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How expats think they’re viewed by locals

We asked 500 expats what they believe the locals think of them. The results reveal the good and bad perceptions from seven popular destinations.

Living in another country can be a challenge. There’s so much to think about and adapt to, from sorting out accommodation and learning the language to workplace etiquette and public transport.

And even once we’ve settled into our new lives, we can’t always affect how the local population see us. Dozens of national stereotypes exist (some closer to reality than others, though all are generalisations) and we may feel ‘tarred with the same brush’ as that stereotype, even if we don’t feel we’re representative of it.

For example: the UK’s Guardian newspaper asked European nations for their views on each other and found that:

  • Europeans think Brits are “drunken semi-clad hooligans or else snobbish, stiff free-marketeers” while the Brits in the survey pushed back, pointing out the contradiction
  • Europeans think the Germans are “uber-efficient, diligent and disciplined” to which the Germans said, “Yes, that is correct”.

Russia Beyond explores how Russians have a ‘bad reputation’ in foreign countries, adding that they don’t have a very favourable view of themselves. One survey found that 42% of Russians consider their own countrymen to be “the most ill-behaved” while travelling.

Studies on how expats from various nations are viewed by the locals of their host country are harder to come by. But while studies are rare, individuals blog and explain their own views and experiences. For example, one expatriate living in Hong Kong says that expats, “especially Caucasians”, are viewed as “somehow superior to the locals”. One French blogger living in Switzerland said to expats: “you’ll always be interesting for the locals… they’ll be keen to hear about your home and your travels.”

As evidenced here, care must be taken when discussing ideas of national identity, as racism and xenophobia can lurk in inaccurate stereotypes and careless generalisations. To highlight our prejudices, graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov created stereotype maps, including one based on how Americans view the world as well as one on how the French view Europe.

How expats feel when living in another country is important to the success of their relocation – and how expats are perceived or welcomed by nationals plays a role in how they feel. For example, we asked 500 expats for words they associated with living abroad:

  • 60% said ‘safe’
  • 46% said ‘welcome’
  • 37% said ‘isolated’

While how an expat feels may not everyone’s reality, it is the reality for that individual.

We also asked the 500 expats what they believe the locals think of them, and here’s what they said:

How Locals Perceive Expats - Chart 1 How Locals Perceive Expats - Chart 1


It is interesting if not confusing to see ‘rude’ so near ‘friendly’, ‘helpful’ near ‘burden’. But, as is proven by the contradicting stereotypes of Brits, people (in their masses, at least) are happy with cognitive dissonance. Does this duality just show that people — whether consciously or unconsciously — acknowledge that nations can have multiple personalities? For example, British people can encounter what they see as a contradiction: that they are both reserved and polite, and rowdy and drunken.

Humans can be complicated, inconsistent and fickle, so what appears to be a contradiction, simply reflects the complex set of views people have.

And, of course, our survey asked expats what they believe the locals think of them. We didn’t ask the locals what they actually think of them. As such, this survey captures perceived views, not real views.

An added complexity is that of cultural subjectivity. What is considered rude in one country, may not be in another. A lack of cultural knowledge and integration may lead ‘polite’ expats to be treated as if they’re ‘rude’, which then becomes the locals’ general opinion. For example a ‘reserved Brit’ may find a “straight-talking Israeli” ‘rude’, while the British themselves are seen as ‘rude’ by many foreign visitors. Conversely excessive politeness and apology also make up the British stereotype, it all depends on who you ask.

National trends

When we slice the data by expats living in a given country, we see certain interesting trends. While most nations broadly followed the spread above, some showed exceptions.

Expats in the U.S.

