How to make friends in a new country (even if you feel shy)


You might’ve just moved and are wondering how to make friends in a new country, or maybe you’ve been here for a while and just want to build your network without machine-gunning business cards everywhere.

It’s pretty intense, especially at first. A new culture, new language, new neighbourhood and… no friends except that one guy you sort of know from work.

You don’t know where to eat, what to eat, how to set up your bank account, paperwork and on and on. And then there’s the work itself. There’s enough to do.

There’s a lot going on but you feel good and not desperate to hangout too much.. Although it would be nice, of course.

Weeks turn into months. Suddenly, you wake up one Saturday morning wondering what to do and realize you have no real friends here.

Sure, there’s a couple of people from work that seem nice. And that other one you met somewhere a while ago. But it’s not the same. Something is missing.

Have you felt that way before?

It sucks but there is hope. This short guide is here to help. We’ll talk about specific activities and then we’ll dive into tricks you can use to make friends in a new country even if you feel shy.

Why it is hard to make good friends abroad

The reality is that most of us are in the same boat, moving abroad without knowing anyone. Just look at this comment:

how to make friends in a new country - example

And when we look for help, we tend to get the same superficial advice: “just go to meetups”, “learn the language” and “be open-minded” as if we didn’t already know that. 

If that’s all we needed, we’d just google for meetups, go, and it would be solved. This year things are different with the Coronavirus but if that was the only thing holding us back we would have solved it last year anyway.

Learning the language is a good point but it takes a while to practice enough to carry meaningful conversations and what are we supposed to do until then?

I have a feeling that it might be deeper than that.

We expats tend to complain more about making good friends than simply meeting people in general. We meet new people all the time. In fact, if we just moved we almost only meet new people by default!

But that is not the same as meeting people that we become close with. The “right” people.

The problem with meeting the right people is that there is some element of luck involved, like two people being at the same event, on the same day, in the same city.

We also have to have things in common. There’s a lot that has to go right in order for that to happen no matter where we are in the world, so statistically the chance of meeting people we connect deeply with is just not that high. 

If we also feel shy talking with new people our chances become slim. Imagine the chances of meeting your new best friend, in a foreign country, working or living in the same place as you. It’s just not that likely.

If we hope to meet people through our “default” weekly activities like work without actively seeing it out, it’s just unlikely to happen.

For example, I like watersports but if I don’t seek out a place to meet people, it’s unlikely that I’ll just run into someone who shares the same interest unless we are in a city that is well-known for watersports. Not to mention even if I meet one person, there is no guarantee that we’ll hit it off.

This is obvious to most of us… so why don’t we do it? Why are there so few people that we connect well with and how can we find more?

​Why don’t we build new relationships when we know we should?​

Most of us focus on things that are urgent in favor of what’s important. It’s not that we are bad people or aren’t serious but it’s a lot easier to prioritize an annoying deadline from our boss than some arbitrary deadline we set for ourselves (like going to meet new people), with no reason as to why we can’t move it a day or a week.

Since we have limited willpower and energy, there is only so much we can do until we get tired. And sometimes, after a long, intense, day at work, there is just nothing left.

We are creatures of habit and predictability. We tend to like things where we know the outcome. For example by applying for a job: a) send a resume b) get a job. Predictable. Going to an event can often feel like a time-waster since we don’t know who we’ll meet and what’s going to happen.

Another challenge is that making new friends isn’t exactly something we are taught by our parents or in school. Most of us stay in our home country and hang out with the same friends since we were kids — and we even take pride in it. “I’ve known them since school” we might say.

We know that we naturally grow and evolve, yet it’s like we don’t accept that we can grow apart from our friends after 15 years. It is only when we move abroad, we start to realize that as we see our friends at home slowly drift away.

We might think that the only way to meet new people is by getting drunk at a bar or machine-gunning business cards at networking events. Or we feel shy and that it is easier to stay home and watch Netflix.

It’s a tough realization that we have to make new friends but after accepting it, it ultimately makes us happier once we figure it out.

How to make friends in a new country with these activities

how to make friends in a new country

Next, let’s look at how to make friends in a new country using specific activities and tactics.

1. Learn local slang and use it to befriend others

Learn social phrases in the local language (like ‘cheers’) and impress the locals. People love it when we know insights that expats typically don’t.

At your next social gathering ASK how to say cheers, what slang is commonly used in this situation or ask about the local culture like specific holidays, what they mean or how they are celebrated.

Then practice it with them a few times and say it to the group. The next time you are with a new group use what you’ve learned.

2. Cook local dishes with new friend or do (half) day trips on the weekend

I’ve found doing short trips or cooking together work better than going to the cinema together because it forces us to be active whereas a movie allows us to be more passive.

