Should we stop using the word ‘Expat’?

I’m always wary when someone is referred to as an expat. It’s a term still commonly used by Human Resources professionals to refer to employees who have been sent on assignment overseas. But maybe it’s time to stop using this word altogether.

  • The Ickiness

My biggest complaint is the neo-colonial aspect to the word itself. It has been great to see how employees from every corner of the world have now been expatriated from their home countries. Let’s send more qualified Kenyans to Kuwait; Vietnamese to Venezuela. But to me there’s still a congenital ‘whiteness’ about the word. Why am I an expat, but a builder from Bangladesh is a migrant worker? Aren’t we both just different kinds of economic migrant?

  • The Detachment

Referring to an international assignee as an expat can create a barrier between themselves and the people around them. The title becomes an excuse for them to disassociate themselves with their office surroundings, and not truly engage with their host environment. It lets them group themselves with other ‘expats’, define themselves by their differentness, and engender an us-versus-them mentality. Before long, when an ‘expat’ has a bad day they might say ‘I hate this country’, rather than say… ‘I’m having a bad day’.

  • The Ego

The term brings with it a sense of elitism and entitlement. A company should certainly help an international assignee with their lives, be it getting through the pain of relocation, helping with schooling costs, or advising on tax issues. But referring to the assignee as an expat adds an extra layer of status, which once given can be hard to retract. The next generation of internationally-mobile employees should be taught that an assignment is just part of their job description, not a perk, nor a badge of honour.

I was inspired to write this article in part because I hear a loud drumbeat of nativism around the world, especially tied in with anti-immigration sentiments. I’m personally the son of political refugees, and have been an economic migrant in Asia for over a decade. I also believe that a migrant should do their best to assimilate into the fabric of their new society. But it never escapes my attention that we have double standards for migrants in the West versus Western migrants living in the East. To some extent, global multinationals and HR leaders can help to reconcile this double standard by limiting the use of this term.

What are your thoughts? If you agree, what terminology would you suggest we use? Do you disagree, and am I just yet another hapless victim of political correctness? Do you have any stories of ‘Expats behaving badly’? Your answers and comments gratefully received!

7 thoughts on “Should we stop using the word ‘Expat’?”

  1. Yes, the word is a double standard. And some Indian colleagues recently relocated to London therefore use it with wry glee!

  2. I left the US in 1997 on a classic, two year, expatriate assignment. At the time it was a label, with all the baggage, and benefits, you describe above.

    Now, still outside the US 21 years later, all I can call myself is blessed.

    1. Interesting. But isn’t this swinging too far the other way? It’s important for non-local employees to feel welcome in an inclusive environment. Calling them ‘foreign employees’ might create an opposite version of the us-versus-them mentality.

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