The first few months as an expat in a new location tend to pass by in a blur of activity and excitement. There are a hundred things begging to be done, and besides, everything around you is new and interesting. Sure, every now and then there’s a sight or experience that you wish you could share with someone you love, but on the whole, even if you had friends around, you’d hardly have the time to meet them.t’s when the dust has settled and you get into a routine that you start missing the warmth and comfort of having friends at hand – when you have a free evening and would like to invite someone over, or simply catch up over a phone call without working out time zones and schedules and connectivity.
Loneliness and the lack of a local support network can be the most difficult part of being an expat. No matter how well everything else falls into place in your new location, and no matter how good you are about keeping in touch with people back home, without a local network of friends it’s pretty much impossible to ever really settle in. Conversely, if you have friends around, it’s usually much easier to deal with the various annoyances and frustrations that are a part of any expat’s life.
Unfortunately, making friends in a new country isn’t always easy. Sometimes this may be due to factors such as personality and age, but there’s also one group of expats that tends to consistently have trouble in this area – spouses who have moved abroad for their partner’s work. While the working partner at least has their professional network as a starting point, the spouse often has no idea where to begin when it comes to meeting people and making their own friends.
Here are a few tips that will hopefully make it easier for any expat to make friends in their new home.
Make an effort and set priorities
People are used to friendships simply “happening” – most of us don’t go around looking for friends or for situations where we’re likely to make new friends. However, it’s probably going to be necessary to change this when you’re living life as an expat, at least for the first year or two. In most other situations there are friendships that overlap, carry forward, or that you can pick up where you left off. As an expat, however, you’re starting with nothing, so whether you like it or not, you have to work at it a bit. And it’s important to prioritize this part of your life. Most people automatically prioritize work and the household, after which comes maintaining existing friendships. Hanging out with strangers and casual acquaintances isn’t much of a priority – but it should be if you’re an expat hoping to make new friends.
Get in touch with every local and expat you know
Today more than ever before, no matter where you are in the world, it’s highly likely that you already know someone there, or at least have a friend who knows someone there. Tap into these contacts and extended contacts in advance, and let them know you’ll be there and would like to meet. Even if you don’t end up being friends with these particular people, they’re likely to introduce you to their friends and acquaintances, who may eventually turn into friends. Also, it’s important to be open to making friends with both locals and expats. Don’t enclose yourself in an expat bubble, and don’t expect to get along with people simply because they’re from your own country. At the same time, don’t rule out friendships with fellow expats and countrymen either.
Live with other people
Most people are eager to have their own space, but unless you’re an expat with a spouse or family, it can be a good idea to find someone to share a house with. Sharing a house with other people, whether locals or expats, is another great way to make friends. Once again, whether or not you make friends with your housemates, they’ll be an opportunity to meet even more people. However, this is one area of your life where you might want to look for expats rather than locals. Expat budgets are often different from local budgets, and in addition, the cultural differences can make it difficult to share a living space. Of course, this needn’t always be a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Socialise with colleagues
Work culture varies from one place to the next, and not only in terms of countries, but also in terms of industries and sometimes individual companies and offices. In many workplaces, colleagues keep their relationships purely professional, and will rarely get together or form friendships. Sometimes, expats themselves come from a work culture where relationships are purely professional. However, if you find yourself in a more casual, friendly work environment, be sure to socialise with your colleagues after work. Work relationships often provide the best opportunity for friendship – after all, these are the people you’re meeting daily, spending eight hours a day with, and probably taking your lunch and coffee breaks with.
Join a class or club
For many expats, language classes are the ideal place to meet new people. You get to learn a local language, which is always useful, and at the same time, you might also make some new friends. Of course, language classes aren’t the only option. You can take the opportunity to learn anything that interests you, or simply join a club that focuses on an activity that you already know and enjoy. Yoga, martial arts, tennis, origami, baking, local crafts – find out what’s going on around you, and join in.
