Parallel lives It's a problem international residents know well

Issue: 3/2015
You arrive in Switzerland, full of enthusiasm to integrate into the new culture. But a couple of years on you're still hanging out with expats. It's the so-called "parallel society."

Many expats spend their lives in a "parallel society" either with English speakers, or within a network speaking their mother tongue, according to a recent study in the Basel region by ECOS*. The study claimed this leads to unhappiness, not only among expats who feel like outsiders, but also among the Swiss who expect more inclusion from expats.

So, why do we settle in to this parallel society? Of course the language barrier hinders our contact with locals, but there is also the context into which we arrive. First, there is a lack of locals in our immediate surroundings due to isolated working environments, plus many expat children attend non-local schools. Secondly, a very strong and well organized expat community is instantly supportive and warmly welcoming upon our arrival.

Before we know it, we have fallen into the comfort zone, benefitting from the sense of inclusion and wellbeing that this community provides. Soon we lose the urge to learn the local language, rationalizing that we will probably move to another country at some point anyway. In fact, one of the surprising findings of the study was that almost 60 percent of expats end up staying much longer as expected, and many even settle in Switzerland.

Yet what attracts us to global living in the first place is the exchange and interaction with the new culture – underlined by worldwide scientific research which shows that expats' happiness and wellbeing are directly linked to integration.

So should we give up our expat friends in order to feel happy in Switzerland?

Thankfully no. Intercultural psychologists insist that people integrate best when they participate in the local community whilst maintaining contact with the members of our own culture. Interestingly, this is the technical definition of integration.

Indeed, expats who integrate in this way report higher levels of wellbeing and adaptation. In contrast, expats who either ‘stick to their own' in their parallel societies, or settle mainly with the local society, tend to adapt more slowly, the former group's experience being less positive than the latter.

If experts and happy expats are right, we will have more satisfying years abroad with a few conscious steps to participating in our local Swiss community. Do this and you'll find your expat life just got a whole lot fuller.

Photo: © DollarPhotoClub/Nenetus

*The study "Potential and challenges of expat integration in the Basel region" was undertaken with the support of Roche, Novartis, Christof Merian Foundation and the Canton of Basel and can be found here.


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