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Making friends abroad: another challenge in our to-do list
Sometimes you wonder when it is going to get easy, pfff…another thing I need to do in order to start my new life…Yes, I know, the list can be quite long, and even endless, but it will get better… eventually.
For newcomers, living abroad can be a very lonely experience at the beginning. You are the new kid at school and nobody is really interested in you, unless you make an effort to be noticed. For some outgoing expats/immigrants, this part of living abroad can be a piece of cake; they can strike up a conversation with someone at a park or propose a night out with their new colleagues, and from there, they start new friendships. On the other hand, we have the shy ones, who struggle to break the ice during their new language course or at work. All in all, no matter which type of person you are, making friends abroad requires effort, patience and lots of try-outs.
Lately, I have been reading other expats’ tips on how to make friends. I have found all sorts of opinions; the one that trashes the country’s friendliness, the ultra-optimistic post that advices you to go out and talk to any stranger on the streets and the sarcastic and hilarious one, like this, that suggests lots of patience and acceptance of the culture. From all these opinions, I agree more with the last one.
I have to confess that for many years I was part of the group that trashes the country’s friendliness. I live in a country that is considered to be very friendly and open to all nationalities and cultures. Therefore, I came to the Netherlands expecting the best. So, what happened after I felt left out and with almost no friends? – I created a big monster in my head and I refused to make friends with this country. And that was when everything went wrong.
When I told people I was moving to the Netherlands, I could only hear great things about Dutch people. Everybody told me that they were very laid-back, spoke English fluently and were very liberal and open to almost everything. With all these references, I felt very confident about starting my new adventure; not once, I had a single doubt about my decision to come here. In the first few months in the Netherlands, I confirmed that people were very friendly, and always curious about me. Strangers would smile at me or greet me very courteously, I felt welcomed. At some point, I even dared to think that my experience in the Netherlands would be greater than the one I had in England. But as you probably know by now, it was just another honeymoon stage.
After this stage was over, I had some acquaintances, but no friends, I wasn’t worried…yet. I sat on my chair, looked at the clock, and waited for good friends to appear. Of course, I sat there for a really long time. Nothing was really happening; people kept smiling at me, but I wasn’t making any close friends. People kept asking me what I was doing in their country and if I had ever been to Machu Picchu, but nobody was inviting me to their homes. ‘What was going on?’, I wondered.
The fact is that I had the wrong assumptions about making friends. I learned later that you don’t make friends abroad the same way you do in your country; it’s very important to know your host country’s culture and customs in order to know the locals and how their social rules work, don’t expect them to adopt your rules. In addition to my ignorance, I had never learnt to make friends in my own country, and I didn’t realize that until I lived here. My first best friend in Peru was the one who made the first move. On my first day at primary school, she was the one who invited me to sit next to her; if she wouldn’t have, I would probably have no friends now. I am very grateful to her for that move!. However, expecting that others do the move won’t take you very far, you need to start from scratch and work on your friendships.
Making friends is important, making friends abroad is even more important, because everybody needs a support system. You no longer have your family and friends around you, so having someone to count on would make living abroad a bit easier and more pleasant, too. Then, what is the secret? what is the formula? – I don’t think anybody really has the answer. I don’t believe there are 5 miraculous tips to make friends abroad; we are all different individuals, and what it may work for me, it doesn’t necessarily have to work for you. I can only provide my experience and advice, which would hopefully help you a little bit.
There are many ways to find people and make friends abroad, that doesn’t mean you need to do all of them, but it won’t hurt if you try at least one:
– Use Facebook or any other social media as your starting point. In my times (2006), Facebook was not the great monster that is now, so there were no Meetup groups, Expats in Amsterdam, etc. The task of making friends was a bigger challenge. These days, it is much easier. Through social media you can look for expats in your area or for people who share similar interests, but don’t just join the group, participate!. You can introduce yourself and explain that you are new in town and looking for friends, social gatherings, etc. People will definitely reply to it.
– Don’t recreate your past at your new home. At some point in my experience as an immigrant, I found myself looking for people who would resemble my friends from Peru, not physically but in terms of personality. I did this unconsciously. Only now is that I realize why it was so hard for me to find people I liked. It is necessary, and even mandatory, to be open to all kinds of people. Don’t judge anybody until you have spent some quality time with that new acquaintance, give them a chance to show you what type of people they are. I had a check list in mind about the qualities that my new friends should have, and this narrowed my chances to meet people. I missed the opportunity to learn from others.
– Look for people from your own country as well. This could be easier and very comfortable; no need to learn a new language and it provides you with a sense of home. In my opinion, this is not a bad option, but it shouldn’t be the only one. When you only hang out with your ‘people’, it could isolate you from the culture you are living in and you may end up in a vicious circle, where you only gather to complain about your host country. So proceed with caution!.
– ‘I live in a small town and there isn’t an expat group for me. What can I do?’ – Start one yourself!. I know this sounds very frightening, but if what you are looking for doesn’t exist, you should create it. Promote the group that you want to have, there is at least one person out there sitting at home and waiting for that group to be created. Search, search, search, and you will find what you are looking for. You can use Facebook or Meetup, or any other social media you like.
– Not a big fan of social media? Well, get out of the house, take some fresh air!. At public libraries, there are usually different activities that you can take part of. These activities could be the perfect moment to meet other people. Also, if you are attending a language course or any other type of class, invite a classmate for a cup of coffee. Don’t think too much about it, just ask. What’s the worst it could happen? – Rejection. Nobody likes to be rejected, but at least you will stop wondering if that person would have that coffee with you. Remember: the process of making friends abroad is like try-outs: if you fail once, you keep going until you succeed!.
– Do you have a big heart? – Volunteer. You can go to your neighborhood center/city hall or search on the Internet to find information about places that need your help. This would not only make you feel good but you may find a great new friend.
-Local newspapers can also keep you updated about what it is going on around you. They list the main social activities; if you attend at least one, I am sure you will be surprised to know the great people that live around you.
– ‘But what about the locals?. I also want to make friends with them’- In my own experience, I have seen that Dutch people can be a tough crowd (but then I wonder if I would behave like them in my own country). The first times I attempted to have a real connection with them, it was disappointing and I felt they were not interested in making friends with me. I was left with the feeling of ‘Sorry, but my social circle is already full. Thank you for applying. We wish you all the best’. Yes, that hurt and I gave up immediately, which was a very bad decision. After these attempts, I decided to put all the Dutchies in the same category: ‘not friendly at all’. With the time, my image of Dutch people got worse and worse, and I only made friends with other immigrants. The result was that my only Dutch friends were my partner’s friends and family, who are great but not mine. It is a shame, because I know there are amazing Dutch people out there who would be more than happy to be my friends. ‘But where to find them?’ – Do not waste your time on thoughts about where to find them or how to make friends with them, or on any negative opinion about how unfriendly they can be, just keep an open mind, be friends with the people that are already there for you, no matter where they come from. And most important: cultivate patience and tolerance!.
All these tips are based on my own experience and what I have seen during these years abroad. Newcomers can apply them, but the old ones as well; it is never too late to start new friendships. Learn from my mistakes!. I didn’t do any of these things until recent years, and now that I have done them, I realize how much energy I would have saved if I would have followed at least one of them. I can also see now that my path was full of frustrations and disappointments, and if I would have been more open and less critical, I would have been happier. Nevertheless, here I am, I have started following all these tips myself and the results are good!. I put my negativity aside and I have started a new chapter in my life.
If you have more tips about making friends abroad, I would be very happy to hear them. Let’s share stories!