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?

800px-Jakarta_slumhome_2

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

  1. There is a difficulty in capturing the “other side” of living abroad on Facebook/social media. It can easily get interpreted into something you don’t intend, and you won’t even get a chance to really explain. I personally avoid saying so much about the struggles, but I know my friends know it’s not always smooth sailing for me. I give away the details of the challenging aspects of it in person or in private messages. I do agree on your point here… it’s the same as the motherhood experience. So many talk about the rosy sentiments of becoming mom, but not so much on the ugly parts of it, so that it usually causes depression for new moms who thought it was easier for the other moms. Thanks for bringing this up.

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    • The comparision between becoming an expat for the first time and becoming a mother/parent for the first time was something that kept coming up as I was writing the Survival Guide. And I think you have hit the nail on the head – it’s the fact that people find it hard to talk about the difficult times but easy to talk about the great times. The two go hand-in-hand in both cases (usually – I know some people breeze throgh eadly parenthood, as well as take to expat life like a duck to water!) but even just being aware that how you are feelling is totally normal, and that others are going through/have gone through the same can really help

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      • Very true. I just told a new mom today something similar to your last line. Just having your struggles validated by someone no matter how insignificant it may seem does make a big difference. I learned that from my own experience, and I make sure to tell new moms/expats about it. Those struggles are real and normal and definitely not wrong.

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  2. I think it is a general problem with social media / facebook. Look around! I read posts on facebook and think that everything is pink but I know in reality it is not at all for most of those people who claim that everything is good. As expat it is no different. Having said that… Maybe we want to make out life look more interesting… maybe we want it to be as sweet as it can be. Maybe we try to proof the point that we were right in leaving. I don’t know. Fact is, that the day to day life is not always an easy ride and that is just normal. The honeymoon period eases off and you realize that living abroad is nothing else than living your life. Some things are better, some are not.
    But hey, I would definitely post pictures of that view as often as possible. It is stunning! I will come and visit!

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    • Ha ha – thanks – that was literally the view we saw every day from our balcony in St Lucia (from where we moved 4 years ago!) and it certainly helped when other things were difficult. And yes we did sit on that balcony and drink cocktails….but that was often after a long, hard, sweaty, lonely day. But you are right, it’s a problem generally – you never really know what is going on in other people’s lives by their FB posts.

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      • And that is what people forget, as you have stated, that we live our life too. It is not a holiday, as you said. I guess for them it is, as we are not where they are but where they would like to be…

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  3. Absolutely fab post!!! Loved reading it! It’s definitely true, I think everyone is guilty of glamping up their lives on social media a little but especially expats!! We want everyone to be jealous of our new homes….and perhaps get people to come visit!!!!
    I love reading posts about the harder or down sides of expat lives and while I have written some I must write more this is a fab reminder!! Xx

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    • Thank you. It’s bringing up some interesting discussion. I suspect I am particularly sensitive to this because of course it was easy to share the beautiful pictures of St Lucia. But I also want people to realise what a difficult place it was to live with two very small children. However I am worried that I am a bit of a doom-monger….Maybe I need to do the opposite of you and write some more positive posts….

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      • No I can totally relate it’s the same here, it’s easy to post pics of all the gorgeous beaches and sunshine etc etc!!! But normal life still happens, there’s days where we don’t go out and watch crappy TV we don’t eat local fruit every day! Sometimes there’s seaweed on the beaches (shock haha!!) and it’s good to share the message that real life still goes on! And sometimes living abroad can be really really hard!!!!
        Of course it’s great to be positive too….cos there are lots of positives!! Xx

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  4. Loved this post! As a fellow expat, I do often wonder if I focus too much on the good like the benefits of travel or new traditions and experiences, though I find it interesting that it’s my posts on the “bad and ugly” that often get me the most views – is it that people want to see that it’s not all sunshine and roses or is something else????

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    • Thanks Julie. It’s certainly an interesting discussion. When you first tell people you are moving somewhere, it’s always interesting to see people’s reactions. Many are of course happy for you, but I always think there is a bit of negativity from some people who are basically jealous. I wonder if it is those people who then thrive on the fact that your life isn’t all fantastic over there? I guess it’s human nature to some extent.

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      • I also think a piece is lack of understanding. The majority of people in this world live in the general area or at least country that they grew up in. To live outside the box is daunting and most people don’t understand just how much it takes emotionally, physically, etc to live this type of life. Yes, there is glamour but there is struggle too.

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  5. Great post! I agree with Silver Lining Mama about this being similar to the first time moms. A Momma’s View also got a valid point about the nature of FB overall. I think, I post quite a lot of positive things on my social networks and now on my blog, because, I, in general, like to look at the positive sides of life, finding what to be happy about instead of what makes me upset. Even if I had a bad day, I would try to find something positive about it, to feel better myself.

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    • Thank you. This seems to be what a few people are saying – that they like to try and remain positive and therefore this is the image they try and project. I just worry about unrealistic expectations – I have been following one expat forum on FB which is full of very unhappy expats (mostly expat partners) and I just wonder if they weren’t fully informed of what life would be like before they left.

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      • It’s hard to realise how you would react, even if you were told in detail what to expect – if you’ve never been in a situation like that, you don’t know how you would really feel about it. I say – give it a go 🙂 You can always go back, right?

