September is a busy month in the expat world. While all our friends at home are battling through the summer holidays, expats all over the world are packing their lives into boxes (I never knew the sound of packing tape could be a trigger lol), bidding farewell to whatever life they had enjoyed (or not) and getting on planes to start all over again. We’ll unpack at the other end, to try to make a new life that will eventually feel like home. But before the container even arrives we will have started the most important task of all… we’ll have started to make friends.
To start all over again
It never gets easier, this moving malarkey. You’d think, with practice, that it would. But it doesn’t. As much as I now have the itch to move on, the idea of packing up and moving on makes me anxious. 3.5 years is a long time for us to be in one place and I feel I’ve got complacent. (For anyone who knows me, don’t worry there’s no news of any moves on the horizon). We have set routines and rituals. We have established friendships that will continue long after we have all moved on and away. The idea of being the new girl again is, quite frankly, a bit scary. I don’t want to have to make friends again.
Back to the beginning
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a coffee morning but this week I went to one hosted by Two Fat Expats. And I’m not sure what took me so long. I’ve spoken at length to friends about having expat fatigue, the idea of meeting new people sometimes drains me rather than excites me. But having been there, I remembered why I have always felt it is important to go. To meet new people. To be the one offering the hand of friendship to a new expat woman. And knowing that karma works like that, that someone will be offering me the hand of friendship when we do move onto our next assignment from here.
How to make friends
Commonly known as “friendship dating” in the expat world, finding your tribe and building your network is one of the most important things you will do on your assignment. You could be living in a mud hut or a palatial mansion but you will always need to make friends. The question is where will I be going to find this mythical hand? What can I do to make my life easier to meet new people as an expat?
1. Coffee mornings
Since we’re on the topic of coffee mornings, I guess that’s the best place to start! When I first arrived here, I found a coffee morning on a Tuesday and we went every week for the entire summer. Those mornings were a lifeline to me. They got me out of the house for a start (no mean feat with 2 young Things in tow).
But it was more than that. They got me talking to people in real life who weren’t my kids, the dog, the cashier at the supermarket or my Granny Wanderlust on Skype. I got advice on local doctors, schools, where to find specific foods, the best restaurants to go to and more. Interestingly I only ever made a couple of friends through coffee mornings here and that were when I was an old hand and they were new. But coffee mornings are still a staple of a “how to make new friends” strategy. .
2. Clubs and hobbies
I mean you can find a club on pretty much anything these days. The delights of Facebook groups mean you can find a club on pretty much anything pretty much anywhere. From book clubs to quilting clubs to cooking clubs to golf clubs… I love this way to meet people for a couple of reasons. One is you already have a shared interest so you have that in common right off the bat. The other is that when you meet up, you’re doing an activity you can concentrate on doing that as well as talking. It’s so much less intense than *just* talking and can help fill those awkward silences.
Another one that kills two birds with one stone is exercise. It doesn’t matter whether you find a local spinning class, learn a new skill like kiteboarding, ask around for tennis partners or join the local triathlon club. Find the thing that you’re happy doing and then go and find other people who are already doing it. It’s a great way to make friends and you’ll get a workout in too.
4. Take a class
It’s never too late to learn something new and what better time to do it than when you’ve got a bit of extra time on your hands without a full social calendar. Acquire a new skill and maybe a new friend at the same time!
5. Give a class
I loved the fact that my awesome sewing friend started giving classes on our compound. I loved that other friends have given talks on what they’re passionate about. Teaching others and sharing your passions can show other people all that is possible in the world – I never fail to be surprised when I meet someone who does a job I haven’t heard of and I’m like “and there’s a job for that?!” And I want to know more. You’ll meet some amazing new people along the way.
6. Networks / networking events
If learning or teaching isn’t your bag right now, consider joining a local or international expat group. There are more than I could even list – a couple of ones that seem to come up regularly in conversations and expat groups are Internations and Meetup but there are loads more. If you google expat groups + your location it will bring up a load of options for you. The same happens if you search on Facebook. You can look for professional networks or mum networks. There are networks for specific nationalities… There is literally so much out there, it’s just a matter of finding them!
7. Blogs and social media
Speaking of Facebook… social media is a fabulous way to connect with people. I have made several new friends via Facebook and Instagram. It sounds so cliche to say you met someone on the internet but in this day and age it’s not like we are meeting in speedy internet chat rooms. Social media is a major communication tool. You can find incredible support groups, events are advertised and local pages spread a wealth of information. You’d be crazy to ignore it!
I was NOT into blogs when we first moved here. Then I found one that I loved and started reading more and more. Since I started blogging it has been even more interesting for me to read other people’s work and I’ve found it’s possible to make friends this way too – whether you’re writing or not.
8. Use your pets
Walking the dog is an AMAZING way to meet people! It’s great because it gets you out and about. It gets you moving and exercising. It (can) get you exploring your neighbourhood and surrounding area (unless you live on a compound haha). And for some reason people will talk to you with a dog when they just wouldn’t under other circumstances. Weird. But true.
9. Use your kids
Now I’m reliably informed that meeting people via your kids is a little kid thing. Apparently it gets harder as they get older and things like playdates and music classes aren’t something that you stick around for. And of course not everyone has Things that they can exploit for the purposes of meeting new people. But if you do, use it for all it’s worth. And if you can make friends with people who have Things the same ages as yours (and, better still, at the same school!) then all the better. You can have coffee or wine play dates. You can share carpooling and pick up emergency supplies of bread / milk / eggs at the supermarket for each other.
It’s not just playdates and classes that will help you and it doesn’t have to be a Thing-focussed thing. I’ve got chatting to other mums through volunteering at the school, talking to people as we walk in the gates, chatting at sports day and so on. While it’s great to make friends through your kids, you can have friends who are totally separate to them – even if you met at the same school!
