On her Facebook page, my friend Madeleine refers to herself as “Living in Shanghai, China, as trailer trash for my beloved [husband]“. In doing so she is not-so-gently mocking the outdated term ”trailing spouse”. Though the term is slowly being abandoned, it remains in common use in HR departments and among relocation service providers (For convenience, I’m going to lump everyone under HR for the remainder of the post)
The term has always bothered me. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “trail” as “to be drawn along behind” or “to move slowly or wearily”. It’s a negative word and implies reluctance and lack of choice. While in the past expat spouses may have been dragged along against their will on international assignments, I and most of the other women and men who are accompanying our spouses and partners on international assignments these days are doing so willingly. We are equal partners in carefully considered decisions to move overseas and, though we have often made difficult compromises, such as putting careers on hold, we are anything but trailing.
Moreover, as budgets for international relocations are cut, the role of the accompanying partner, always important, is becoming an increasingly crucial part of the relocation process. Our partners leave for their new jobs, often before the movers have packed up our houses and we are the ones who are organising the move, finding schools for our children and sorting out the immense amounts of paperwork that go with an international move. In our new countries, we find that our spouses are working long hours and traveling, leaving us to take delivery of household goods, settle our children into new schools, wait around for hours for utilities to be connected and transform our rented houses into homes. In short, it is we who coordinate the details and logistics of the move and enable our partners to move seamlessly from one job to the next without skipping a beat.
The term “trailing spouse” certainly doesn’t reflect the key role that accompanying partners play. I don’t think that the persistence of the term is a conscious attempt to insult us; it is just so ingrained in the HR lexicon that it is used without any thought to its meaning. However, in many cases, it seems to set the tone for the relationship between HR and accompanying partners. It is implicit when we agree to move to a new country that we accompanying partners will assume responsibility for a significant portion of the work involved and yet, in my own experience and that of many of my friends, when direct communications are required, we are considered “trailing spouses” and are not included in the process. We are resentful of the lack of communication and inclusion, our partners are irritated by it and it is the first step toward the development of what is all too often a highly acrimonious relationship between HR and the expat family.
Which brings me to the point of my rant on this subject: I’d like to appeal to everyone involved in the international relocation industry to please stop calling us “trailing spouses”! A more respectful name would be a good first step toward building a more mutually respectful relationship between accompanying partners and HR. If we are including as a valued part of the relocation process, expat families and HR might all be surprised by how much less painful the relocation process becomes.
A final thought: ”Accompanying partner” is not the zippiest of terms and phrases which describe our real role, for instance “amazing person who manages to coordinate the details of an international move in a very short time” don’t really roll of the tongue. Post any suggestions for a better term (and any other thoughts on the subject) in the comments section, on my Facebook page or on Twitter (@thesmartexpat)