This is a guest post by Franziska Mutsch of InterNations, a global community for expats.
Difficulties in making friends abroad and a lack of socializing opportunities are the main reasons for unhappiness among expats. This is a key finding in the Expat Insider 2021 survey — one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive surveys on expat life. The annual survey is conducted by InterNations, a global community for expats.
In 2021, over 12,400 expats representing 174 nationalities and living in 186 countries or territories provided information on various aspects of life abroad for the survey, from working abroad to the ease of settling in.
All in all, three-quarters of respondents worldwide (75%) share that they are happy with their life in general. Among foreign assignees who were sent abroad by their employer, this share even increases to 81%. However, this still leaves a fair number of expats who are dissatisfied with their life. When asked for possible reasons for this unhappiness, 35% of them say they struggle to find friends abroad, and 33% don’t have enough socializing opportunities. Among those sent abroad for work, these shares even increase to 40% and 44%, respectively.
These results make clear that both employers and expats alike should not underestimate the importance of social connections for a successful experience abroad.
This is particularly true during an ongoing pandemic: among respondents who shared that they’ll be cutting their stay abroad short, the most commonly named reason for this is the desire to be closer to family and friends back home (33%). This is followed by a feeling of loneliness and social isolation abroad (20%) or a lost job or business opportunity (17%). “My social life was killed by covid at the worst moment — my arrival,” a French expat in Budapest shares.
But of course, making local connections is not always easy — even when there are no restrictions on social gatherings.
One area of the Expats Insider survey is especially worth a closer look when it comes to the topic of social connections: the Ease of Settling In Index. It includes the following subcategories:
To allow for comparisons across regions, respondents in the survey rated their home abroad on more than 35 factors, which were further combined to make up five indices in total, as well as one overall ranking. In 2021, 59 different destinations worldwide made it into this ranking.
So which places around the world are best for settling in according to expats in 2021?
Mexico (1st), Malaysia (2nd), and Costa Rica (3rd) outshine other destinations, while Kuwait (59th), Japan (58th), and Denmark (57th) fall behind. Generally, some regions do better than others in the Ease of Settling In Index. Language struggles aside, this is often connected to cultural differences and the (perceived) unfriendliness of the local population.
Mexico, for example, has consistently showed great results in the Ease of Settling In Index, and it ranks first for feeling at home and finding friends in 2021. In fact, around nine in ten respondents in Mexico agree that it is easy to get used to the local culture (91% vs. 65% globally) and that people in the country are friendly towards foreign residents (92% vs. 67% globally). Twice the global average even agree completely (50% vs. 25% globally)! What’s more, close to four in five (78%) find it is easy to make local friends in Mexico (vs. 44% globally). “I have found the Mexican people to be very hospitable. If you make the effort to learn the language, life is even better,” one US expat points out.
But Mexico is not the only Latin American country in the top 10 of the index: it’s joined by Costa Rica (3rd), Colombia (4th), and Ecuador (10th). All four receive top marks in the Finding Friends and Friendliness Subcategories. In fact, Ecuador’s 11th place in the latter is the “worst” result among them.
With Malaysia (2nd), the Philippines (7th), and Indonesia (8th), three Asian countries join the top 10 of the Ease of Settling In Index. All three receive good to great results across nearly all factors — and particularly in the Finding Friends subcategory. However, not all Asian countries do so well in the index: both Japan (58th) and South Korea (54th) rank in the bottom 10, showing negative results across nearly every factor.
At the other end of the list, Kuwait has consistently been in the bottom 3 of the Ease of Settling In Index since 2014. The country yields particularly poor results in the Feeling at Home (59th) and Friendliness (59th) Subcategories. Nearly two out of five respondents (37%) find it difficult to get used to the local culture, and 45% disagree that it is easy to settle down in Kuwait.
And for expats in Nordic Countries (Denmark (57th in the index), Sweden (53rd), Norway (51st), and Finland (50th)), finding friends seems to be particularly challenging: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway even make up the bottom 3 of this subcategory. Expats in these countries at least find it relatively easy to live there without local language skills: around three-quarters or more (74% in Norway, 77% in Denmark, 79% in Sweden) agree it’s easy to get by without speaking the local tongue, compared to just 54% of respondents worldwide.
The reverse is true for countries in the so-called D-A-CH region (Germany (55th), Austria (56th), and Switzerland (52nd)). The three countries rank in the bottom 10 of the index as well and perform poorly across all factors, including language. “The locals do not make it easy to enter their circles,” a South African living in Germany shares. “But once you are accepted, you have really great genuine friendships.”
Now, of course, every expat experience is different from the next, and how easily someone manages to form social connections abroad depends not only on where they are living. However, it is worth noting — and bears repeating — how much of a role the topic of friends and expats’ social life plays in their general satisfaction and personal happiness.
Franziska Mutsch is the Product Content Team Lead at InterNations, the world’s largest expat network with over 4 million members and 420 communities worldwide. Through InterNations, expats are empowered to quickly and easily integrate abroad through peer-to-peer support and networking opportunities at online and in-person events. Mutsch has eight years’ experience in the expat field and working with an international team. She is based in Munich, Germany.
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