I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about friendship lately.
No one reason in particular. Or rather, there are several. It could be that I’m glad to be back in the Netherlands after being away for a couple of months. Nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder. I was pretty fond of my friends here to begin with, so it’s probably more of making the heart grow desperate.
Perhaps it’s because I’m experiencing the perennial lament of expatriates everywhere: you look up one day and realize that half your circle of friends, acquaintances and POPIs (‘persons of potential interest’) are gone. They’ve headed off to new locales as a result of work assignments, empty nests or repatriation.It’s also because I’m in the final stages of finishing a book on the importance of resilience in expat life. One section is about finding your tribe in whatever location you may find yourself; if you can’t find your tribe, it’s up to you to build one. It sounds simple, yet over and over I’ve heard from expats, global nomads, cross-culturals and internationals about the difficulties in sussing out new friends.
To my mind, friendships are built on three vital components: shared experiences, shared information, and shared receptivity. The first two tend to play out over time, although the length of that timespan isn’t fixed but instead is fluid and flexible.
You get to know a person by engaging them in some endeavor. It can be as simple as meeting for coffee after the morning school run, lunch at a favorite café or for drinks after work, or as elaborate as getting tickets to a concert or sporting event, attending an opening at an art gallery, throwing a birthday or holiday party, or planning a day trip to a spot of local interest. Dinner parties weren’t invented for people to show off or eat great food; they exist to bring a group together to break bread and break down barriers.
It isn’t so much about what you do as that you do it, and you do it together. You can bond as much over things you enjoy as you do over things you barely tolerate.
Who among us hasn’t found a kindred spirit to chat with at some boring office gathering where both of you are there as ‘partner of’ and don’t know another soul? I guarantee your pleasant surprise at tolerating the corporate bash has less to do with the hors d’oeuvres or the tedious speech given by the big boss and more with the two of you giggling over the stifled yawns and watch-checking by the other attendees.
It’s the same principle in motion when you host a party to watch a special televised event: those who love futbol or the Downton Abbey season finale will crowd around the television while those who don’t will carry on in another room.
The second component of friendship, the sharing of information, also takes place over time. You don’t stroll up to a newly introduced soul and spill your darkest secrets and expect them to embrace you as their new best friend. Rather, you do what I call the ‘onion dance’. You start with perfunctory chit chat about the weather or some equally innocuous topic, then – over time, of course, remembering the importance of a series of shared experiences – you graduate up to current events, favored activities, preferences and dislikes, and so on. Layer by layer, bit by bit, you figure out collectively what issues are ripe for discussion and which you’d best avoid for the relationship to continue.
The interesting thing is that with the advent of the internet and social media, you needn’t even meet in person to go through the onion dance online. You can find a blog or website or social media venue you like, follow along, get to know some of the fellow visitors or forum participants and suddenly find that you have more in common with some than with others.
I remember a flesh and blood friend telling me ten years ago that she’d become friendly with a couple people she talked nightly with in a chat room for fellow sufferers of a particular medical condition. I remember thinking how odd that sounded; surely you couldn’t forge a connection with someone you’ve never met.
Well, it turns out you can.
In my following of both expat and writing sites, as well as doing research while writing my book, I’ve become familiar with a whole cadre of interesting people around the world. I’ve gotten to know many of them better, some more than others, a few extremely well.
Just yesterday I had lunch with one such person. Early on I’d assumed by her name that she was French when in truth she is actually Dutch with French heritage. When she returned recently to her homeland from years working in the Middle East to visit family and ponder her next career steps, she got in touch and we brought our cyber friendship over into the physical world. Was there any awkwardness? None whatsoever. We had a basis of shared information between us, we picked up with where we’d left off, and the conversation flowed.
I’ve had similar experiences meeting others in person who I’ve initially ‘met’ online. Last autumn I was at a book launch party and saw a familiar face across the room. We both smiled and made our way over to each other to talk. It was several minutes into the conversation before we both realized that despite living in the same city we’d never actually been introduced; we just knew each other from several expat sites and forums online.
Mind you, I’m not saying that you should limit yourself only to online ‘virtual’ friends, unless of course your situation is dire enough to require that (e.g., your susceptibility to infection renders you bedridden, or you’re serving a year in a weather station in the Antarctic). I’m just saying you never know when virtual friends may well become ‘real’.
So that brings us to the third component of friendship, and the one that I find to be most important: shared receptivity. By that I mean being open to meeting and interacting with people in any situation, from all walks of life, regardless of whether you think you’ll become friends or not. You do it for the social intercourse, for the connection, no matter how fleeting. Why? Because it broadens your horizons, it bolsters your confidence in your ability to make the most of any social situation, it passes the time, and you feel good thanks to the oxytocin your body releases when you interact with others.
The irony is you never really know when your receptivity to meeting and conversing with another person is shared until it is. But if you’re holed up at home, watching lousy television shows for yet another evening and lamenting the fact that you’re lonely and without many friends (or acquaintance and POPIs), you’ll have to acknowledge that you’re part of the problem and thus need to be part of the solution. The same holds true for making assumptions about people and writing them off before you’ve even given them a chance.
Telling lonely people to get out and take advantage of whatever opportunities exist for interaction with others may sound trite, but it happens to be true. It’s just that our definition for ‘getting out’ is broader than it used to be.
A writer and American expat living in the Netherlands with her husband and two teens, Linda pens articles on expat life and blogs at Adventures in Expat Land sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd with a twist. She is also a co-author of the recent bestseller Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories from Women Entrepreneurs.
You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.
Read Linda's other Expat Focus articles here.