchy.

The central role of the non-salaried spouse. Within this expatriate family context, the non-salaried spouse has a uniquely challenging and historically unrecognized role to play (Because the vast majority of expatriate couples continues to conform to tradition-salaried male spouse and non-salaried female spouse, we will, for simplicity only, use “she” when writing of the non-salaried spouse and “he” when writing of the salaried.).

As true today as throughout the long history of expatriate families, it is the non-salaried spouse who is primarily responsible for making a home in the new location. Unlike her husband, for whom a move may signify enhanced professional challenges, moving to a new country requires the non-salaried spouse to set aside her own ambitions and attend to her family’s most basic needs. While the salaried employee, her husband, is spending his days at the office in which the corporate culture at least partially transcends differences of national culture, her responsibilities require her to have immediate and direct contact with the “foreign” environment. Unlike her husband who has a secretary, she has no one to translate for her or to serve as an intermediary. Unlike her husband, she comes into contact with the host nationals who are members of the portion of the society that is least used to foreigners.

Just as the challenge of unmediated contact with host nationals is very real, so, too, is the potential opportunity. While children might be like sponges, simply absorbing new cultural patterns without question, the non-salaried spouse is forced to self-reflect, to question prior strongly held beliefs, to consciously redefine what are appropriate behaviors in any given context. It is, perhaps, this kind of experience that has encouraged spouses to form the biannual European conference, Women on the Move (See references for a Web site address to this and other resources), and to take leadership in promoting expatriate family services.

Eight Principles Guiding Expatriate Family Success

The eight principles that follow introduce the practice of personal leadership as a guiding framework for expatriate family success. The first two, consciousness and creativity, are specific to the individual and to his or her capacity to function optimally across cultures. The next five principles pertain to the interaction between family members: communication, continuity, collaboration, closure, and cultural confirmation. First conceptualized by Norma McCaig, founder of Global Nomads International and now president of Global Nomad Resources, these five principles suggest specific practices for expatriate families. The eighth and last principle addresses the context: corporate commitment. It speaks directly to the expatriate family’s sponsoring organization.

1. Consciousness. It is easy to live life from habit. Many of us operate extensively on “automatic pilot.” We drive the same route to work every day, shop at the same grocery stores, and engage in the same exercise program. We become habituated to making decisions, solving problems, and resolving conflicts with a repertoire of skills and strategies that has served us well in familiar environments. Such habitual behavior, however, may not be adaptive when living internationally.

Engaging the expatriate experience with consciousness means “waking up” to our habitual behaviors, committing to the necessary self-reflection that allows us to broaden the ways in which we interpret events. Culture-shock experiences become opportunities to ask ourselves, “How can this intercultural interaction and especially my judgments about it function for me as a mirror, showing me aspects of myself and of my own cultural understanding?” From such an increased self-awareness comes an increased ability to respond creatively.

2. Creativity. Creativity is thought to be a core competency for any individual who works and lives effectively in a different cultural milieu. In this sense, creativity implies that an individual has the ability to adaptively respond to each unique situation. Such a person reacts not from habit, but by calling on a wide variety of skills and strategies, and tailoring a response to the particular context and people involved.

Creativity also refers to a person’s joy and connection to passion. Creative living does not refer to an innate ability to dance or draw, but rather to aligning one’s life with a personal vision, connected to what has deeply held meaning.

3. Communication. Intentional communication allows the expatriate family to become conscious of its lived experience. It encourages the family to respond creatively, to turn itself into a “living laboratory.” Through regular family discussion, every experience, no matter how frustrating or confusing, can become a learning opportunity, one that helps the family more successfully adjust.

InformationÑabout the host country culture, about the process of transition, and about family dynamicsÑsupports the living laboratory. Knowledge brings consciousness and with consciousness comes the opportunity for a creative response.

4. Continuity. The expatriate experience is fraught with change; a conscious and creative stance toward that change is critical. Family routines and rituals can provide a measure of continuity, as can a “touchstone” or homebase, a place on the planet to which the expatriate family returns on a regular basis.

