Friends abroad: when you want a deeper connection


Having good friends abroad is one of the most important things about expat life. Some of my best friends are people that I met abroad, and they come from different cultures and countries but we’ve somehow figured out that we have a lot in common despite appearing different on the surface. 

When talking about friends abroad, there are two challenges that come up over and over again. They are:

  • How to make close friends abroad when people are busy and don’t want to commit
  • How to join an existing group of friends, get invited to the chat group and the Sunday BBQ session

In this article, I’ll outline a simple actionable idea for both in a shorter and more direct fashion than many of the other articles on this blog. Let’s jump in!

Oddities of meeting people abroad

When I speak to readers about meeting friends a few places always come up:

  • Work
  • Hobbies
  • Events or meetups from eventbrite, meetup.com or Internations 

And there are a few others that are equally as powerful, if not more:

  • Chamber of commerce events
  • Self-hosted events
  • Networking events

The bothersome thing is that most meetups are generic, so it is difficult to judge if it will be worth the energy spent going there or if we should’ve just stayed on the couch with a movie. Most meetups are centered around learning the local language or often nothing in particular like coffee or bar-meetups, where the conversation quickly falls to where we come from and what we do for a living.

Many of us are not a fan of those because we meet too many people that are just too different from us. For example, just because someone speaks the same language as us or is from the same country, doesn’t mean that they’ll be best man/bridesmaid material at our wedding. Just like having an interest in the local language doesn’t doesn’t mean that we become long time friends (how exciting is a discussion over grammar in a foreign language, really?) 

It’s rare to meet someone on the same path as us, especially if we are ambitious. At best we might meet one or two that we’d like to connect with in the future. At worst, we get stuck in the conversation with someone clingy who doesn’t know how to read the room, isn’t self-aware, and we are not really sure how to leave the conversation without being impolite.

Most of us who have been abroad for a while know what kind of questions that tend to come up at meetups:

  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do here?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • How long have you been here?

Yet, we use the same dry, boring answers we always have instead of experimenting with a few different options. Intuitively, we know that making a good first impression can make a huge difference but it can feel weird to practice changing.

Many of us tend to go meet new people for a while until the excitement wears off, and we eventually declare that the city is weird and that’s just how people are here. We might even compare it to other cities we’ve lived in where we made great friends and conclude that it isn’t us who have changed but there are just no cool people here. In reality, it is usually us who’ve changed and often as a part of growing up or changing our lifestyle as we get older.

The challenge that many of us have is that we’ve never been exposed to amazing friends that are just like us. We might not even know how good it can feel to be “home” among friends that want the exact same stuff as us. Imagine being among people where your strange hobbies aren’t strange and geeking out or being ambitious isn’t weird.

Altogether meeting people is a volume game and most of us stop too early before the snowball effect truly kicks in. Where meeting one new person leads to two of their friends, and two of their friends, and so on.

Ironically, we would rather feel frustrated and perhaps even move to a different city than get out of our bubble and change it. If you are excited to do something about it, let’s take a look at how to turn a meetup into many more and eventually lifelong friends.

friends abroad gathering and eating

A good technique for turning a meetup into lifelong friends abroad

When I speak to other expats about the challenges abroad, friends always come up as one of the most important factors. Sometimes it’s about meeting the right people but most of the time it’s more about making meaningful lifelong friends abroad.

It’s challenging enough to find those people at home, let alone abroad. Often we settle into social circles we’ve had for years without realizing that they tend to have the biggest impact on our life, especially if we have any ambition for the future. I find that there is space for both but don’t lose out and feel miserable when others could be just around the corner.

It goes without saying though, that some people just don’t wanna meet again, it’s not a good fit at this point in their life and that’s cool.

The best thing I’ve found overall is to be the one taking the first step instead of waiting for others to invite us. That means proactively organizing mini-events, gatherings or ideas. For example, weekly dinners bringing people together, poker night or inviting a couple of people you want to get together with, to a sport or hobby you practice. You might use this script to text them and get started:

“Hey I know you like wakeboarding, I’m going to X on Saturday and it would be cool if you join. I’m inviting a couple of people I think you’ll find interesting as well.” 

That way there is no pressure to hang out just the two of you over a coffee conversation, if you don’t click and there’s the added benefit of meeting specific people doing something we enjoy rather than just those who happen to be there. 

The trick to making it work is to practice figuring out what people like and inviting them to relevant stuff. Eventually, you’ll be the person in their circle who knows a bunch of cool people and has an interesting life.

Best of all it will become a habit and flow almost automatically as we get used to it, even if you feel a bit shy and haven’t done it before. I used the same technique to help with my fear of heights by going skiing. I took on some steep slopes because I knew it would freak me out at first but also that I would get used to it after a while.

When you’ve met a bunch of people, you might stumble upon a group of existing friends that you’ll want to get to know better and perhaps even become a part of.

How to join an existing group of friends abroad and get invited to the Sunday BBQ session

Among the common questions, I hear from expats is how to join an existing group of friends without appearing desperate. It’s something near and dear to my heart as I’ve had the same thing in mind over the years.

It feels like having a new adopted family abroad with the group chats and the Sunday BBQs but the thing is that it takes time. It follows the same pattern as making new friends at home and there is no way to seriously speed it up. Going through challenges together definitely helps but besides doing a day at an obstacle course, it isn’t really that easy with people we don’t know well.

Some people approach the group asking to be invited, which feels odd as they put others in an awkward position where they might not want to hurt that person’s feelings but might not be ready to invite them either. Sometimes the gatherings can get an odd vibe if everyone knows each other well except one who doesn’t have much in common with the rest.

One approach is to hang out with them at more open social gatherings with a mix of those people and others as it tends to be more of an “open invitation”. Drinks on a night out is a good example and might be done by popping by briefly without staying too long if you know there’s a little meetup at a particular bar one evening. 

Follow that by contacting a couple of the people individually to get to know them better after. For example, by inviting one out for coffee and another to a particular sport or hobby if you know that they like that. 

Over time as you get closer with some of them individually, it’s much easier to get invited if many (or all) in the group know and like that person. The challenge is when a few people in the group don’t like a particular person and others invite them. There isn’t a great way to overcome that except informally meeting up with those people separately, inviting your other friends, and slowly gravitating towards different group meetups with a mix of people from that group and others.

However, it gets more complex as the group will rarely stay the same over the years. In fact, sooner or later some people usually leave, others join and so the group slowly changes eventually. That allows us to form a new group or subgroup of friends as things evolve.

Takeaways

  • Don’t get hung up feeling as if there are no cool friends abroad (unless you live in a village on the north pole)
  • To turn people you meet at one-off meetups into friends, invite them to stuff
  • To get invited to be a part of an existing group of friends, bond with some of the people individually at first

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