Those people who are lucky enough to be in paid employment have an entire social network to tap into at work. Of course it depends on the culture of where you are working but it’s a great way to meet new people. Even just talking to adults during the day makes an enormous difference to your health and well-being!
If you don’t work (or, indeed, even if you do!) volunteering is a lovely way to fill your time, make a difference and make friends. I think it’s probably particularly good if you find a cause that you are passionate about – the animal rescue and welfare charities are a great example of this. If you love animals and care about them then the chances are the people volunteering around you do to. Working alongside such people, you may well find that you also share other core values such as sustainability or eco tourism.
13. Find common ground
Leading on from volunteering you could find a common cause or interest that helps you to make friends. For example a shared interest in health and wellness might mean you and a friend try out a new vegan cafe every week. Recently a friend noted that our compound shop only uses plastic bags. She got on our Facebook group and set up a little army of people to make reusable bags for everyone to use. She has connected people who may well have never met each other were it not for her idea! Lots of people also find that sharing the common ground of being new can instantly create a bond.
14. Friends of friends
It’s amazing how many people suddenly come out of the woodwork when you mention you’re moving somewhere new! I’ve been put in touch with people in every place that I have lived by friends or family who know someone else living there. It makes things easier because you already have that shared connection so there’s conversations started for the first time you meet. They will know how you’re feeling and can be a huge source of support.
15. Talk to randoms
Quite the opposite of using friends of friends you might just need to talk to randoms to meet people! Coming from London, I didn’t always find it easy to just strike up a conversation with someone. Now I will talk to anyone! I’ll chat to people in the check out queue at the supermarket or at a coffee shop. I’ll comment on the weather to other parents waiting to pick their kids up from an after school activity. If I’m perfectly honest with you, I detest making small talk. I still don’t find it easy after all these years of doing it. But it’s a great skill to have will really help you meet people. And you can’t make friends if you don’t meet people.
16. Say yes
Now if you’re a new expat this should read – say yes to everything. But as I was writing this list I got to thinking that actually even when you’ve been in a place for a while you still need to say yes. Especially when it comes to making new friends. Saying yes opens doors. It opens up opportunities to do fun things that you might not have done before. It exposes you to new people you might not have met otherwise. It pushes you outside your comfort zone. It increases the possibility for you to make friends.
So even if you’ve been around the expat block a few times, say yes to that coffee morning. Go along to that art class even though you can’t paint to save your life. Go to the happy hour when you don’t know a soul. You just never know who you might meet there.
17. Be proactive
I’ve met a few people recently who have shown up with business cards. Now I’ll be honest. I don’t love the idea and I’ve never done it myself. But I know it works. One lady I know actually got a job after she gave her business card to someone at a networking event. I mean obviously there was more to it than that but it was a great way to start.
I do have cards now but they’re more for the blog. Still, if I forget them, I go with my phone in my hand. I exchange phone numbers or email addresses with people I’m interested in. If there’s a visible guest list available I’ll check to see who is going and if there’s anything we might have in common. I go with a list of small talk questions and conversation started ideas so I’m not caught out by awkward silences that I’m scrambling to fill.
18. Be brave
I think you can’t make friends without being a bit brave. You have to put yourself out there. You have to go to those coffee mornings and networking events even when you don’t want to. Make the effort to look for things to go to that interest you and might help you meet like minded people. When you’re there you have to make that small talk. And when you find someone you think you click with, you have to ask for their phone number. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable. In fact it’s a bit cringe. But it pays off.
When I first arrived I felt like I couldn’t be the one to organise things. I didn’t know people. I had no idea where I was. Or what was going on locally. I waited for people to friend me on Facebook, never confident enough to make the first move (seriously – it’s as bad as dating!). I didn’t want to be the pushy new girl. Now that I’ve been here a while, I’ve been invited to a few things recently by new people and friended by them on Facebook and you know what? I found it refreshing! I mean I wouldn’t go round friending every person I met. But when you’ve met someone and had a good conversation with them, and really found you had a connection then I say go ahead and do it. I’ve made a couple of potential close friends like that recently and I’m excited.
20. Stalk people
Ok, I don’t actually mean stalking. That’s quite crazy, a lot scary, will almost certainly not make you friends and will probably get you arrested. But you can do things to mean people don’t meet you and forget about you. Things like remembering things about them, following up with them after meeting them – like with a message to say you enjoyed meeting them. Inviting them to things or sending them a link to something because they mentioned they were interested in it… Just doing thoughtful things can go a long way.
21. Be friendly
The one thing I find will make friends is being friendly. Just be a nice person and people will gravitate to you. The expat circuit is a hard one and we have all had our fill of negative people. I make it a point to stay away from anyone who drags me down. Life’s too short to spend time with people like that. But if you’re a person who is fun and friendly and who lifts me up? If you’re a person who makes me smile when I think of you? Someone who makes me walk away from a conversation feeling happier than when I started it? Then I’ve got a lot of time for you and I know I’m not alone.
My last point takes me back to the beginning. It’s not just new people who meed to make friends. It’s all of us. I might not be looking to build a whole new network like I was at the beginning. Making small talk might exhaust me. And I might be ever so slightly superstitious about getting too close to a new friend and promptly getting news that we are moving on.
The longer I do this the more I find myself with friends scattered all over the world. Some of them are literally in the four corners of the earth. No, I’m not desperate for friends and no, I’m not looking to build an entire local network like I am when I first get to a new location.
But you know what? I’m always open to making a new friends.
What do you think of my ideas? Anything you’d add Wanderlusters?