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The digital nomad: why working abroad isn’t all tapas and romance

The image of the digital nomad is a romantic one: a wanderer, unfettered by material junk, moving fluidly through a rainbow of cultures, staring at landscapes from train windows, making friends around the world, festooning their arms with rope bracelets, generally living as a free spirit. A lot of people want this lifestyle. Study abroad programs are growing at record numbers. Digital nomads are considered the next big thing for travel destinations. And there have always been those who took jobs in hopes of snagging overseas assignments in their companies—opening or working from a new global office or running a foreign contact center, for example.

One group who wants travel to be a huge part of their working lives is Millennials, a third of whom say they would take a pay cut if their employers would give them the chance to travel. Even companies that never had overseas work before are beginning to create work/travel opportunities for candidates who want to be digital nomads. This is a good thing. As Mark Twain said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views… cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness..."

- Mark Twain

Working and living abroad can expand your mind, build friendships around the world, and offer extraordinary experiences. But… it’s not all tapas and hostel parties.

There’s another side of working and living abroad that people don’t often share—maybe because they fear it will tarnish the romantic ideal. This other side includes feeling like you don’t fit in, having everyone around you be a stranger or a "new" friend—the kind who might ghost you without you ever knowing why. It’s not knowing who to call when you’re sick or hurt, worrying that you’ve taken the wrong train but not being able to do anything about it, and many other stressors that people tuck behind their "Me at the beach!" selfies.

The digital nomad phenomenon reminds me of the startup phenomenon, where there’s so much hype around how cool and courageous it is to start a business or live a nomadic lifestyle that when people do feel discouraged or depressed, they figure that they’re failures, they’re doing it wrong, or don’t have what it takes. Feeling that way thousands of miles away from your support network is even harder.

But, as Henry David Thoreau said, "Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves."

So the point isn’t to stay home; it’s just to know that the exotic experiences on a glorious overseas adventure may include days of loneliness, etiquette faux pas, or grumpy old ladies who pretend not to understand what you’re saying, even though you know they do.

Mind the gaps

Andrew Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior in the Brandeis International Business School, and Director of the Perlmutter Institute for Global Business Leadership. He specializes in cultural and personal adaptation, and has written two books and dozens of articles on the topic for Harvard Business Review, Inc., Forbes, and others. His latest book, Reach, encourages people to push themselves out of their comfort zones—and his previous book, Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process, contains some strategies for doing so. It helps identify and bridge gaps between your own cultural code and that of the country you’re in. It’s those gaps, Molinsky said, that can cause a lot of the discomfort. Too much discomfort can counter the positive effects of travel.

"We’re all creatures of habit in our behavior patterns, ways of thinking, ways of making sense of the world," he said. "It can be an ‘Aha!’ experience to realize: These people are getting along just fine, but in a very different way than I do. It offers possibilities for self, for creativity, for solving problems, for imagining future potential products and services….but there’s a yin and a yang. With that potential for creativity and expansion, if the experience itself is unnerving and anxiety provoking, if you wind up feeling incompetent or resentful, that tends to narrow your perspective."

"We’re all creatures of habit in our behavior patterns, ways of thinking, ways of making sense of the world,"

- Andrew Molinsky

Sometimes the discomfort stems from the way people work—how hierarchies function or what constitutes a good employee. Other times, it’s just your way of being with other people.

For example, Americans are often viewed around the world as cartoonishly optimistic, as I was once informed by a bemused Bosnian reporter. Americans also tend to be less formal and more enthusiastic (especially if, like me, you are injected with Texan friendly). And we’re far more self-promoting than people in most other countries. If you’re used to working in a place where people liberally hand out high-fives and call you a rock star, you’re probably going to be freaked out if your Norwegian boss responds to your best efforts with, "OK." "Okay" might be Norwegian for, "Awesome job!" but you’re still likely to wrestle with it internally. This is what Molinsky means by a cultural gap. When you’re off your home turf, these gaps can cause you to always feel uncomfortable, like you’re doing it wrong.

Many of his foreign students, Molinsky said, feel that discomfort when they come to the U.S., especially those from countries where speaking up and defending yourself in a group is considered rude. He quoted one student as saying she knew class participation was part of her grade, but when she tried to speak up in class "…deep inside I felt like I was doing something very wrong. I was trembling, sweating. I just couldn’t look at the professor or my classmates in the eyes. I felt guilty."

