A Working Guide to the Expat Persona   5 comments

At the graduate school I attend, my classmates/colleagues and I are being training to be conflict management and/or development practitioners, or in other words program managers within conflict management and development. My American colleagues and I have a seemingly difficult time conveying what we are going to school for and what we hope to do with our Master degree/s in a way that the general population around us can understand/fathom. In addition to informing the general public of our experiences, our reasoning/s for going into the fields of conflict and/or development and why, we come (may) come off as arrogant, over-educated, ‘you don’t know shit’-like young professions. This may be due to our experiences in the field as expats, how the general public relies on ‘experts’ for their information (e.g.: celebrities like Bono), and think they are ‘helping’ by donating to random NGOs/FBOs. However, most of the time, we as budding professions do not wish to come across as pompous; we just want to state what we do and why. In doing so, we nonetheless do sound like arrogant asses and ‘holier than thou’. In addition to this, we may come off as snarky.

So, I along with a few of my colleagues – Tom Murphy and Jeff Raderstrong – have come up with this post. The following is a two-fold ‘how-to’ guide of 1) how to speak to people who are not within our field/s about our fields, and 2) how to tell the ‘good intentioned’ what they are doing isn’t really helping the problem at hand. Some of the points below were taken and altered from Mr.Raderstrong’s postfor Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Note, this is not an exhaustive list, so please feel free to comment and we’ll add more.

  • Our ‘radical’ views are not welcomed, therefore, we must listen to the other side/s of the spectrum. People in our field/s potentially/possibly have assumptions and perceptions that others are ‘wrong’ and we are ‘right’ with regard what we have done in the field and based on our academic background. However, we must give other people a chance to explain their own views without our presumptions that what comes out of their mouth is ill-informed and totally wrong. We must respect them even if we disagree. Nobody is completely right. So, when engaging with someone that you believe is wrong, take them seriously because they may challenge the ideas you have held.  It is possible that they do have some things right that can strengthen your argument.
  • Hold back emotion, for people in our field/s have a very serious passion for the subject, hence why we’ve devoted our lives to it. With this passion produces emotion. But, we must swallow our pride, force our emotions into our stomach and not immediately label others not in our fields as idiots when they spout their mouths or publish blog posts re related subject matter. However, with that said, we cannot afford to entirely muzzle our passions and opinions. Rather, it is advisable to keep emotions in check and utilize compassion.
  • Have patience: What has taken us a few months in South Africa studying abroad, or 27 months in Peace Corps, or $100,000 for a Masters degree in Urban Planning won’t translate in a 10 minute conversation with your favorite Aunt during her birthday dinner or a random guy on the subway. We must keep the dialogue open, as opposed to a close-conversation/debate, and give our audience legitimate resources to be able to formulate their own (hopefully progressive) views of our disciplines. Along these lines, realize that the experiences that lead us to the present point are unique. The majority have not had the opportunity to work directly in poverty reduction settings and/or the like. We will always draw from what we know, and so will our audience; to keep these two specific points in mind as we encounter people who are interested in our fields is vital for a progressive and stimulating conversation. It is why we are so passionate about the subject and have formed our present conclusions. It is also why others are at their present position on a given topic. No amount of conversations will bring a person to understanding our experiences and vice versa; we can only do out best within our own means.
  • Compromise: I can’t say it any better than Raderstrong does, “You can’t expect everyone in the world to care about things in the same way you do.” Also, be okay with what people are able to do, give, tolerate, or care about.
  • Avoid jargon: Jargon creates that “holier than thou” attitude. Make sure you speak in as plain language as possible, and if you get a sense that someone isn’t understanding what you saying, take a step back and try to re-focus. Language use is a much bigger turn-off than people think, even if the person you are speaking to doesn’t dismiss you right away, you still will not be able to teach them anything if they don’t know what you are talking about.
  • Express but don’t alienate: The way we express our views must be in a way that does not alienate the people around us, for it is the people around us who will support us while we are abroad. And in the words of Good Intentions Are Not Enough,

So if we aid bloggers sometimes get snarky please realize that it’s not because we’re callous and don’t care. We’re actually getting snarky because we care so much. And no, we don’t think snark is the best way to change someone’s opinion. But thus far it seems to be the best way, and sometimes the only way, to get the conversation started.

Dialogue, and even heated debate, can be constructive. We should welcome it. But as soon as things turns personal and you start alienating others, you have lost. Shutting down an argument is not the same as winning an argument. Lets keep this conversation flowing; I’d very much enjoy some commentary and thoughts on this subject.

Tom Murphy (A View From The Cave) and Jeff Raderstong (Change Charity) heavily contributed to this piece.  

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5 responses to A Working Guide to the Expat Persona

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  1. Great tips! Last year I wrote a reflective narrative piece, attempting to script myself for the same thing: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/08/13/our-most-important-job/

    • @Jennifer,
      Thank you for the comment. Your post is very much in parallel with mine. We should collaborate and produce a master list, you down?
      Thanks again!

      Travis Warrington
  2. Hi Trav, Great post. I was just thinking earlier about how different my life is compared to some of my family members who have never lived in another state, when I have now lived on three continents, and how to bridge our world views. Also I am ever so slowly working on my lit review – and reading about suggestions on how to get more women involved in certain training programs and multiple sources said to involve the men and women together and it reminded me of you! Miss you!

    • Thank you for the comment. How did you come across that specific post?

      And yea, you know that topic is one I have much passion for. Keep in touch

      Travis Warrington

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