Facebook envy – or the self-perpetuating circle of how we present expat life to the world.

This morning I read a news story about a women in Dubai who never existed. Or rather, she did exist – but she wasn’t the woman in the photos. Leah Palmer was, according to her Facebook page and other social media outlets, a “fun-loving 20-something Briton currently living the high-life in Dubai”. Except she wasn’t, she was Ruth Palmer and her identity had been stolen.

We can only contemplate what made someone do this, but it led me to think about Facebook and expat life – and the story that we chose to present to the rest of the world when we move overseas. I realise we’re not all going to the lengths of actually stealing someone else’s identity, but how honest are we when we put up our photos and update our statuses? What version of the truth do we chose to show? Do we always portray the whole story?

Over the past few years, as Facebook has evolved, I have watched the lives of several expat friends as they moved from one country to another, settled in, started work or got the children off to school. I have seen photos of beaches and parties, cocktails and safaris. And before I go on I will admit that I, too, am guilty of presenting a certain image to the world of our lives abroad. Who wants to see me lugging shopping home when you could get a picture of sunset from our balcony?

august 09 another sunset shot

I realise that everyone does this to some extent, wherever they are in the world. But I do think it’s amplified when you move overseas, particularly to a either a renowned “exotic” location like Singapore, Dubai or the Caribbean, or to somewhere a lot of people think they would like to live like New York or Hong Kong. So why do expats tend to focus so much on the “good-side” of life? Is it because we’re trying to prove to our friends that the life we’re living is actually as good as everyone expects it to be? Are we trying to prove it to ourselves?

Having moved to another country several times in my life, I know life as an expat ISN’T one long beach. I explore culture shock, depression and unrealistic expectations in The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide – with the emphasis on being prepared for life not being as great as you think it might be. But perhaps part of the reason why we think life IS going to be all about the party is because that’s what we’re seeing on other people’s FB pages. And because that’s what we think others are going to expect, we do the same – posting the pictures of the days out, discussing the parties and the great restaurants but neglecting to mention the more mundane aspects of life such as the housework, the early mornings or the lack of decent shopping. Or even the downright horrible aspects of life such as the shocking poverty, the fear of crime or the awful loneliness. Is it a self-perpetuating circle? Are we all adding to it?


One thing I have noticed is that there is a law of ever-diminishing returns at play here: the longer someone lives somewhere, the more mundane their lives appear to become. It’s impossible to keep up the image of an entirely glamourous life forever, no-one is going to believe that you don’t EVER have a bad-hair day or have to sit in a traffic jam. But the opposite to this is that early posts do tend to only be about how brilliant everything is, as if to prove to everyone (and themselves) that the decision to move is the right one. These early posts tend to co-incide with the “honeymoon” period of culture shock, when you probably do love everything about your new home and can’t wait to put up the photos to show everyone what an amazing place you have moved to.

The problems come when the initial period of excitement is over, when real-life starts to kick in and when you’ve probably bored everyone back home to tears with the pictures of you diving in the azure ocean or sipping cocktails with a beautiful setting sun behind you. This is the time to be more honest, to write about the not-so-great times as well as the fun. Of course you don’t have to tell everyone everything, I’m not advocating washing all of your dirty laundry in public. But be real, be truthful and make sure everyone whose only view of you is your “public” Facebook self realise that life overseas can be just as hard (and often harder) as life at home. Let’s break the circle and help our future selves prepare for their new life by understanding the reality.

Hopefully, this will stop people assuming that even though you’re moving to the Caribbean, life will not be one long holiday. Although, those watermelon daiquiris at sunset will still be welcome!

Do you agree? How honest are you in your portrayal of life overseas? And do you think this changes the longer you live somewhere?

For more on the reality of life overseas please also see my posts on expats and depression and expat relationships.

(Jakarta Slum photograph By Jonathan McIntosh (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

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