We get more of an opportunity to bond and friends are not made from the time spent together as most of us think but based on the experiences we’ve had together. People who’ve been to war together have a closer bond than those who had a language class together (extreme example).

But AVOID talking about politics and religion. These two topics are not good for making friends in a new country and usually lead to heated discussions. 

If you want to learn more about these two things in your new country, wait until you have some friends you know better, ask them and tell them you’d like to learn so they know you are not entering into a discussion about right and wrong views (they are always subjective and you’ll never hear the end of it).

3. The trap of the language class

I know I have a bit of a different take on this than most expats. It probably comes from the fact that I don’t think expats need to learn the language of my home country, Denmark. 

It just doesn’t make sense for them considering how few people speak it, how good the general English level is and how little the language is around the world.

Speaking the local language is almost a taboo topic because many expats feel guilty and ashamed for not speaking it better than they do. Yet, we don’t do anything about it.

For most of us it is because we don’t have a strong, emotional, reason to do so. That’s why the perhaps most common type of expat who does learn it, is the one who has children with a local spouse. 

They tend to feel bad if they can’t speak with their child while the spouse and the child speak the same language. But even with a reason as strong as that, you’d be surprised how few learn it.

Most of us agree that it is sexy as hell to speak a foreign language fluently but as soon as we realize how much hard work it is, and how long it takes, we get busy with other stuff. Suddenly, it competes with other skills we might want to learn such as presentation skills for work.

If you’ve lived abroad and still don’t speak the local language after years, you know what I’m talking about. Stop feeling guilty about it and let it go or make it a priority. Doing neither is just not productive.

It doesn’t have to be that black and white, however. I’ve had a great experience learning enough to take care of weekly tasks in the language. It’s a nice gesture to the locals as guests in their country and many of us would expect them to do the same if they were in our country.

In terms of difficulty, that tends to be easy because a lot of the tasks can be helped with hand gestures to build context as they often are transactional (taking a taxi, public transport, ordering at a restaurant, asking for directions, etc.). That is unless the country has specific requirements for visa, etc.

As soon as we advance to deeper conversations the difficulty explodes like the failed Apollo mission to space. It becomes much harder because you could talk about any number of topics in a number of different ways.

Learning to take care of weekly and daily tasks tend to take one or two months with a tutor if you practice for half an hour every day. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn and because you do those tasks often, you’ll remember them much easier.

The thing that most forget about connecting with locals, is that we tend to not have as much in common with people that aren’t exposed to other cultures and traveling as much as we are. Meaning that many of those that we get close with already speak English because they’ve been living abroad before. 

Think about the people you know back home who have never traveled. How well do you get along with them? Do you have a lot in common?

Probably not and that isn’t because they are from your country, it seems that the pattern repeats itself in any culture. People who haven’t felt a need to learn English or explore the world, will have a hard time relating to your experiences abroad and so it will be harder to become close friends as that is often what glues us together.

If you are looking to simply meet new people and not necessarily make close friends, learning a language can be a good approach.

Tactics to make friends abroad if you feel shy or are not a fan of networking events

Now, let’s dive into specific tactics we can use to make friends even if we feel shy and don’t like networking events.

There is a meetup around the corner. I’m afraid I’ll back out at the last minute, what do I do?

I got this lovely message from an expat a while ago:

“It feels like I have googled until the end of the world. Facebook didn’t give me much when it comes to international groups.

I have seen internations but there seems to not be a lot of activity for my city in that app. I did find one event, a simple meetup at a bar, but when that evening came I got scared.  I haven’t been to that area on my own before, what if I would get lost, or not find them, I had a lot of thoughts and in the end I stayed at home. 

Maybe not the best way to make new friends….

But! Now I check out meetup.com and that looks promising.  I have found two events I am planning to attend to and it turns out I happen to live in the best area because both of them are meetups at bars that are just around the corner for me. 

What if I get scared and nervous again? Have you had thoughts like this? What if I just sit there quietly and everyone just thinks I’m weird? I can’t just put myself out there, throw myself in. I’m too shy! 

Do you have any advice on how to become more adventurous and open to these scary social events?”

I’ve felt that way many times. Many of us have. We’ve finally found some groups of people to hang out with but something is blocking us. 

It can be because we feel that we have to be a certain way or live up to certain expectations, and that feels overwhelming. Apparently, it is often ourselves who made that up in our heads, both that there are expectations and what they are.

The more I’ve done it, the more it feels like a muscle we have to train. The more we train it, the easier it becomes, similar to learning a new tool at work.

We can absolutely change it but because it’s been like that for a long time, it takes some time to tweak. It’s a habit like taking a shower in the morning. We weren’t like that when we were born because babies don’t know anything, so something has made us create that habit over the years.

