Three Personality Traits that Make a Successful Expat

You’ve been thinking about it for a while. You’ve been googling jobs abroad, exploring ESL teaching opportunities, researching backpacks, pricing flights and dreaming of booking them. You think you might be ready, finally ready, to take the leap and embark on a new life abroad.

But traveling the world isn’t all glitz and glamour. If you’ve got these three personality traits, you might have the best shot at enjoying a live-abroad adventure that can be simultaneously fun, frustrating, exciting and exhausting.

1. You’re flexible

Flexibility in this case doesn’t have a thing to do with your ability to touch your toes or hold a tree pose. Rather, traversing the globe – especially on a budget – requires one to be a bit unflappable and adaptable. Being a type-A, driven personality is great when to comes to making the expat leap, but having a go-with-the-flow attitude certainly helps with the stresses that accompany such a decision.

Your cargo might not make it to the airport with you. The room-and-board you signed up for might more closely resemble tent-and-scraps. And “free internet” at that promising hostel could actually be one shared, aging PC in the lobby. If you can take it all in stride sans meltdown, that’s a good sign.

2. You’re outgoing

It’s easy to be the life of the party on familiar turf. You know the language, the customs and the players. But shedding shyness in a totally new place? That’s another story.

A touch of, for lack of a better term, ballsiness goes a long way. It takes confidence to walk up to that stranger on the corner and ask her if you’re indeed headed the right way to the ferry, or to pop into a sheet-covered food shack and ask what they’re whipping up for dinner. It also helps to have a thick skin in case you accidentally break a cultural taboo; as a foreigner, you’ll surely make a misstep or two, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Be confident that the experiences of trying new things in new places are worth the occasional awkward or shameful moments.

3. You have a positive attitude

Here in West Africa, we expats can find plenty to complain about. The horrible driving, the dirty streets, the rampant litter…a bit of whining can be somewhat cathartic. Let the moaning and groaning rule your life, though, and you’ll quickly become one sour foreign grape.

Keep reminders of why you chose this adventure at the forefront of your mind: you get to see places in the world few experience, you can pop your ethnocentric cultural bubble and do something truly different with your life. Find the good in the bad. The streets are indeed dirty, but perhaps they’re also relatively safe with little crime. You might have language trouble, but you also might be surrounded by some of the world’s friendliest people, who are always willing to help you get by. If you’re adept at making lemons from lemonade and plastering a smile on your face wherever you go, you just might be a successful expat in the making.

Rachael Cullins is an American freelance writer living in Dakar, Senegal, with her husband, two dogs and a sense of adventure. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and is working toward a master’s degree in professional writing. Rachael and her family will live in Dakar until summer of 2013, when they will move to a different, yet-to-be-determined city abroad. She blogs about her expatriate experiences at www.girlguyglobe.com.

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  1. Agree with these wholeheartedly, especially the last one! There’s nothing worse than travelling with someone with a negative attitute.

  2. As an expat in Seoul, South Korea, I can definitely agree wholeheartedly! These three things – and some other traits as well – definitely help people adjust and enjoy life in a foreign country.

    At the risk of self-promotion, I put together a quiz awhile together for people wanting to teach ESL in Korea. 10 questions, takes 5 minutes, just another blog post – http://www.chrisinsouthkorea.com/2010/10/should-you-teach-english-in-korea-a-10-question-quiz-to-help-you-find-out/

  3. So true – I think flexibility is key! And a positive attitude makes all the difference, cheesy as it sounds 🙂 My mate Will has gone off to Spain for a year to teach English and he’s finding it so tough: lack of friends, homesickness, trying to find vegetarian food (he didn’t pick a great country for the latter). He’s really working through it though, is fab.

  4. All very true. When I first went away it was your second point that I had the hardest challenge adapting with as I was always fairly shy growing up. I had to learn that if I was to enjoy my time away I had to get out of my shell and internal monologue and just get involved. I’m used to it now but at first it was a challenge.

    How’s Colombia?

  5. These are great traits to have. I’m an American expat living in Saudi Arabia. I’m outgoing, and mostly have a positive attitude. I’m not too flexible, but Saudi Arabia has a way of making you flexible. LOL. Great article.

  6. We read this article and though, wait that’s not us! (lol!) No, we are super outgoing but sometimes living abroad has its setbacks and I have my down days when I am not positive and don’t want to be flexible (no a/c? wtf? It’s hot!). Another thing you absolutely have to have as an expat is tons of patience. Especially for us now living in Chiang Mai not knowing Thai- communication is- well sometimes most of what we say is lost in translation. But, we try. And we are patient. And on the days I don’t feel too positive, I look for inspiration from fellow bloggers and the next day everything that seemed horrible suddenly seems alright again.

  7. John Mayson says:

    I’m now in my 40’s. I’ve never had an expat, but I have spent extended periods of time out of the country. All three of these are very important.

    #1. I usually tell people if you set your expectations low enough they’ll always be met. But flexible works too. Nothing will go as planned.

    #2. I am an extremely introverted engineer. But when I’m abroad I do my best to fit in. I think it’s a desire not to stick out like a sore thumb. People are floored when they learn that I’m not only an American, I’m a Texan. I just don’t “act” like either.

    #3. Who can not be positive? I’m in a completely new environment learning something every second of the day!

  8. I didn’t think to call myself an expat when I was living in Tel Aviv last year. But now that I’m living in Berlin, I guess “expat” most aptly describes what I’m doing here – and I wholeheartedly agree with these tips!

  9. Flexible laid back with a bit of ballsiness is a great description of what it takes to cut it as an expat. My top tips are go for the right reasons with an open heart and don’t pack any stereotypes or preconceived ideas about your new home.

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