The number one thing I notice people talking about when moving abroad is how to make friends in a foreign country and not feeling lonely.
I’m sure that’s why there are so many networking- and meet up-events. Over the past years, I’ve been experimenting with social life as an expat and how making new friends impact my own and other people’s experience abroad.
You see, after some uncomfortable self-reflection, I’ve noticed that one of the key reasons I left my first stint abroad was that my social life wasn’t great and I had no idea how to change it. It was hard to admit because it meant that I had failed somewhere.
It was easy to blame the city for simply not having the ‘culture’ I wanted when in reality I hadn’t done my part to connect with new people. It is more likely that it was caused out of some fear or unwillingness on my side to acknowledge that and figure out a way to overcome it. It is easier to blame external things than to look at ourselves.
It’s funny because whenever I take those personality tests to see if I’m an introvert or an extrovert I’m never convinced about the answer.
I’m always somewhere in the middle and I feel that half the questions aren’t relevant or don’t offer the right options to answer the question. For now, I like to look at myself as an introvert with a great social life. I like to go out and have fun but I also like to have my space, and an event can both energize and drain me.
Today I’d like to talk about a few things I’ve observed about being abroad, making friends, and learning the local language.
The uncomfortable reality about the people you meet abroad
I see so many expats that fall into the same trap that I did. They come to a new country and start out by socializing with their new colleagues and other people they meet here and there. Then after a while, they feel like they don’t fit in this new country, wish they had ‘better’ friends and leave the country because they weren’t able to find a good friend circle or support system when the rollercoaster that expat life throws a curveball.
I’ve rarely found that one group of friends is a good fit for all the good times and all the challenges in our expat experience, simply because a great friend can help based on their experience from a similar situation and everyone has different experiences.
If there’s a challenge back home, it can be better to speak with old friends or family instead of new friends since they know the whole story. Just like your old friends from school won’t understand the struggles of wanting a nice home-cooked meal at your parents’ house when you are living abroad. They just don’t get it.
At the same time, if you are happy you just got your work contract extended abroad or had your first conversation in the local language, the folks back home will not get it the same way your expat friends will.
In fact, one of the most uncomfortable truths I’ve found as an expat is that even though I like to indulge in the local culture and learn a lot about it, I have never become as good friends with locals as I wanted to except if they have also been abroad at some point. I keep finding that I will never understand their life 100% as a local and vice versa. They will never fully understand what it is like to be an expat in their country.
Interestingly, I tried an experiment with an ex-girlfriend based on that theory: she was local and I was a foreigner, so we moved to a third country where none of us had any relations to see what would happen. We thought that both being expats in a new country we had never been to before and being from different countries might make things easier.
…We failed miserably for two reasons. We were not skilled enough socially and not that great at knowing how to make friends in a foreign country from scratch.
Looking back a lot of it was probably also fear or shyness. I’ve come to realize that most of us just kinda cruise through life with the friends we made along the way through school and work.
As most of us have not moved to a foreign country before, we have never needed to learn what it takes to make new friends from scratch in a completely new place. It is taboo to change friend circles and most of us never think about it until we hear someone share something cool they did on the weekend, and we wish it was us.
For example, one day I spoke to someone who mentioned that whenever they go back home and hang out with their old friends for a guys’ night out, they always leave feeling energized because everyone is doing amazing things in their lives.
But that isn’t a simple task. It takes time and effort to have awesome friends as that requires us to be an awesome friends too, let alone just figuring out what exactly that means to us.
One way to look at our friendships is through different ‘circles’:
- Fellow expat countrymen in the same country
- Fellow expats from other countries
- Local friends
- Family and friends back home
These are not listed by importance but rather in random order. The reason I have listed them like this and not by activity is that you can be doing activities with a mixed crowd from each of the different circles and you’ll have a closer connection to some than others.
Let’s go through each of them in detail.
Fellow expat countrymen
These are people that are from the same country as you e.g. if you are a French living in Denmark that would be other French people doing the same.
In my experience, there is a fair chance you get along well with them, or rather you’ll probably get along with some of them while others not as much but you might still feel some connection due to nostalgia about things related to home.
It seems as if the smaller the country you are from the stronger the bond between you even if you don’t want to be close friends with them.
Fellow expats from other countries
These are people from a different country than you e.g. if you are a Chinese living in Germany they might be a Spaniard doing the same.
With people from our own country, we tend to connect around our shared experience from home but often that doesn’t mean we have the same worldview or agree on the same key life choices.
With fellow expats from different countries, we tend to have the same idea of how living in this foreign world and all things local can be both cool and weird at the same time.
At the same time, we are able to better connect based on mutual interests like similar aspirations or hobbies and I’ve found that to create a stronger connection that our culture from home.
Maybe that is why I have noticed expats often get interested in other expat’s cultures as opposed to the local one.
It might also have something to do with the fact that we are exposed to the local culture all the time so the honeymoon period wears off after a while whereas a friend’s culture might seem exotic because we experience it in tiny portions.
These could be our coworkers or friends and is pretty self-explanatory as they are locals in the country where you are an expat.