Every time we do it, that gets reinforced and eventually a habit is built. Then it gets easier to reinforce it again and slightly harder to pick the opposite choice. Eventually, we end up where we are today.

Many of us misunderstand it by thinking that some people are just born with it. A natural. Studies show that’s not how it works. It’s more likely that they simply had more chances to practice. So instead of assuming it’s something people just have and that we can’t change, let’s look at it as a skill we haven’t practiced and mastered yet.

That means it is something we can choose to prioritize and get better at like many people have before us.

Action step: before we figure out how to solve it, the first step is to figure out exactly what the challenge is. I like to do this by asking myself “why” a few times to dig deeper. 

For example: “why don’t I go out and meet more people?” I feel that it’s weird to walk up to a stranger. Why? I don’t know what they will think of me and it’s a weird thing to do at home. Why? Because it feels uncomfortable when people do it to me. Why? Because it feels like they want something or want to sell something.

If we feel that way, it might be that we somehow think we have to be the sleazy type if we go to networking events.

Whatever it might be for you, asking “why” a few times tends to help clarify what the real, underlying problem is. Once you have a good idea of what it might be, it’s time to look for a solution.

There are generally two approaches out there. Because the mind and body work in a closed loop where one affects the other, we can start from either end. I’ve tried starting with the mind and things like manifestation but it didn’t really work for me, so I’m not going to discuss that in this guide. 

Starting with the body and behavior has been much easier because it is more tangible and easier to follow the progress over time. If you are ready to try that, I know of two ways to solve this: avoiding meetups and meeting people 1-on-1 instead, or practicing what to do at group meetups.

Let’s look at the first option.

Option 1: avoid networking events and do deliberate networking instead

This is an approach often preferred by ambitious overachievers and busy people simply because it is time-effective. The overarching point is you don’t need to go to networking events.

If you love them, go for it but to many of us they are a dread. Often, there is an agenda from the host and you’ll meet lots of random people. If you think about it, it’s an unproductive approach to meeting new people since you don’t know who’ll be there and if you have anything in common. 

There is another approach that works well and that is being deliberate in who you connect with. For example by reaching out to a targeted person with a specific purpose, like that you see they know a lot about X interest and you’d like to learn more. It’s as simple as reaching out to them online and asking them out for coffee.

The point is that you don’t need to meet everyone… Just the right people.

I like to go on Facebook, LinkedIn or other relevant sites and search for people in my city with a certain interest. It could also be that they are in an expat group on Facebook or another semi private community.

It felt weird to do at first since it isn’t something we do where I come from. What changed my mind was realizing that we, as expats, live in a different “bubble” than everyone else in the country. And because we are a mix of many cultures, the normal culture stuff we are used to from home doesn’t necessarily work the same way with expats.

Expats are some of those I’ve found to be the most receptive to this approach and it has helped me meet good friends over the years. Imagine what one–just one–coffee meeting per week will lead to over the course of a year. 

When we show that we come from a place of learning without a hidden agency, people tend to be helpful and open-minded. If you can help them with something (e.g. information or connect them with someone you know), it will be beneficial for them so instead of feeling like you are annoying people, you are actually helping them.

Option 2: mastering group meetups

The second option is mastering group meetups by practicing the skills we need to be good at it. 

For many of us, going to meetups feels like a pressure to be a certain way, like being a social butterfly and having to always be funny or entertaining. Pressure that we put on ourselves.

You might feel embarrassed and tell yourself that you are supposed to know how to go out and meet lots of people like everyone else.

Whether that is true or not, it is unproductive to beat ourselves up about it. If you’ve ever had to work late to meet a deadline, you’ve probably felt tired but trying to push yourself saying “I just need to buckle down. I’m not gonna take a break until it’s done!” The reality is that that doesn’t help.

Action step: Instead, take note of the toxic things you tell yourself when it happens, and then practice tweaking it to something else like “everyone struggles with this”. 

You are not going to change it by beating yourself up about it. The easiest place to start is by getting ourselves down to the event, even if it’s just for a little bit at first. We can always build it up over time. Begin by setting a limit of how long you’ll stay there and make plans right after so you are forced to leave.

For example, make a plan to stay there just 20 minutes in the beginning and have a dinner date or a meeting planned after. That way, you have an exit plan and you can build upon that when you feel more confident with it. 

If that feels too challenging, you can also start by going down there for just five minutes when the meetup starts. Simply make it a goal to just say hi to the host. You might tell them that you’re on your way to something else but you just wanted to stop by, introduce yourself and thank them for hosting the event. 

They will appreciate it and you can count it as a win. It will also show you that they are not judging you as much as we might imagine and next time you meet this person, it won’t be the first time. If you are anything like me, it feels a little easier the second or third time you meet someone.

