Page 38 - Foreign Service Journal - December 2012

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of the Foreign Service, who
move to a new post every
couple of years—is all about
transitions. It is useful to
map their terrain to know
what to expect.
The Expat Lifecycle
Phase 1: Preparation.
Tis is in some ways the most cru-
cial stage of the cycle. It begins with bidding for posts, which
usually happens six months to a year prior to the move. It
is essential for Foreign Service members to gather as much
information as possible about the posting, through both formal
and informal networks. Te waiting period between bidding for
posts and receiving notifcation of acceptance can be a time of
stress, as well as anticipation.
Phase 2: Disengagement.
Once the individual has been
chosen for and accepts a posting, another phase begins: dis-
engagement. Te typical FS employee has a large portfolio and
is emotionally invested in his or her work. Because they will
probably be at their old post for another six to nine months, it
is important for outgoing FSOs to start disengaging emotionally
and preparing to hand the work over to the next person. Yet if
disengagement occurs too abruptly, the quality of work may
sufer. Tis is a challenge that benefts from being discussed
For expatriate spouses, there may be the added issue of
leaving a job or career. Usually it is the employee who is given
most of the information by the State Department. Te HSBC
2011 Expat Explorer International Study found that there is a
direct correlation between how much information is accurately
given to the spouse and the incidence of spousal depres-
sion—which, in turn, is directly correlated with how long the
employee stays in the job.
Phase 3: Te Honeymoon.
During the frst few weeks in a
new country, it’s like being a tourist who explores new sights
and sounds and is excited by the newness. Te same euphoria
can happen at the workplace, as well. New responsibilities and
surroundings feel exciting and full of promise, and the FSO can
feel like everything and anything is possible professionally.
Phase 4: Culture Shock.
Once it hits home that the indi-
vidual is not a tourist, but is living and working in the country,
the next phase sets in. Tis generally happens after the frst few
weeks and can last anywhere from six months to a year.
Instead of everything looking new and exciting, the rose-
colored glasses come of and the environment can be expe-
rienced as inhospitable,
particularly in developing
countries. Even at work, all
the newness can be over-
whelming. If the employee
has been recently pro-
moted, there is the added
stress of more responsibility at a time when there is already a
huge learning curve on all fronts.
Expat spouses may experience an overwhelming feeling of
isolation during this phase, which underscores the importance
of building support networks in the new environment as soon
as possible. It is a time when the working spouse and children
need a lot of support and the non-working spouse may feel
discouraged. Spouses may feel a lack of identity, particularly if
they were working in their home country or at their previous
During this period, keeping in touch with close friends and
family via Skype is very helpful. If the feelings persist, it can be
helpful to talk with the embassy psychiatrist, or a professional
counselor outside the embassy.
Phase 5: Adaptation.
Finally, after about a year, most For-
eign Service employees and their spouses fnd that the highs
and lows of adjusting to a new culture have evened out, and
they feel more at peace. Tey have learned how to maneuver
around their new environment and have made some friends,
and their children are usually adjusted to their new school.
Tis phase can also be a time for the nonworking spouse
to reinvent him or herself by fnding something that creates
passion and pursuing it—whether it is taking a class, learning a
new skill or simply preparing for an inspiring new career.
Tis time is often experienced as “coasting,” after having
put a lot of energy into getting the rocket launched. Tis is the
time to reap the benefts of the last year and enjoy—at least for
another year or two, when the process begins all over again!
The 4S System
Preparing for and negotiating these phases again and again
requires emotional intelligence and resilience, and this is
where the 4S System can help FS families.
It is important to realistically assess the situ-
ation at the new post. Te frst consideration is how much
input you’ve had in the decision to be there. If FS members get
the frst or second choice on their bid list, they will be more
motivated to make the posting work. Hopefully, the bid list was
developed on the basis of thorough research, and refects the
Preparing for these
phases requires emotional
intelligence and resilience.