How modern technology has transformed expat life : part 2 – communication

Before Christmas I wrote the first of what I hope will be a series of three or four posts looking at how modern technology has changed expat life (hopefully for the better – although I think there is a sting in that tail and refer you to this post I wrote about facebook envy).

In my first post I looked at how the world of work has been affected and how much easier it is now for us all to work remotely. This is potentially a huge game changer for the expat partners who may otherwise have to give up their jobs or even career to follow their spouses overseas.

But technology is there to help us in many ways other than for work and in this post I am going to have a look at communication.

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Way back when we lived overseas when I was a child, 99% of communication was done by letter (snailmail as it became known). Once a week we could send back and recieve letters through the diplomatic bag. Every post had a day when the bag came in; in every household eager wives (for it mainly was wives in those days) and children awaited news from home. Birthday presents, Christmas cards, even my O level results arrived this way, along with those long letters from parents and grandparents full of the news of Aunt Edna’s hip replacement and how the tomatoes were doing. It all seems so trivial but those everyday stories of home were what we craved. Every so often, we got a phone call – I remember this being the case when my grandmother died. But usually the only news we got from home was at least 5-7 days out of date.

To expats today this must all seem very strange. Can you imagine putting your child into boarding school and then having to wait a week to hear how they were getting on? Nowadays of course we have so many – maybe even TOO many – ways to communicate when we move away from our friends and family. Here are just a few of them:

Skype and FaceTime

There are of course now many more face-to-face ways to talk to people but these are prehaps the best known. Skype was the one that really broke down the barriers – for the first time we could not only speak to but see our loved ones without having to pay astronomical international call prices. FaceTime is useful because it is on phones and Ipds so more portable (ok I know, I am a bit backward here – you can get Skype on phones too now, right?). But both are excellent ways not just to talk but to share – how many grandparents have watched their grandkids growing up through the wonder of this kind of technology? Personally we have been able to build a great relationship with my broter-in-law in Florida thanks to Skype and FaceTime and there is nothing I like more than sitting down for a cup of coffee with friends in England, all over the internet.

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Messenger, WhatsApp, Snap Chat etc

More immediate and probably now the most used type of communication is instant messaging. I love that you can connect so quickly and easily with anyone, anywhere in the world. Whilst Facebook is still perhaps the number one way people keep in touch with each others lives (see below for more on Facebook) I think we have started to move off the public pages and into more private spaces.

Of course we don’t just use these services to keep in touch with people back home or to communicate with friends new and old in other parts of the world; group messaging has become a real boon to expats making contacts and friends in a new country. What easier a way to organise a meet up than one Whats App group message? So much better than the old days of having to send separate emails or individual messages and then send them again when one person can’t make that particular time….

Expat Facebook groups

Another thing that I have noticed happening more and more commonly now is the use of groups for particular needs and interests and the ones aimed at expats have to be one of the greatest innovations to have hit the expat scene in a long while. As soon as you know where you are heading, you know you will probably be able to find a group to help you with your questions. I admin one here in Pretoria, where people come to ask questions about anything from where to get passport photos done to whether you need a pool heater (as an aside, there is good writing material in some of these groups – I always laugh when I see the posts asking whether anyone has a golf buggy for sale…). In the meantime, we have a separate “buy and sell” page which is a great place to get rid of all that stuff before you move on or conversely buy it when you first arrive; and (perhaps this is more pertinent to South Africa than many places) a travel page for sharing information about places to go and things to see.

Video and photo sharing sites

Another way we can keep in touch is by sharing our photos and videos. Some do prefer just to do this via facebook but equally many prefer to keep these things private. You can set up a You Tube video channel and set the settings to ensure only people you invite can view, and there are also lots of cloud-sharing photo sites (I am told Flickr is good for this, as well as Google Photos). So when you store your photos you can alert your parents back home and they can view at leisure. No more labouriously sending photos back as email attachments, two or three at a time (particularly painful for those of us without a speedy internet connection).

Blogs

Finally, I had to include this one as of course one of my main methods of communication is via my blog! In my case, it is not really aimed at friends and family but many people do initially set up a blog in order to keep the folks back home abreast of their new, shiny overseas life. In a way it is just a public diary for many people (although how public is up to you – again, like a YouTube channel, you can set it up so that only chosen viewers can see it). But even if this is not the intention of a blog site it is still a way to communicate. I, for one, have met several people in real life thanks to my blog – and have many more friends who I have never actually met but who I have close and important relationships with because they found me this way. After all, it is just a way of bringing people together with a commonality so why not use it as a basis to make friendships?

 

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So those are our main communication channels – let me know if you think I have left anything out. Next time I want to look at ways that we use modern technology for travel. After all, for so many of us travel is one of the more important aspects of our lives – so we may as well use the best tools available to help us enjoy it.

Photo credit: Yining Zhang

 

How modern technology has changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer

Brace yourselves Americans because the worst could be coming

Wherever you are in the world, next Wednesday morning is going to be an interesting one. Whether you stay up late or get up early, whether the results come in for you in your time zone at breakfast, lunch or dinner, we are all going to be be focused on one thing. And I can tell you from our experience of Brexit, it is not going to be pretty.

Above all else I hope with every core of my body that the worse doesn’t happen. And by that I mean of course the worst would be if women-hating, xenophobic, climate-change denying and quite fankly terrifying Trump is elected. I believe that would not only set the US back decades in social policy but would put the entire world at risk. But almost as bad would be a slim win for Clinton – because I don’t believe Trump and his rabble rousers will simply sit back and accept the result. And it could go on and on and on….

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And while it rumbles on, the hatred being spewed out across the internet will get nastier and nastier and nastier. Because now this election isn’t just about he delegates, it isn’t just about the horrific campaign that has been run by Trump to villify Clinton or about some emails that Clinton didn’t handle too well. No, in a way they have become the side show. What it has become about is the horrendous, malicious abuse that this election (just like Brexit) seems to to have legitimised. While Stateside is is now apparently ok to call for a presidential candidate to be not just jailed but murdered, over in the UK internet trolls are calling for the rape and beheading of a woman (Gina Miller) simply for daring to ask the law to clarify how we leave the EU. And worse – then accusing our judiciary of being traitors for simply doing their job.

Where this will end I have no idea. I am frankly terrified. I have two children and they are coming of age in this climate. Social media is rampant – totally out of control, as is our so-called free press which at the moment appears to basically be running the country. If anyone can come up with a way to put the genie back in the bottle please let me know!

But in the meantime for all you Americans wondering how you will feel next week, I can only tell you to prepare yourselves mentally for the worst (and then hope it never happens). I wrote about how I felt after Brexit and I suspect many of you will go through something similar. It is like culture shock although for us Brits is is hard to move on in the cycle because we have no idea what is coming next.

I only hope that by going through the worst case scenario in your head you may be able to limit the damage to come extent. I honestly think Brexit was such a shock because we didn’t really expect it to happen. I know I did have some inkling it might because I was awake every night in the weeks leading up to the vote worrying about it. But I don’t think I had any idea quite how bad it would be – and that nearly five months on we still wouldn’t have a clue where we were headed.

So prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The next week is certainly going to be a roller coaster so make sure you have your seat belts securely fastened. I’ll see you on the other side!

Photo credits: Trump/Clinton – Ted Eytan

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?

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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?

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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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