Before you go down there, plan what you are going to say. For example, how you are going to introduce yourself and how you’ll thank them. 

The important thing that most people skip over is to go practice in the mirror beforehand. Say the words out loud to yourself. 

Yes, really.

When you’ve done that a few times, you’ll start to feel it become more automatic and the same thing will happen when you go down there. It’s a trick that works well in difficult situations like salary negotiations and it works here too.

Instead of making a goal of staying a certain amount of time, you can also choose to say hi to three people before you allow yourself to leave.

When you get down there, you might feel nervous. A fun little game to help get you started is the three second rule. It goes like this: when you enter, you have to say hi to someone within the first three seconds before you can talk yourself out of it. Again, plan what you’re going to say at home and practice saying it out loud in the mirror before you go, so it feels automatic.

If you know you’ll be likely to abandon your plan as you are getting ready to go, plan for it. Plan what you’ll do when you feel like talking yourself out of it. What will you do? Will you put on some upbeat music, reread this guide or watch comedy on Youtube to change your mood?

You might not get it right the first time and that’s normal. The key is to tweak and try again the next time even if you fail. And even if you fail again, try again.

Studies show that on average it takes smokers between 6-19 tries before they quit, because that’s how long it took for them to figure out what really caused it and find the right approach that worked for them.

If you are afraid that you might get into a deeper conversation that you are not ready for and don’t know what to say, it always works to focus on the other person since most people are focused on themselves. Prepare a couple of questions you can ask. For example:

  • Where are you from?
  • What brought you to this country?
  • Have you been here for a long time?

And then prepare a brief answer to the same questions as the other person might ask you back.

How to make friends in a new country: from first impression to good friends in record time

As you’ve probably noticed by now, all friendships are not created equal. Most of us abroad don’t just wanna meet new people or make new friends. We want to make close friends. 

We miss those close friendships we are used to from home, those that we built up over long periods of time.

I don’t believe we have to give those up but it also doesn’t work entirely like at home.

Expats are masters at making close friendships faster than most others because.. well.. we have to. 

I’ve found that the amount of time we’ve known someone isn’t necessarily a good way to judge how close we are with them. Going for new experiences together tends to create bonds faster and deeper than just talking.

One of the challenges, especially if you are on a busy schedule, is that many activities can feel like a big commitment. Maybe it’s a half day trip or something else you aren’t ready for. A great trick I’ve found is that instead of going to a museum and seeing everything they have, set aside an hour or two and pick the few things you want to check out the most.

You can always come back later if you want to see more. I’ve found that not having to go 100% on something makes it much easier to try new stuff and see if we like it. If we don’t, it’s simple; don’t go back. It’s kinda like sampling classes in university.

Action step: Start by making a list of activities you are interested in by looking at Tripadvisor and other websites. If you prefer smaller groups, then pick someone you know a little but want to get to know better and invite them to join. We love to get invited to stuff because it makes us feel special.

How to make friends in a new country if you live in a small city (or are stuck with social distancing)

Living in a small city definitely limits how easy it is to make friends. If there are no people in your city with similar interests and no expats, I don’t see any other choice than moving if you are serious about making new, close, friends. It’s impossible to make up people that aren’t there.

The next best thing that I know of is to use the internet to connect with people, like we have to because of the Coronavirus these days.

The best approach I’ve found has been to go online and look for places like forums, facebook groups or other types of private communities based on your interests. It’s definitely not as good as hanging out with friends in real life but if there are none, it isn’t really possible.

I’ve found that free options like Internations or random forums can be a hit or miss in terms of quality, so it might take a few tries to work something out. On the other hand, paid, private communities make a big difference because people tend to be more committed and you get rid of all the random people, trolls, etc.

For example, if you are interested in copywriting, you might join a private slack group that talks about that while joining another for painting or design if that’s your thing.

What to do if you are the only foreigner in the office

This one is tricky! How many days do you usually go in the office without a deep, meaningful, conversation?

We might have conversations with colleagues at the office but how many of them are more than work-talk, badly translated jokes or superficial niceties?

For most of us in this situation, we can’t get more foreigners in the office since we are not in control of that.

One option is to learn the language to a very high level. That takes a LONG time and effort and to most you’ll still be thought of as the expat that will sooner or later leave. Just like we might think of others.

And what should you do until then? It doesn’t really offer that deeper connection that we tend to be looking for until we are really good, which tends to take years of hard work.

A simpler approach is to focus on what we can control. Our breaks. Another option is to schedule lunch with friends a few times every week. It is also a good way to go deeper if you follow the more targeted networking approach.

Takeaways

  • There is a big difference between meeting new people and making close friends
  • The strategies and tactics depend on which of the two is more important to you
  • Doing something active tend to work better if you are looking to get closer with new friends but not necessarily the first time you meet them

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