Finding Friendships as Expats is challenging. We struggle in search of people we can feel attached and connected. Sometimes we even find some “prospects” and then have second thoughts about it (or the other way around). Join me in this article and discover why friendship abroad is essential to make our expat experience more joyful and fulfilling!
Friendship: a Key Word in our Lives
A friend is a valuable treasure and someone who can help us get through the most awful and dark moments.
When we are kids, it is easy: usually, you approach someone and start to play, or the other way around.
Then there is school. You see the same people every day and start to bond over funny things, like boy bands or the last popular movie. And then, with time, we connect on deeper levels.
At the university, it is more or less the same. We see each other often. We study together. Go to parties, to the library.
And then we decide to move abroad. We leave our friends behind, physically. We promise to stay in touch. But deep inside, we know it will not be the same.
That’s a challenge, maintaining the friendships we already have, and that had brought us so much joy and core experiences.
The Dilemma: Finding “New Friends”
Putting yourself “out there” again is not only reserved for people dating or wanting to start a romantic relationship; but also for people like you and me, living abroad and starting their support network from scratch. It is not the same to have “your friends” and not only the ones from your partner.
It is a journey and an adventure with a few obstacles. We aren’t kids anymore; tend to be “picky” and also impatient, because we have a little time. We know what we want and don’t want; and we are less willing to spend time and resources on a person and to see how the friendship develops.
Meeting new people and establish deep attachments; it’s not always easy. It can happen like “magic,” instant hookup. But often, it needs time, energy, patience, and assertiveness.
My first Expat Friendships
In Vienna, for a long time, I was utterly friendless. I spent my time with my husband and some of his friends and family. When I wanted to go out and explore, grab a coffee, or walk around the city center, I did it alone. It was ok; I enjoy time with myself. The problem was when I wanted to share what I was feeling:
- the frustration of not finding a job or learning the language
- the last argument I had with my husband
- how much I missed my family and friends.
As you know, my dear expat friend, I didn’t want to worry my loved ones back home. I didn’t want to overwhelm my partner (with little success, may I add). Loneliness was there.
It was not easy to not throw the towel when people I barely knew said to me: “I don’t have time today” or even canceled at the last minute for whatever reason.
The first time I felt I found that deep connection abroad, was when I started to work as a counselor and was part of a team. I saw these people every day. Every pause we had, we talked about nothing and everything. We could count on that; I knew they would be there; they knew I would be there.
A strong and deep relationship needs time to develop. Time and regularity, especially at the beginning. Most likely, with the life we have now, we have less of both to spare. Family and work demand a lot of our energy and time resources. And when we have some for ourselves, we want quality, ergo, no time to lose on “waiting” for friends.
What I mean with waiting is, having patience. We need opportunities to show vulnerability, open ourselves, build trust, get to know the person. Not only on our site, but the other party also needs the same. When we are in a hurry, it can be tricky.
Why are expats friendships important?
When we become expats, we often lack a strong support network, except maybe for the one provided by our partner and/or our company (colleagues).
Yet, having our own friends can give us a sense of independence and create our own space and social life, necessary for our self-esteem and self-confidence.
Several studies have confirmed that friendship has a positive influence on:
- Your physical health. A companion that encourages you to have healthy habits makes your efforts more motivating and fun
- Your resilience and coping skills. Having someone that listens to you increases your strengths and resources to cope with the problems life abroad can bring.
- Your mental health. Connection with others reduces the risks of anxiety, depression, and other psychological health-related issues.
- Your relationship with your partner. Having a friend to share your concerns and creating new memories, relieves the tension created by expressing your frustrations only to your partner, and gives you more to talk about with him/her.
- Your experiences. Activities, explorations, and discoveries that you might not dare to do alone or with your partner.
Loneliness is in the top 3 concerns among expats. It is challenging to find and maintain deep connections in a new country.
I want to emphasize something: feeling lonely doesn’t mean being alone. It has to do more than being surrounded by people. It has to do with us on how willing we are to show ourselves vulnerable and flawed.
When you let yourself be vulnerable with someone, you develop skills like empathy and compassion and discover inner resources to cope with the challenges of life abroad.
How to find and maintain meaningful Expat Friendships?
Of course, this is like a roulette. You can click and connect with people in the park or over a conversation in the waiting line to a movie (Both real experiences happened to me! ), but this is sadly not that common. I want to give you some tips on finding and maintaining expat friendships (Proven by my clients and me!)
1.- Spend time in the places YOU want to hang out
Clubs, cafés, parks, gym. Whatever YOU love doing. If you meet someone there, it will probably be a great conversation starter, and you already have something in common
2.- Give a second and even a third chance before “saying no” to someone
Like I mentioned earlier in my youtube video , bear in mind that the people you are meeting have probably similar dilemmas as you. Maybe they are nervous. Some people are not “so good” at first impressions. Give them (and yourself) the chance to feel more comfortable after two or three times meeting them.
3.- Allow yourself (in fact, I encourage you) to be vulnerable
Deep connection can only develop if you show yourself and your nuances. The lights and the shadows. Have the privilege to know people and give them the chance to know the real – vulnerable you!
4.- Take the initiative (and be persistent for a while)
You have an interest in finding friends and acquaintances abroad. If you meet and say, “let’s do this again sometime,” then be intentional about contacting the person. Suggest things that you’ve wanted to do in the city you are currently living.
5.- Don’ t focus on how long you are going to stay in this country
You will surely miss the opportunity of meeting new people if you worry about that. Create and cultivate deep bonds and interactions, doesn’t matter for how long! Besides, you never know when you are going to meet again!
6.- Accept that sometimes it just doesn’t work
We can’t click and connect with everyone, even when we try real hard. Maybe that person, in particular, was not the best one for you at this moment in time. There will be other people willing to share their time and friendship with you. I know it!
What about your friends back home?
I’m sure you do a lot to keep in touch with your long-life friends. Yet when we live abroad, we sometimes have the feeling that we are “losing” the people we left in our home country. If you are dealing with this fear of losing your friends, you can:
1.- Be honest with them about you having this fear of growing apart and ask them what they think about it.
2.- Share what you are going through, the lights and shadows of your expat life. They appreciate your honesty, and even if they worry, they prefer you to be sincere.
3.- Be intentional about keeping in touch. Organize virtual (and regular) dates via videoconferences. Take the time for it, at least one hour every time. Remind them a couple of days before. It might seem a little “unfair” always to take the initiative, yet again, you know it brings you joy!
Please, never forget to stay true to yourself and what YOU want. I know there are loads of tips about finding friends. They usually recommend going to meetings, meet locals, be open-minded, go outside, etcetera. But if you are an introvert, perhaps those tips are not ideal for you. Be aware of what you are feeling, what your needs are, and what YOU want for your life abroad.
Do you want to hear my insights on feeling lonely abroad and how to cope with it? Check my interview in The Expat Cast about Expat Loneliness here
Want more useful and effective tips? Download my 9 Tools to overcome Expat Anxiety Freebie
Do get in touch with me if you need help to navigate the challenges of your international life, I’m here for you. You are not alone!
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By your side,
Gabriela Encina is an online psychologist specialized in expat women and supports them with the guidance and tools they need to feel confident, make the best decisions for their lives, build and maintain meaningful relationships and prioritize their well-being.
Her approach is practical, solution-oriented and focused on the present.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.