Research Addressing Expatriate Loneliness

18 August 2014

Dr. Martin Loeve presented his thesis on expatriate loneliness, Ander-ing On-Stage, at the Expatriate Archive Centre in April this year. Now, Martin is working together with the Expatriate Archive Centre on a new initiative to help expats make sense of their lives abroad.

Martin’s interest in expatriate loneliness sprang from experiences with expats in Thailand. He witnessed an apparent duality – on the surface, expats in Thailand appeared to be living happy, adventurous lives, but underneath lurked hidden problems. Martin comments, “at first I was so impressed by expatriate life, the way they were living – a beautiful car, chauffeur, big houses, playing tennis and golf… but then later on they were talking about missing the children, having to talk over Skype, problems with the house, problems understanding the Thai. I saw that there was a bright side, but also a darker side, a downside”. He noticed that a common thread in many expats’ lives was the feeling of loneliness, of “social disconnection”, and he decided to explore this issue.


In the early stages of his research, Martin chanced upon the website of the Expatriate Archive Centre (EAC) in 2010. After meeting with then-director Elske van Holk and archivist Rosita Arnts, he realised that he needed to broaden his understanding of expatriate life. He used source materials from the EAC in his preliminary research, including the results of a postcard initiative called ‘Feeling Sick While Living Abroad?‘. Participants had sent in dozens of cards with the downsides of expat life written on the back, including “missing out on family special occasions”, “wrestling through crowds of people who don’t care if you’re small”, and “feeling frustrated by inability to connect in a meaningful way with other women like me”. Martin also studied some of the handwritten letters in the archive, noting “when you see a box of 80 letters , you know something is going on. That’s a sign that there’s a real need to connect with your family at home”.

Interviewing expatriates provided further insights. Martin used the technique of asking a single question, “how is it to be here?”, and allowing the interviewee free-reign to speak in depth. He explains, “when you start with one question, it really helps you get information out. Otherwise, I would only get answers that fit with the questions that I already have in my mind, and I’d only be getting something that I’ve already got. I wanted to get something new. This way, the monologues come out, the soliloquies, the long stories”. Martin avoided discussing the topic of loneliness directly, preferring to allow the interviewees to talk openly about their experiences. He concluded that there was a lot of underlying loneliness in these expatriates’ lives, “it’s such a different state. Of course loneliness exists everywhere. But it really comes more to the point of expression when you are abroad, in another context”.

Martin’s research culminated in his PhD thesis, Ander-ing On-Stage. In this work, Martin explores the philosophical concepts of existential loneliness and Self-Ander-ing and reflects on how expatriates mentally experienced and practically dealt with their existence abroad. Martin also employs the social psychology perspective of dramaturgy, or ‘life as theatre’, and presents some of his research in the form of a play in which expatriate characters relate stories about their experiences abroad.

Martin concluded that traditional cross-cultural management does not work in practice, and that it focuses too much on the effectiveness of expatriates and too little on their individual wellbeing. It was time for a fresh approach, “we shouldn’t start with generalisations, we have to go back to the unique individuals – it’s about the interaction between human beings”. The EAC is proud to be working with Dr. Martin Loeve on a new workshop to help expats make sense of their lives abroad. More details of the programme will be announced later in the year.

Dr. Martin Loeve is the founding director of Delta Change Management, an international consultancy firm specialising in research, consultancy and education in the field of change management, with a focus on the human factor. Martin’s book Ander-ing On-Stage will be available on Amazon shortly.

Update 30/09/2014: Details of the programme can now be found on the Delta Change Management website – Expatriate Life: Dealing with Loneliness