Friday, July 29, 2016

ExPat Advice Topic 1: International Communication

We are quickly approaching our one year anniversary in Denmark -- a part of me cannot believe that a year has passed by so quickly and the other part is in awe at how much we have accomplished, seen, experienced and conquered...

I want to take some time to talk about some things we've encountered as a result of our international move -- for perspective -- or perhaps to help someone else who is considering an international move for themselves. This will be the first post in this series of topics -- today's topic is International Communication.

Communication is one of those things you take for granted until you really have to think about it. In my previous job, I had to help troubleshoot long-distance and international communication a great deal -- from Wisconsin to the interior of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- a place where communication just didn't exist until fairly recently. So, I was a bit prepared, to say the least. I knew that there were plenty of options for communication -- many of which worked really well -- and many of which were FREE!

As a result, when we first moved to Denmark, it didn't feel like we were thousands of miles away from our friends and family back home. Today's technology really makes it SO EASY to stay in touch. SMS messaging, FB messenger, Skype, Facebook, Email, Snail Mail, our MagicJack phone (that still has a US number), FaceTime, etc. The list goes on and on. And, most of these options are FREE. The biggest hardship has been the time difference -- not being able to chat with friends and family until the afternoon hours really limits the amount of time you have to communicate.

I know it seems like we've transitioned well in this transfer -- and truthfully it has been mostly smooth -- but I also don't want to make it seem like it was a walk in the park (see my earlier post on doing hard things). Our communication with friends and family has suffered to some degree, in fact, most of the online literature you'll read if you google 'staying connected with international family' will tell you that you should "Realize and accept that many of your friends (and even your family) back home will not be proactive about staying in touch with you when you move overseas. Just accept that if you want to stay in contact with key family and friends you will have to initiate most of the contact and make the lion’s share of the effort to keep these relationships going." Thankfully, with today's technology and a proactive approach with some of the suggestions below -- you can keep help to keep lines of communication open to the degree that the distance won't feel so great. And since communication is obviously a two way street, please know this -- if you are a friend or family member to someone living overseas -- or living far from home -- a little bit of communication goes a LONG way. Hopefully one or more of the suggestions below will resonate with you:

1) CHECK INs: There are so many ways to check-in with a friend that don't cost money and don't take a lot of time or effort. If you're on FB -- write on their timeline or send them a message. [Comments and likes are so impersonal and often times overlooked -- people have started liking their own posts for crying out loud (talk about narcissistic LOL)]. Send a short text message letting your friend know you are thinking about them. Write a personal email. Set up a Skype or FaceTime 'date'. Message them over FB Messenger -- you can even phone/video chat through FB messenger. Against technology? Write a letter (e.g. mail to Denmark from the US is fairly inexpensive -- the cost of a US International Forever Stamp). Pick up the phone and call.

2) MAKE THE CONVERSATIONS SHORT AND REAL-TIME: People often think that catching up over long distances needs to happen in one long sitting; this isn’t true. Short, regular bursts of interaction are often more effective and are easier to fit in your day-to-day life. I have personally found text messaging or SnapChat to be particularly useful in this respect (see also messaging apps below).

3) SELFIES: One of the best ways to lift your spirits on a bad day is to see the face of someone close to you. Distance doesn’t have to change this. Send pictures of yourself to each other. Perhaps you overslept this morning and you’re looking groggy and tired – take a picture of yourself just like that. It will add a level of honesty to your relationships. If you have children, get them to make funny faces and send to loved ones. One of my favorite past-times has been to make silly videos of myself singing popular songs in a chipmunk voice. HAHA, yes I just admitted that. And if someone makes fun of you for your selfies -- just ignore them (yes there are actually people rude enough to do this to your face).

4) INDIRECT TIME TOGETHER: Just because you aren't close in proximity doesn't mean you can't keep doing the things you like together! When I first moved here, I missed my running partner something fierce! It was so hard to stay motivated to run, and I really missed having her with me! We thought up a unique situation to keep ourselves accountable -- we ran a half marathon 'together' at the same time but across the ocean from each other! You could also schedule a time every month to watch the same movie, at the same time, in each of your individual homes. You don’t necessarily have to be in contact while watching the movie, but it will create the feeling of doing something together. Just like at home, you’re not always in the mood to keep a conversation going. Sometimes just doing something together silently is comforting too.

5) MESSAGING APPS: SnapChat, instant messengers like Whatsapp, iMessage, FaceTime, Skype, etc are paramount to your relationship. They enable you to send messages across borders for free and you can add pictures and voice notes when you don’t have the time or the patience to write. It’s easy to send a quick message asking how their day was or what they’re cooking for dinner. Skype is your second best friend, but your Skype conversations don’t always have to be boring. Pour yourselves a glass of wine on each end and play a game on a Friday night instead of going out.

6) KEEP YOUR DATES: If you have a date to phone each other, try your hardest not to cancel. Time differences and schedules will make it difficult for you to find a different time to catch up. Make this date just as important as a meeting with your boss would be.

7) BIRTHDAYS: I have friends who celebrate their birthday for an entire week or an entire month -- so it's no secret that birthdays are special and important days - ESPECIALLY FOR CHILDREN. Most young kids don't have a FB account but mom or dad likely does. Birthday wishes on FB have got to be one of the EASIEST ways to let someone know you are thinking about them. If it's too difficult to manage a phone call with the time difference or to mail a birthday card (FYI: International Forever stamps are not that expensive and are an easy way to send mail overseas from the US), send a message via FB, Skype, email or even text message! It might be hard to imagine, but birthdays can feel very lonely without your close friends and family around to celebrate with you -- this past year everyone in our family has experienced their 'first' birthday overseas. A big thank you to everyone who made a little extra effort towards our family during our first year here -- it was not overlooked, in fact it was cherished and greatly appreciated.

Small, regular habits can make all the difference, especially when life gets so busy that you can’t find time to fit in a decent conversation. Send a text the moment you wake up in the morning, or just before you go to bed at night. It only takes 10 seconds and it will keep the channel of communication open between you constantly.

Above all, remember that for a friend living overseas far from friends and family any little bit of effort counts -- and it IS recognized. There is never a 'too little' amount.

I hope these suggestions were helpful for perspective or for advice if you are making an international move soon. I can say without any hesitation that moving abroad has been a dream come true, but the one thing that has been really hard to deal with is not having friends and family close by. Obviously you can't really change that proximity thing, but with the right amount of effort from both parties, you can certainly make the distance gap feel A LOT smaller.

If this post was helpful for you and you would like to see any other topics/subjects on international living discussed, please feel free to leave that in the comments!

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