Breaking out of the expat bubble

“…Chinese students stick together with Chinese, Thai students with Thais…. when they go to the campus, they are together. I hardly see culturally mixed groups of people.” 1

The happy expat needs friends’ to truly thrive in the new country – but many stay within the ‘expat bubble’, where one only meets other expats or international students. It is important that one breaks out of this expat bubble and connects with locals. Such contact has many advantages but is not always easy to establish.

From Austria and the Netherlands to Japan and South Korea

Expats generally find it difficult to make friends with locals in most Northern/Western European countries as well as countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and South-Korea2. Denmark has consistently been found at the bottom of the list (read here what it is about Danish culture that makes it more difficult to connect with Danes). Certain nationalities also seem to have an easier time connecting with locals and building a new social network abroad. Austrian, British and U.S. American expats seem to more easily build a personal support network in their new host country than Spanish, French, Italian and Russian expats do3. They also have a larger share of local friends in their networks. Another study shows that Chinese expats face difficulties connecting with locals in Australia and Europe4. It is clear that many expats face the challenge of breaking out of the expat bubble.

“I have very few close Dutch friends in the Netherlands. Most of the friends I’ve made here are foreigners. It’s difficult to break into any foreign society I think, difficult to get past the point of just being an acquaintance rather than a friend.” English expat in my PhD research5

Why break out of the expat bubble?

While other expats can offer a lot of good support, especially when arriving in a new host country, it works counterproductively if, over time, one’s close contacts are still from the same nationality6. Contact with locals can be very helpful because they can offer social support to deal with the stress of moving abroad as well as be a source of information about the host country.

Research has shown such contact to have positive effects for expats with regard to culture learning, adjustment, competence development and performance7. Many expats and internationals also feel isolated and would like to connect more with locals8. Staying within the expat bubble and having no connections with the local population negatively impacts the expat’s satisfaction with their stay9.

Curious to hear more?

I’ll be blogging regularly in the next few months about making intercultural connections and friends both inside and outside of the workplace, so keep an eye on my blog or follow me on LinkedIn. You can also check out my recent book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble: How to Make Intercultural Connections and Friends, where I gathered all of my own and other relevant research on this important topic!


1 Kudo, K., & Simkin, K. A. (2003). Intercultural friendship formation: The case of Japanese students at an Australian university. Journal of Intercultural Studies, 24(2), 91-114.  

2 The global expat network InterNations conducts the annual ExpatInsider survey among about 12,000 expats worldwide about all kinds of aspects of their expat life, and one of them is the ease of settling in and finding friends.

3 InterNations (2018). ExpatInsider 2018. The World Through Expat Eyes.  

4 Wang, D., Fan, D., Freeman, S. and Zhu, C.J. (2017). Exploring cross-cultural skills for expatriate managers from Chinese multinationals: congruence and contextualization, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 34(1), pp. 123-146.

5 Van Bakel, M. (2012). In Touch with the Dutch. A longitudinal study of the impact of a local host on the success of the expatriate assignment. PhD thesis, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

6 Geeraert, N., Demoulin, S., & Demes, K. (2014). Choose your (international) contacts wisely: A multilevel analysis on the impact of intergroup contact while living abroad. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 38, 86-96.  

7 For more details see: van Bakel, M. (2019). It takes two to tango: a review of the empirical research on expatriate-local interactions. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 30(21), 2993-3025.  

8 Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, R. K. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 281-295.

9 Podsiadlowski, A., Vauclair, C.-M., Spiess, E., & Stroppa, C. (2013). Social support on international assignments: The relevance of socioemotional support from locals. International Journal of Psychology, 48(4), 563-573.