But when you do that by changing your behavior to fit the culture, you can wind up feeling inauthentic, incompetent to operate according to the culture, or resentful, Molinsky said.

You also run the risk of "over switching"—if, for example, that timid student overcame her fear by yelling that the professor was stupid. When you’re learning a whole new system, you can miss a lot of nuances.

When it comes to adapting to a foreign culture Molinsky said, most people he knows fall into two camps: "One camp is the ‘When in Rome,’ act like the Romans camp where you have to accommodate your behavior to be effective," he said. "The other camp would be the ‘Be yourself’ camp. These people say, ‘The most important is just to be yourself…and you’ll be fine.’"

He prefers a fusion of the two.

"It’s about putting a bit of yourself into your new behavior," he said, "finding a way to do it your way, or on your own terms. It might be about your body language, something you wear, the timing you use, just anything to put your own spin on it. That gives you a little foothold."

By blending yourself into the culture, you’re likely to make more genuine connections. If you don’t, you could wind up not only lonely for home, but lonely for your real self.

By blending yourself into the culture, you’re likely to make more genuine connections.

Loners are lonely

When you have an overseas assignment with a company, you may automatically be given a "tribe" of other employees at that location. But when you’re a remote worker or a digital nomad, relationship-building is all on you.

Alyssa Pinsker, Girl Gone Global, is a full-time professional traveler. She’s a travel writer, teacher, and student who has lived in Japan, Switzerland, France, and India, taught in Kiev, and visited 40 countries.

And she was driven to find a homebase at one point after being on the road too long because of frequent short international work trips that led to loneliness and depression.

"I always have a purpose when I travel: a group which I join…" she said. "For me it was a yoga teacher training, teaching abroad, any intensive long-term workshop abroad. That support system keeps me sane and recreates what the Peace Corps and JET Programme do: create strong communities. And they also happen to have emergency medical and mental health resources available…hotlines to call in cases of isolation, because, like the Peace Corps, JET had instances of suicides. Isolation is what hurts the most. As a digital nomad you will make instant friends, because you have so much in common, and then they will leave…it's a transient lifestyle."

She’s definitely not the only one to point this out. "Loneliness is no joke," wrote blogger Sam Woolfe. "It’s a risk factor for depression and poses a greater public health risk than obesity.

To build a more stable existence, many digital nomads recommend staying in one place for a longer period of time. Writer and healthcare expert Jaclyn Schiff said her minimum is two months.

"I've met nomads who sometimes changed locations weekly, but I need some level of routine to do my best work," she said. "Two months was usually enough time to explore, find my favorite local spots and places to work while still feeling like it was all quite novel."

Pinsker says many programs for serial expats recommend people stay in an area for three years, but she finds traveling becomes a lot more stable when she stays from three months to a year.

"It’s hard to keep friends, let alone a relationship without routine, structure and scheduling…," she said. "Travel writers and digital nomads can make it work in a healthy way. They move and work abroad for at least one year and preferably three…. They make a comfy home base, with other expats, often in an affordable country like Indonesia or Mexico…. They move with their families, partners and friends…. But, for me, traveling too frequently, i.e., less than two weeks at a time and living in other people’s homes or hotel rooms was not good for my mental health, or my soul…. Not having your own space, especially at my age (late 30s), is very bad for your health. Doctors say stability is the key to health…."

"It’s hard to keep friends, let alone a relationship without routine, structure and scheduling."

- Alyssa Pinsker

And, she said, you also have to prepare for coming home.

"Repatriation is also very hard. Real life skills for paying rent and making money are not learned in cave retreats in India. But there are more and more people like me living ‘off the grid’ in America as well, we just need to co-work and get together to avoid isolation."

One solution is building tribes among digital nomads. Pinsker noted that Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek (who inspired a lot of the digital nomad movement) has settled down in Austin, Texas. She, too, is thinking of settling down "to actually build relationships and not just accumulate experiences."

Does that mean her traveling days are done? Not even close.

"I love living abroad!" she said. "I love different languages and cultures, and as an immigrant I always see the best in the country, I just have an insatiable desire to see more so I usually get packing after a year. But I would like to settle abroad one day, or have a partner that wants to live abroad three months to three years at a time. And I will never stop traveling."