I haven’t been able to break through the barrier of having truly close local friends abroad yet (think adopted family style) as there tends to be a difference where we don’t understand each other’s situation fully. I’ve also found that many expect us expats to leave sooner or later, so it isn’t worth bothering and who can really blame them. I noticed myself thinking the same way at home.
It is easier if they have been an expat in the past. Especially, if we live in a country that doesn’t tend to speak English well, as the language barrier will be bigger too.
In my experience, these tend to be the most surface-level ‘friends’, and often we just joke around but if we moved to a different country we wouldn’t keep in touch much.
Family and friends back home
I doubt I need to describe these people in detail.
They are your good ol’ buds and family, and unless they have been abroad themselves they often don’t understand the experience of living abroad.
Working in a company as one of the few (or only) foreigners
Over the years, I’ve worked in quite a few different companies abroad. At one company I was the only foreigner, at another we were many.
My takeaways in terms of socializing and being adventurous is that even if we are compensated well, it comes boring as hell to be the only foreigner in the office. At one point I realized that I would go days without having a meaningful non-work conversation. As I discussed with friends, it turned out that it is more common than I expected.
It likely came down to a mix of things: if we want to jump into a conversation at work it gets challenging if it is always in the local language because it is easy to feel excluded. And after a while we don’t wanna bother asking what’s going on, not to mention that jokes are rarely funny the second time. It makes a lot of sense since we tend to be most comfortable speaking in our own language.
I worked at one company where the culture was modern and cool but I was the only foreigner and even though most of the locals had been abroad and were my age something was still missing.
To be fair, we also have the same experience with other expats but it might be easier to pinpoint with them because we are often schooled the same way so our background is somewhat similar.
Ironically, during one of my entrepreneurial projects, it was easier to keep a fun social life. I often hear from people how difficult it is to make friends and hang out casually when there is no office. In reality, if we are strapped to an office for eight hours per day with colleagues that aren’t a good fit for us it becomes more difficult because we don’t have the flexibility.
The best way to keep having fun if your office is boring is actively scheduling other things to do such as lunches with people.
I like it because it has a set timeframe (people have to get back to work), so it’s great as a first meeting.
How to make friends in a foreign country: what if you don’t want to drink but still want new friends?
That brings us to the next point.
What if you don’t want to drink alcohol all the time but still want to make friends? In most countries alcohol seems to be one of the key social lubricants but what do you do if that’s not your thing?
If you’ve ever tried going to a bar and drink less than your friends you’ve probably realized how boring it is and how stupid they sound.
I’ve been asking myself this very question for a while and in my experimentation, I’ve found that scheduling lunches also works well for that.
Particularly, if you don’t want to eat with your colleagues all the time (not fun if you are the only one who doesn’t speak the language) or if you are ambitious and want to advance your career.
I’ve also noticed that whether you drink or not it is usually incredibly boring to hang out with a group of people who all speak the same language – even if they technically can speak English!
Because of the group situation and that they are used to speaking their native language among each other it feels weird to speak English together to include you. And I’m no exception, I feel the same way when I speak with other Danes.
It’s just not a good social situation so I’ve had to stop hanging out with groups of people if I know that I’m going to be the only one who doesn’t speak the language – even if it is expats.
In that case, I’ll do something else and plan to hang out with them in another setting where we are a better mix of nationalities. And I’m much happier for it!
How to make friends in a foreign country while learning the local language
One of the things that surprised me the most was how great learning the local language is as a way of making new friends.
From a social perspective, it is just excellent because you need to interact with people to practice and it is often a fun topic to talk about with your fellow expats.
In a classroom, it is a reasonably good way to meet new people and if you schedule a private tutor to teach you and a couple of friends it is a great way to hang out and learn something new together.
The best part is you can do it to get a “taster” of the language to see if it is something you enjoy learning without needing to get fluent, which to many people feels overwhelming.
Honestly, learning by practicing with people is by far the most efficient way to learn another language (I can’t say this enough!).
To make this practical, this means that you will learn a lot more by bringing together a few friends and cooking some local dishes while practicing the language than from watching a movie or playing Duolingo – and you get to hang out with your friends. That’s killing two birds with one stone!
I’ve also found that locals appreciate it if we ask them about their language, like how to say X or what Y means.
It is a great way to connect during a party and you can use what they teach you the next time you hang out with other people.
When I first started to learn the local language I thought it would be fun to speak with locals that aren’t able to speak English to understand their thoughts and worldview… Until I tried.
I was surprised but as I’m reflecting on it, it makes perfect sense.
Most of them will have an entirely different view of the world and disagree on key life decisions such as how many kids to have. The point is not what the right answer is but coming from a perspective of making close friends through being able to relate to each other, it can be challenging as we often simply can’t relate.
- There are four overarching groups of people that we tend to meet abroad
- Not everyone we meet abroad is of the same friendship material. Fellow expats from other countries than our own tend to be those we get closest to unless you are from a large country with a large expat population
- Being the only foreigner in the office can be a challenge socially as we are often left out of the office chit chat so we have to compensate outside of work hours