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  6. Love your post. Straightforward and I agree. I think people of today have their so-called “social media life” it is like their second identity. It is where the social media life is supposed to be perfect. We are living the expat life too and we know a number of people who lives up to their social media persona. I am also guilty of this at some point. I guess at the end of the day, it is the person’s decision to go with the flow or stay in reality and be positive. Its not bad to have fun and enjoy but if you are living a lifestyle based on what the people in your friends’ list are expecting you to have, then there is something wrong with that.

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  7. I’m sure we’re all a little guilty of editing the public image of our lives a bit. There’s nothing wrong with showing the positive side of life. But it can be an issue if that’s ALL people see before they take a decision to move somewhere. Maybe Facebook isn’t the place for this maybe it’s just about ensuring people do their research properly.

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  9. Fantastic and very accurate. As someone who has gone overseas, to the Caribbean, for almost a year I found that the fantasy quickly became a reality, not to say that it was bad or leaned towards a negative experience but the sugar coating was rinsed away and I learned a lot about myself, my life, and the first world country I was raised in. And I think your views on how we should portray this reality on our personal social media accounts, to our friends and family is an excellent idea. Maybe it’s time we lift the curtain and show what back stage really looks like.

    Thank you for this excellent post that truly has me thinking!

    E

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  10. I liked reading this post and here’s my two cents on this: I do agree that Facebook and Instagram pics of our lives abroad depict the ‘glam’ side or the ‘good life’ to some extent. However I do think that sunset pics etc can be great and amazing to someone and make that person envious while it may not even cause another to flinch. I see it like this: I grew up on an island, not any – Mauritius, the one Mark Twain describes as being paradise and what God used as inspiration to create Heaven… In a way, for me, images of beach, cocktails at sunset do not conjure up images of bliss or envy, because, well to me they are pretty normal and quite boring. On the other hand, pics of art galleries, theatre productions or musicals and a huge library filled with books, a train!!!! these are to me and most islanders AMAZING. I remember when we were on a trip overseas, we were always taking souvenir pics of MacDonalds hahaha, that’s because it did not even exist on the island and so, for us, it was exotic, the “dream”. Most Mauritians will post pics of giant sundaes and milkshakes from diners in America, or dizzying skyscrapers and this, yes will make me jealous :). Also, when living abroad, I realize that nobody is really interested in my images of my pot (my one and only item in my kitchen when i first relocated, it was ALL I had….) and nobody cared 🙂 However if I post a picture of a seagull, a lion, a King protea, then here comes the ‘likes’ and the comments. In a way, some people prefer to see others spread happiness and their happy times. Deep down, we know that life is not an easy boat ride, and that there are hard times. Everyone goes through them, expat or never-been-expat. Sometimes, you also do not want to worry your family who live so far away and are concerned about you… so me putting real pics of how all my leather shoes and bags got mold after a harsh winter living by the Atlantic Ocean or being at the hospital after an allergic reaction is not the kind of thing you want to worry people with. Mostly because these moments do pass, eventually.

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  11. Thank you for your thoughts. I love your take on this, coming from a beautiful island (which I’d love to visit some day when we’re in South Africa!). This post has certainly got people thinking and although there’s no real consensus, more and more I am of the opinion that Facebook etc is the problem here rather than the expats! Maybe we need something else, a sort of anti-Facebook, where we can share our grumpier pics and thoughts. Call it Honestbook or something!

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  12. This was interesting for me because I am not an expat. Yes, I read your blog and think how wonderful and exotic it all must be. And then I go back to my work and ‘regular’ life while you, obviously, sling cocktails and have fun, right? 🙂 It is blogs like yours that I love to read because they take me along for the ride but also let me know that there are bumps in the road. Thank you so much!

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  14. I can totally relate to this and admit that many times only the “happy things” would turn up on Facebook. Even without posting much, you are already painted into the image of living the glamourous life of travel, castles and famous landmarks, especially since we were living in Europe. I did try to balance out some of my posts so that my friends and family could see that I was still a real person, I was still their “normal” friend who had to get up every day and take care of my kids, cook, do laundry and get them to and from school. But often, I felt like I didn’t have the right to complain about anything because of where I was living.

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    • I’m very aware of this at the moment having just arrived in South Africa and posting lots of pictures of our adventures, lovely house, etc. I need to balance it out with a post about my youngest daughter who is currently tantrumming upstairs and crying that she wants to go home and misses her friends… 😦

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      • South Africa is one of my dream destinations. However, after studying it quite a bit in college, I’m very aware of the pros and cons of the country. But yes, “real life” has challenges no matter where we are! I liked your point though too about sometimes it can be just as much for ourselves, to get through the down days, that we post all the things we like about our new home. Does lift the spirits sometimes.

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  16. This article totally hits home. I worry that all I do is brag on Facebook and that my blog doesn’t tell the whole story. I do post about some mundane things too. And I do post about some of the downside, but I keep that limited because people freak out and worry when I do that. I’m actually thinking about writing a post about life “behind the scenes” – just snippets about things. I’m hoping that if I do little blurbs on a few topics it’ll be enough to let people know it’s not all safaris and hiking in Kenya but not so much that people will worry.

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