  • Higher than the average

o   38% of expats think locals see them as ‘a burden’
o   20% of expats think locals see them as ‘inferior’

  • Lower than average

o   Only 14% of expats think locals see them as ‘important’ (18% ‘vital’)
o   Only 4% of expats think locals see them as ‘dominating’ (5% ‘superior’)

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - USA How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - USA


Expats in Singapore

  • Higher than the average

o   45% of expats think locals see them as ‘important’ (38% ‘vital’)
o   20% of expats think locals see them as ‘hostile’ (32% ‘insular’)

  • Lower than the average

o   Only 4% of expats think locals see them as ‘a burden’

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Singapore How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Singapore


Expats in India

  • Higher than the average

o   38% of expats think locals see them as ‘fun’
o   41% of expats think locals see them as ‘insensitive’
o   33% of expats think locals see them as ‘rich’
o   35% of expats think locals see them as ‘superior’

  • Lower than the average

o   Only 13% of expats think locals see them as ‘vital’
o   Inferior, destructive, hostile, insular (9-10%)

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - India How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - India


Expats in the UK

  • Higher than the average

o   32% of expats think locals see them as ‘a burden’

  • Lower than the average

o   Only 22% of expats think locals see them as ‘important’ (only 26% ‘vital’)
o   Fun, rich, dominating, superior, destructive (7-11%)

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - UK How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - UK


Expats in Dubai

  • Higher than the average

o   65% of expats think locals see them as ‘important’
o   69% of expats think locals see them as ‘vital’
o   39% of expats think locals see them as ‘dominating’

  • Lower than the average

o   Fun, rich, burden, superior (8-11%)

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Dubai How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Dubai


Expats in China

  • Higher than the average

o   35% of expats think locals see them as ‘rude’
o   22% of expats think locals see them as ‘insular’

  • Lower than the average

o   Only 14% of expats think locals see them as ‘vital’

How Locals Perceive Expats Chart Graphic - China How Locals Perceive Expats Chart Graphic - China


Expats in Thailand

  • Higher than the average

o   35% of expats think locals see them as ‘insensitive’
o   28% of expats think locals see them as ‘destructive’
o   22% of expats think locals see them as ‘superior’

  • Lower than the average

o   18% of expats think locals see them as ‘vital’
o   10% of expats think locals see them as ‘rich’
o   Only 7% of expats think locals see them as ‘friendly’

How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Thailand How Locals Perceive Expats Graphic - Thailand


More questions

Revealing as these statistics are, they prompt more questions: What patterns amongst expat communities in certain countries are behind these figures, and what are the demographic differences between locals and expats. For example, how do differences of rich and poor make locals and expats feel about each other? What role do pride and guilt play in what people think locals think of them? How do social norms, manners and mores impact views of expats?

Our survey shows that expats in India think locals see them as fun but also insensitive, rich and superior. Is this because 26% of expats in India are British (11%) and American (17%) at management level and the average income in the UK and US are 2437% and 3304% higher than India’s? Is the fact that expats in India don’t think locals see them as ‘destructive’ or ‘hostile’ because the average expat in India is a married woman who works in education and plays an integral role or is has worked harder to integrate into the community (65% female, 78% married, 14% in education).

Compare this to Dubai where the average expat is a 41-year-old Indian male who moved to find work where they think the locals see them as ‘vital’ but not a burden, rich or superior. This may surprise British readers, many of whom hold the assumption that Dubai is full of British expats who work in finance — in part due to the media reporting and anecdotes from British expats who call their enclaves ‘Little Britain’.

Tying these two paragraphs together with data, can deepen and clarify our understanding of the breadth of the expat experience.

Impact of perception

How we are perceived (what we think people think of us) is important because it can profoundly affect our ability to integrate into a new culture and, therefore, our long-term happiness.

One expat survey found that while Thailand offers the 12th best overall expat experience, boasting second place for ‘setting up’ in the same study (accommodation etc.), ‘integration with its people’ was far lower at 33rd. This tallies with our own survey data: expats in Thailand thought the locals saw them as ‘insensitive’, ‘destructive’ and ‘superior’ and not ‘friendly’. Maybe this is why Thailand only comes out as number 18 for best expat destination.

Compare this to Singapore where expats think the locals see them as ‘vital’ and not a ‘burden’, which comes in at number nine in the chart.

Getting the most from your new home

Every expat’s experience will be different: where you’re from, where you’re going, what you do, and a hundred other factors make your experience unique.

But what all expats share is the need to manage their lifestyle and build the best life they can. And those who are soon to relocate to new countries can do much to ensure the success of their move, from learning the language to sorting health care cover for their family. While it’s essential to research where you’re going, there are some things that are harder to find out and organise than others. When it comes to settling in, Aetna International isn’t just a health insurer - we have a regional presence around the world, so we understand the local systems and can help you to immerse yourself in the new culture.

Find out more:

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