Creating a new home in a foreign country can be both exhilarating and intimidating. While the practical aspects of settling in can be challenging, the real test is often psychological - the ability to establish a sense of belonging and connection with the larger community.
According to HSBC's research, many people struggle with emotional barriers when moving abroad, with feelings of isolation being a significant obstacle to a successful transition.
However, with some helpful strategies, the process of creating a new home in a new country can become much smoother. Moreover, once a sense of belonging is established, it can be a powerful motivation to stay and build a life in the host country.
“A sense of belonging is vital for our well-being, health, productivity, and to thrive in general. Yet, for anyone transitioning to a new environment abroad, achieving it can be fraught with ups and downs. You may feel like an outsider at times - a stranger in a strange land.
"Most people spend years in a community before they establish a sense of belonging; and it takes time to build relationships. But fortunately, there are several simple, concrete steps you can take to accelerate the process,” says Stanford University professor, Geoffrey L Cohen, author of 'Belonging – The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides', who has provided HSBC with his expertise on how to find a sense of belonging when moving abroad.
A social psychologist by training and Professor of Psychology and the James G. March Professor of Organisational Studies in Education and Business at Stanford, Cohen’s research examines the processes that shape people’s sense of belonging and self-concept, and the role that these processes play in various social problems.
His guidance is part of HSBC’s new campaign to launch the Unforeign Exchange - a digital community designed to help people settle in more quickly when relocating overseas.
Here are the top 10 tips from Professor Cohen to help individuals find a sense of belonging when relocating internationally.
- Politeness goes a long way: Learn as much as you can of the local customs – from the local social etiquette, how to say “hello” “please” and “thank you”, to the cultural nuances and local traditions.
- Start practical planning early – just one small step every day: Start the set-up process early – from bank accounts to selecting a school for your children. There are many resources to help you in the process, such as online groups, your employer, and financial services provider.
- Talk to people who’ve been there: When entering a new culture, talk to people who have gone through the process already, ideally in the same location where you plan to go. You’ll invariably learn a lot from listening to their stories.
- Discover the power of the local community. Finding people who love what you love can bring a sense of belonging. United by common interests and shared bonds, the local community can offer a foothold in an unfamiliar country. Ask neighbours, browse local papers and public notice boards, as well as online forums and digital apps, such as Meetup.
- Understand that ‘belonging’ takes time. No matter where you go, you’re likely to feel uprooted. Remember, this is normal. Only 27 per cent of international citizens in HSBC’s study said they felt settled instantly when they first relocated. Give yourself time. HSBC’s study found it can take an average of eight months to feel settled.
- Be brave and get out there! To feel part of a place, get involved in social and cultural activities, or sports and business events. Fleeting moments of connection - striking up a conversation with your neighbour or a stranger when asking for directions or with a barista in a coffee shop - benefit our wellbeing and belonging.
- Cultivate a dual social support network. Aim to build new connections (colleagues at work, neighbours, and local community groups), whilst maintaining connections with friends and family back home, even if it’s just a quick phone call or email check-in for a chit-chat.
- Talk to someone. Being abroad can feel isolating and challenging. If you are struggling – and can’t easily reach your family or friends at home, perhaps due to time zone differences - don’t hesitate to reach out to a colleague, community group or professional service. Chatting it through sooner rather than later can prevent worries from escalating.
- Tend to your unique situation. Everyone has a unique situation, with a distinct mix of opportunities. Cultivate your support network with regular check-ins with someone you trust. Be aware that others’ well-being and sense of belonging will affect yours, and yours will affect theirs.
- Keep a journal. Jotting down your thoughts and feelings about your days is a great strategy to help you cope with stress or anxiety, and to gain control of your emotions. Consciously reminding yourself of your core values and giving thanks for good things in your life can improve well-being. A journal can be helpful - at the end of each day, try writing down at least one thing that you’re grateful for and why, or one way in which you lived out your values.