Join a meetup group
Some people are resistant to idea of joining a group for the express purpose of meeting people, especially if it’s through an online portal. However, it’s certainly an option, and plenty of expats say that meetup groups are a lot of fun; quite a few have made lasting friendships at these groups.
Attend events in your area
Once again, if there are sports, arts, or other things that interest you, find out about opportunities to watch or participate in them in your neighborhood. It’s often tempting to go home and stay put after a hard day’s work, but it’s important to get out there and do things if you want to make friends. Make it a point to look out for and attend local concerts, matches, slam poetry sessions, plays, exhibitions, or anything else that interests you. As you get to be a regular, you’ll get to know other regulars, and a shared interest is a great basis for a friendship.
Volunteer for a cause that’s important to you
Volunteering takes a bit more time and energy than simply going out and having a good time a few nights a week; however, if you can manage it, it’s a great way to make friends and give back to the local community. Few things can bring people together as strongly as a cause that they care passionately about and are working on together, and anywhere in the world you go, there’s always some cause that can use volunteers, whether it’s the local homeless shelter, animal shelter, literacy class, or free health clinic. If you’re the enterprising sort and see an unmet need, perhaps you could even start something yourself. Such efforts tend to attract a varied bunch of people, which means that you get to meet all these people while doing something deeply satisfying.
Be willing to get out of your comfort zone
This is one of the most important and fundamental pieces of advice for any expat trying to make new friends. Back home, you could wait for friendships to form slowly, but as an expat, you can’t really spend a year alone while you wait for things to happen. You need to get out there and extend yourself a bit.
This may not always be comfortable, but it’s necessary, and can be extremely rewarding. Besides, you don’t need to completely change your personality or do things you hate doing – simply take a couple of steps outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. For example, if you’re not a very social person, don’t force yourself to attend every party you’re invited to, but make it a point to attend at least two parties a month where you don’t know most of the people. If you hate golf but someone invites you to join them and their friends, give it at least a couple of tries. If you find that you enjoy their company but not the golf, you can eventually ask them to join you at something you find more enjoyable.
Learn to accept the passing nature of some friendships
One painful and often frustrating thing that most expats need to learn to deal with is saying goodbye to friends – not because of disagreements, but because one of you is moving away. It can get rather tiring to put so much into one friendship after another, only to see your expat friends move away after a year, and sometimes even more quickly. Unfortunately, that’s something that just needs to be accepted. The good thing about making friends with locals is of course that they’re much less likely to leave, but don’t let this dissuade you from meeting other expats. There are plenty of expats who have formed friendships that are worth the pain of parting and that last well beyond it.
Follow up with people whom you like
Of course, it’s not enough to simply keep meeting new people – if you meet people whom you like, make the effort to follow up with them. Meet up for a coffee or for drinks, make movie or concert plans, and when you’re comfortable enough with them, invite them home. If nothing else, call or send a message every now and then. It’s also important to meet one on one, especially after a point. Few real friendships are formed solely on the basis of group interactions at classes, clubs, and events. If you like someone, take the time to get to know them personally.
Remember that it takes time
Yes, it’s important to put yourself out there and work at it, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll have a group of great friends within a month. Friendships usually take time to form. Don’t force it, and don’t be too worried or disappointed by the way things go. Inevitably, some people will turn out to be less pleasant than you thought they were, some will be less interested than you are, and others will simply turn out to not be a good match. Initial impressions can be misleading, and sometimes the least likely person in a group can end up becoming one of your best friends. Additionally, in some places, making friends can be particularly slow and difficult. People in some cultures can be rather reticent or formal, and it can take a long time for them to accept you as a friend rather than an acquaintance that they’re fond of.
Reach out for help
If you feel like you’re getting nowhere and it’s seriously bringing you down, don’t be afraid to confide in someone. It could be a co-worker you trust, a fellow expat, or someone back in your home country. It’s also worth considering talking to a therapist. With the advice and support that comes with professional help, many expats find the process of making friends much easier.
How did you make friends when you first moved abroad? Let us know in the comments!