Breaking out of the Expat Bubble by Marian van Bakel

23 January 2024 | Curiously Intercultural, Media Views

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Reviewed by Dr. George Simons at

Marian van Bakel’s new release attracted my attention immediately as it was written by one who has lived as an expat in three European countries and worked extensively as a consultant and trainer on assignments in another fifty. Until now I had relied on my own experience and accounts of colleagues when asked to provide acculturation coaching for arriving or departing expats on fresh assignments abroad often along with a trailing spouse and family. Now, a very useful handbook has arrived!

“Breaking out of the bubble” is an excellent way to describe the multifaceted challenge that many new expats face. Often, even unconsciously they create a bubble for themselves, “for safety’s sake”. Leaving home and familiar environments for the unknown can be scary, particularly if one has little preparation for it and mistakes can be costly. This bubble can have a hard shell, sometimes reinforced by language deficits, lack of preparation, and mentors from the culture itself. The weight and busyness of one’s new work environment itself often restrict the expat’s depth of culture immersion abroad to the familiar corporate culture that she or he has already been a part of at home. Sometimes the workload of the newcomer and the burden of the day are enough to leave the expat little incentive to invest in potential friendships and social groups.

Frequently it is the “trailing spouse” who is forced to burst the bubble, to negotiate daily existence in an unfamiliar atmosphere, manage the household, provide childcare, and find meaningful activities for themselves while their spouse is largely absent and occupied with their corporate assignment.

I have sometimes heard the trailing spouse described as the useless and unsightly trailing poop that one sometimes sees on an aquarium goldfish! In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth, as it is often up to this spouse to function daily in multiple aspects of the new culture while the expat is totally absorbed in his or her (usually his) assignment in company life. From this trainer’s experience, it is often the trailing spouse, who is most interested in the expat departure or arrival sessions when these are provided by the sending organization. On the other hand, cultural immersion is often rendered unnecessary or optional while on assignment when housing in an expat community compound is provided, supported by domestic services, and other conveniences.

Making new friends is a part of social relocation, but as the author points out, what is considered friendship, its various levels, and expectations, can be quite different across cultures. When I settled in France 30 years ago, I was seen as l’Americain, likely to be here on a short-term stay, so exploring friendship at a deeper level with me was not an interest for my neighbors. However, when it became clear that I was here for the long term, friendships, slowly ripened into several deep connections that I enjoy today. The author provides data as to the level of difficulty that one may expect on assignments in certain countries. Scandinavian and Arab cultures seem to hover at the top of these lists.

The book is an interesting read, because it is replete with stories, resulting from discussions and interviews that the author has had with a variety of expats about their experiences in different countries, making it possible to understand how making friends may be easier or more difficult given the culture and social structure. It is important in such cases that the expat does not automatically blame oneself for the difficulty of connecting satisfactorily with others. In recent times, the pandemic has further heightened the difficulty of forming personal connections. The stories shared, also provide insights into what worked, and what did not work in various contexts, for different kinds of expats, students, workers, the self-expatriated, and others. These involve detailing challenges to expect, offering exercises for personal reflection and self-management, as well as presenting valuable insights into connecting with others in various cultural contexts.

One should not overlook the value and advantages of making solid local connections on a variety of levels for expats, their families, and even for the local folk in work, daily life, and even play. Certainly, in the workplace, it is essential to understand the local dynamics of management and employee expectations, local values, and the expected image of an organization. Solid connections with locals can provide this. They may also furnish mentorship for the incoming expert as to his or her best approaches to succeeding in the roles they may be called to play locally. The author nicely details the appropriate approaches for seeking and performing effective mentorship. She describes the benefits and challenges that accrue when incomers are hosted by locals as well as the advantages found in the use of buddy systems.

While this short review highlights important content of this handbook, the real insight comes from the enjoyable read of the stories that focus on the actual experiences of the many different interviewees, who have been challenged to see both their cultural proclivities and come to better understand the values and behaviors of the cultures they have been immersed in. Enjoy!


Title: Breaking out of the Expat Bubble: How to Make Intercultural Connections and Friends

Author: Marian van Bakel
Publisher: Routledge
Release Date: February 5, 2024
ISBN: 9781032160399


20% discount available with the code AFL04 at checkout when placing the order directly via

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