A portable career or interest gives a non-salaried spouse an important measure of continuity. Resources exist to help spouses identify and develop careers that travel well (Greenbury, 1992) and select volunteer work to further their professional development (McCullough, 1992). A central task for the non-salaried spouse is to find vocational and avocational activities that not only nurture the spirit, but are free from constraints imposed by geographic mobility, work permit restrictions, nation-specific licensure, and language differences.

5. Collaboration. Non-salaried spouses and adult children often speak about having felt powerless in the face of their expatriate experience. A family can help its members by providing opportunities for collaborative participation and decision-making. Having a voice in subjects as important as what goods to ship and when to leave can help the unhappiest of family members feel more like co-creators of their own experience.

It is common among expatriate families for the employee to travel extensively. The non-salaried spouse is left to act as a “virtual” single parent. Couples can plan ahead, discussing in advance whether and how to make joint decisions and in what ways to make up for missed anniversaries, birthdays, and other special events.

6. Closure. Expatriate communities around the world are notoriously mobile, as families come and go on a continuous basis. Expatriate families inevitably experience significant loss.

It is important to honor the simple act of saying “good-bye.” While friends may plan to stay in touch given e-mail and other modern technologies, the relationship as it was changes with distance. It is better to say “good-bye” now, than to risk never being able to say it at all. Making the closure process a conscious one, giving it creative attention, is crucial to the family’s future adjustment.

7. Cultural confirmation. The experience of moving, living, and working abroad changes a person and causes values and identities to be questioned and redefined. The expatriate family must confirm this process and accept it as valid and valued.

Fundamental changes to cultural identity may only become noticeable once family members have settled again in their country of origin. Long-time sojourners and multi-movers are especially likely to find themselves feeling a great confusion of cultural identity. It becomes critically important for repatriated families to find others with whom they can express the whole of their now-international selves.

8. Corporate commitment. The final principle for expatriate family success addresses the context of the sponsoring organization: the company, agency, federal, or diplomatic service that sponsors the family abroad. Spurred by experience, accumulated research (See references.), and the forceful encouragement of expatriates themselves, these organizations are exploring what services “best practices” dictate should be made available throughout the expatriate lifecycle. Exciting, innovative approaches are being implemented.

The principles and practices of personal leadership emphasize, however, that expatriate services must help the family take leadership of its own experience. No matter the number of services on hand, it is only by choosing to engage the expatriate experience with consciousness and creativity, from the inside-out, that an expatriate family will truly maximize the potential rewards of its international sojourn. This, then, can become the corporate commitment.


Expatriate families can attentively craft the shape and flavor of their internationally mobile lives. They can choose to practice personal leadership. Sponsoring organizations can help them to do so. The most challenging and the most joyful of expatriate experiences alike can become an avenue for ever more purposeful living.

References and Resources

Berlitz International, Inc., and HFS Mobility Services, sponsored by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM). Princeton, NJ: 1996-1997 International Assignee Research Project

Covey, Stephen R. (1989) “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.” New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

Greenbury, Linda R. (1992). “Portable Careers: Surviving Your Partner’s Relocation.” London, England: Kogan Page, Limited

McCullough, Rebecca Jaramillo (1992). “Volunteering: A Guide for Using Volunteer Work to Maintain, Upgrade, or Develop Professional Skills.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, Family Liaison Office

Barbara F. Schaetti is principal of Transition Dynamics, Seattle, WA, a consultancy specializing in the human dimensions of change. She works extensively with expatriate families and can be contacted by e-mail at

Sheila J. Ramsey, Ph.D., is principal of the Crestone Institute, Washington, DC, the purpose of which is to design environments that promote creativity, innovation, and human development. She can be reached by e-mail at

Note: This article was originally published in the May, 1999 issue of MOBILITY, the monthly magazine of the Employee Relocation Council. Copyright ©1999, Employee Relocation Council. Used by permission. All rights reserved.