Cultural Integration

The modern expat: less homesick, more lonely

Today’s expat can connect with family and friends back home whenever they want, which helps stave off feelings of homesickness. But does constant contact with home increase isolation and make expats more lonely in the city that they live in?


By Expatica

Updated 9-1-2024

It’s the evening and you’ve just finished a Skype call with your family back home. She’s in Athens and you’re in Zurich. You and your family try to have these calls, these family rituals, at least once a week. The kids take turns parading across the tablet screen or begging the au pair for more screen time, with the length of their appearance depending on the distraction – homework due tomorrow, texting with friends, or finishing one last video game. No matter how closely you keep in contact with the people closest to you, living the expat life leaves anyone prone to a feeling of emptiness or loss. Getting to the bottom of that feeling means pinpointing what causes you to feel down. So, what is it: are modern expats homesick or are they just a bit lonely?

Keeping close contact

In just a handful of years, maintaining contact with home has transformed completely. Almost overnight, communication advanced from physical mail through faxes, e-mail, and finally settling on the wide variety of mobile apps with built-in messaging functions. Everything from the most prominent social networks to obscure apps can help you send a message halfway around the world with a few taps of the finger; that means you don’t need to wait a few weeks to call your best friend from childhood just to relay an anecdote they might appreciate.

Woman texting friend

That said, keeping in touch isn’t just about the technological ability of your devices to magically whisk your messages to the furthest reaches of the planet. Most importantly, keeping in touch means actually keeping in touch. A friendship or a long-distance relationship isn’t going to last the distance without both sides putting in the effort. If you’re worried about disrupting your relationship with your family by moving abroad, consider starting a routine where you plan for video calls when you’ve got some downtime. The key is ensuring that your relationships remain active from afar.

Reducing homesickness

Plenty of expats assume that their despondent feelings are homesickness; they think that their position as an outsider and their difficulties in feeling at home. But for many, the better way to tackle homesickness is through communication. Does being able to virtually see and hear a parent or a friend every week lighten the pain of separation? Or is the illusion of closeness created by technology just that – an illusion? Is it a case of culture shock or do you just miss the people back home?

Lonely man
Photo: Freddie Marriage/Unsplash

Being so connected to the people in your life from afar is a wonderful feeling. But the effortlessness of communication makes it feel as though you’re a part of life back home when you’re actually not. It’s true; being able to just have a video call with your parents will make you feel closer to home. But constant connection with home might actually prevent you from making meaningful connections with the city that you actually live in.

Increasingly lonely

At the same time, all that virtual connection can distract us from engaging with real life, especially relationships. The time we invest in being up-to-date with family or friends or the world means less time available for being present. This is true whether we’re expats or not. But for expats, engaging with people is crucial in a new environment. No wonder some expats end up feeling isolated and lonely when they leave their home. Being lonely isn’t only unpleasant, it’s unhealthy.

Alone in the city

It’s good to keep mementos that remind you of home. Whether it’s postcards from friends or old photographs from family get-togethers, these are the small items you should scatter around your home or put on your desk at work. At the same time, staving off that lonely feeling requires an honest engagement with the place you’re in now. Try to get out of the house and meet new people: join a pub quiz at your local, participate in a social club, and go to events in a language that you understand.

You’ll undoubtedly feel less homesick by keeping in touch with family and friends back home; after all, they’re just a call or a message away. But there are also times when being a phone call away – and not there – can make you feel even more lonely. Give the place you live a chance to feel more like your new home. Try your best to be present in your everyday life; don’t spend all of your time counting down the days until your next visit.