Expat Retirement Works Best When Differences Understood and Appreciated

Ready to retire and want to become an expat?

 After working nearly eight months months to get a special “pensionada” visa, scouting out the correct pet carriers to bring along her dog and cat, holding umpteen garage sales and finally selling her mission-style bungalow at a small profit – to retire in Paraguay as an expat – Bess G. flew off to retirement paradise.

By the end of three months, Bess returned home.

This native Californian never was quite sure how to tell others why her move did not work out, but accepts she made mistakes. Some days wishes she could take it all back — her current dilemma is finding a new, affordable retirement solution. For the rest of her life, she will be living in a small apartment, she rationalizes.

Packing your bags, finding pet carriers, and leaving for a romantic spot in Belize, Spain, Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Ireland or elsewhere may sound quite exciting at first. After all, the notion of living the rest of one’s life near the ocean or next to snow-capped mountains with new places to visit and new people to meet, is what captured Bess’s imagination in the first place.

While there are numerous stories of individual expat success (and failure), especially on retirement blogs and magazines, there there seems to be few formal expat studies revolving around retirees.

It may help, though, to pay attention to what some corporations have learned about placing workers in new countries — turning their employees and often their families into expatriates.

One human resource manager believes that it takes a special person to make necessary adjustments, and that when business expatriates fail to adjust to a new county, they have often been selected by managers “in a knee-jerk reaction” to fill a new or unexpected vacancy on foreign soil, and failure is more typical than not.

Sharon Lobel in “Global Leadership Competencies: Managing to a Different Drumbeat” (Human Resource Management, Spring 1990) asserts that managers tend to choose the most technically competent candidates “even though the qualities that made candidates a success domestically won’t necessarily make them a success internationally.”

With Lobel’s observations in mind, it is not surprising that a high expatriate failure rate has existed for many corporations. While studies of failure rates vary, it appears that between 16 percent and 40 percent of personnel generally return early, with aborted assignments occurring as often as 70 percent of the time in developing countries, she finds.

So, if talented, educated employees cannot make it in out-of-country assignment, it is not surprising that a number of retirees trying to become expats end up returning home, most likely angry and not understanding why they could not succeed (or simply blaming their failure on the country and its “weird” citizens).

One answer to expat failure comes from the field of anthropology – ethnocentrism – a word explaining why people from one culture often have a difficult time adjusting to a new one. This word comes from the belief in the superiority of one person over another, stemming from a variety of sources.

You may have seen ethnocentrism in action, or felt it. Some expats who have a strong awareness of it say they are embarrassed when a new retiree moves into their community and begins showing signs of superiority to the local people.

 Are you certain you have “better manners” than a poor person or someone from Mexico? Do some people who speak with an “accent” have “poor” English skills? Are your children “smarter” because they had a better (more expensive) education? Is American medicine automatically “better” than what is locally practiced?… 

For anyone answering “yes” to any of these questions, this probably signals that becoming an expat might be difficult, and here is why:

Ethnocentrism usually starts with the belief of superiority in one’s personal ethnic group; it can also develop from racial or religious differences. Conscious or not, people who are ethnocentric think that they are smarter, better, even superior than others for reasons based solely on their background and heritage, a practice clearly related to problems of both racism and prejudice.

Those who have been educated to recognize problems associated with ethnocentrism, would likely find it easier to relocate and live among people who are “different,” recognizing that ethnocentrism takes place nearly everywhere and everyday on local and political levels, and that it gets in the way of really knowing and understanding people from other groups.

Unfortunately, many Americans are not very familiar with this term, or that since the beginning of this country’s conception, the United States has often thought of itself as more powerful, more economically sound, and just generally “better” than other nations. 
When traveling to other countries, unless one is very cautious, ethnocentrism often appears as “looking down” on people of other cultures or behaving in a superior way. Shouting in one’s own language, rather than taking time to learn the hosting country’s language, is only one example.

Ethnocentrism can be expressed through nonverbal signals that are automatic to the person sending them, such as standing too close or too far away from a person, waggling a finger at someone while speaking too loudly or interrupting conversation while using a know-it-all expression, or not taking into any consideration the communication mores or practices of the hosting country.

(Still questioning ethnocentrism? Consider that European ethnocentrism is still practiced today in schools where history courses typically focus on the history of the United States and Europe, largely ignoring other parts of the world.)

The person who is a successful expat typically knows that despite cultural differences, we are all still human. There is no critical difference between a Parguay citizen and a citizen of Thailand, and so forth. To survive as a stranger in a strange land – a visitor in a new land – requires education and enough personal depth to avoid unfair prejudices that result from ethnocentrism.

Dr. Ben van den Anker of Australia, a cross cultural consultant, advises “While it is tempting to daydream that all we’ll need to do is find a nice little cottage on a sunny beach somewhere and our lives will be complete, [social] research suggests that expats are happiest when they go out of their way to be part of the local community and also find an activity that they love.”

Perhaps now that Bess is back home, with time on her hands, she might consider trying again to become an expat, this time taking Dr. van den Anker’s advice for making out-of-country living successful: 

“All it takes is some understanding and appreciation of unfamiliar cultures and people who have something of worth to offer.”

If she does try becoming an expat once more, not only will Bess lower her retirement expenses, she could experience something unique that comes from moving into a new and different culture–learning to appreciate others in a new way and freedom from  the defines of ethnocentrism.
To arrange for Susan Klopfer to speak to your organization on retirement topics, contact her at