Creating a Happy Life Overseas: Warm Greetings and Interconnectedness

Our Dearest Gretchen

We are, of course, huge fans of Gretchen Rubin, a person trying to make the world more charming! Exactly our bailiwick! Three air kisses to her. Just look at this wisdom:

One of the bedrock principles of my happiness project is that I can’t change anyone but myself. It’s so easy to imagine that I’d be happier if only other people would behave properly, but I can’t assign resolutions to anyone but myself. [ ]

In particular, this wise dictate is especially helpful for navigating the Middle East.

Give warm greetings and farewells.

A small thing, very small — nevertheless, it makes a real difference. As Benjamin Franklin pointed out, “Human Felicity is produc’d not so much by great Pieces of good Fortune that seldom happen, as by little Advantages that occur every Day.”

In the Middle East, it’s impossible to ‘grump and go’ – locals always give kindly greetings and you absolutely must reply with equal vim. To sneer or fail to reply destroys your reputation and to answer half-heartedly brings endless question about your health and mental state.

Irrespective of your animosity towards the person or the dearth of coffee in your veins, you must, must, must, reply with a beatific smile and vigorous expression of your complete contentment with the world in general. Seeing your interlocutor brings a over-flowing joy unto you and your greeting conveys your deep-seated wish to sit and chat for hours, if only there was the time.

It’s annoying at first be constantly chirping “good morning” to all and sundry; a simple walk to the supply cabinet occasionally sounds like a demented Monty Python skit, “Hello!,” “Hello!,”  “Hello!,” “Hello!,” “Hello!,” “Hello!,”  “Hello!,” “Hello!” but eventually it becomes second-nature and endearing. Everyone has their game-face on and with really obnoxious people it’s fun to try to be annoying sweet “GOOD MORNING! Oh! Your shoes! SO CUTE! LOVE THEM”

Channeling Elle Woods is a good thing –  it makes you remember, Darling, that it’s important to be nice and it’s possible (sometimes necessary) to verbally slay people with nice words. Also, always carry a good purse, a discussion for another day.


Living expat throws you into close (sometimes unwanted) contact with other people from your country or similar cultures. In your home country, you have all sorts of electronic help or you ask a person with shared experience, you talk to friends with kids about pediatricians, but overseas, stores usually don’t have websites or if they do, the information is usually wrong. If you need information, you ask the person with the most experience, the most connections – it’s normal to walk into someone’s office and ask for a recommendation about a doctor or where to buy wrapping paper

A few years ago I needed a stopper for my bath tub and that quest involved five different people and visits to four stores. I called people to ask if they had one and where did they get it? Two people said they didn’t have one and wanted one so when I finally tracked down the right store – I bought three, one for me and 2 for the people who needed one.

It is difficult, sometimes impossible, to live disconnected in a small foreign town. Many companies have housing for employees, so your colleagues are your neighbors. Imagine going to a work meeting and knowing all your colleagues got woken up at 5am from the same stray cat yowling.

And even if there isn’t mandatory housing, most expats often live in the same housing complexes with other foreigners. You end up not borrowing not only sugar but vacuum cleaners, medicine, cat food or spare bedrooms to house visiting relatives. And anyone who leaves town to go to the big city is given requests. I returned from a recent trip with flax seeds, a bundle of fresh baby asparagus, hair dye, mint candy and Scrabble for various friends.

Certain kinds of food and medicine show up suddenly in the stores, then disappear for months, so you get to know what your friends are looking for and they know what you like.

As Hugh Grant’s character says in About A Boy: Every man is an island. I stand by that. But clearly some men are in island CHAINS. Underneath, they are connected…