I was terrified.
It turned out that I hadn’t been accepted into my university major although my grades should be way above the minimum requirement during that intake.
For the first time in forever that particular intake in that school was flooded with interest.
The thought of waiting for the next intake was too much. Particularly because I had made a plan with a friend to study abroad in the US during the second semester because that particular school had a particular partnership program that was attractive.
I didn’t know what to do. I frantically searched online for other options and to my surprise found another school offering the same major yet the classes weren’t full.
It was a week before semester started and I jumped on the opportunity. I went to persuade the student counselor to approve a similar study abroad program sponsored by the school.
After a while, it turned out not to be possible. I felt depressed.
During the semester, we were placed in small groups of four that had to work together on all projects for all classes.
One day one of the guys, let’s call him Peter. He and I spoke about studying abroad and I told him about my failed plan.
He responded with “I’d like to go to Malaysia”. My response was “ehh… where is that?”
As you might imagine, I had not traveled much outside of Denmark at the time and to be honest with you, I was terrified of going abroad.
I remember thinking: I wonder how people are making friends abroad. I didn’t feel that comfortable in English – and especially joking around which I felt was necessary to make friends.
Confident that I was doomed, after a while, Peter convinced me to at the very least apply to the university program.
I was hesitant. I learned that the country was mostly Islam-dominated, something that scared me a little because I simply hadn’t had much interaction with Islam. I had mostly learned from the TV which, looking back, was not the right way to go about it. I feel a bit embarrassed saying that.
Fast forward a few months…
“Dude, there’s a letter for you!” my housemate said.
I never received any letters. At home, most official letters come electronically. Except, this was not your usual letter. And it was sent internationally.
It turned out to be my official acceptance letter to study abroad in Malaysia – a country placed right in the heart of Southeast Asia.
“Shit”, I thought. “Now I HAVE to go.. What am I gonna do!?”
As I was preparing for the trip I often thought to myself “How the heck is this gonna go? How am I going to make friends?”
“At least it is only six months…”
It occurred to me that we are never taught how to make friends. Throughout school and our jobs many of us simply drift along and become friends with the people around.
As we move abroad, you might have realized that, like me, we need to make new friends ourselves.
Of course, we have new friends built-in via our jobs but unfortunately I’ve seen many people leave their expat life behind them prematurely with the excuse “it wasn’t for me”.
After having lived abroad for many years it is my experience that good company can make or break our experience as expats.
Maybe you have already experienced that – the good days are amazing and the days with the ‘expat blues’ are tough. Much more of a rollercoaster ride than at home.
Good company is the best antidote. The challenge we have as expats is that we can’t make friends the day we really need them – we have to do it in advance. I have learned that we expats are forced to work on getting the friends we want in our new home.
How I’ve been making friends by taking advantage of my experience abroad – the before and after
My brother once told me I had a reserved personality. At the time, I didn’t even know what that meant.
My cousin once told me that someone wanted to beat me up for being arrogant at a partner school in primary. Which is interesting because if you knew me, you’d know I wasn’t arrogant but shy to the point that some people thought I was arrogant, I guess.
It’s a fun combo because at the same time I still love people and I’m usually the happiest when I hang out with my friends. A few years ago, my awesome friends knew that I love gokarting and so they surprised me with a gokarting race for all of us. It’s just a little more fun to crash with your friends.
I’ve always had this interest in living in another country and experiencing what that is like, so when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to use the change of scenery to get better at building a network and making new friends. The more I did it, the less it felt like a skill but more just something to do for the enjoyment of doing it. I had not expected that going into it. It feels more like a muscle and that shyness may never go away but we can train it to feel different.
I feel more confident speaking with people where I previously felt shy. For example, with successful people in the business world I’d feel as if I had nothing to contribute. That made it challenging to get help from mentors but the more I worked on it, the more I understood their needs and how I can meaningfully contribute to their life.
I’m now able to get amazing career advice within a day. And I don’t mean stuff you can google like salaries but insights that allowed me to get introduced to companies and get a pay raise of about $10,000 with a single conversation.
When we decide that we want to make new friends we don’t all want the same thing. Some of us want to feel more adventurous and confident that we can go to any social event and enjoy it without stressing and judging ourselves.
Others want to expand their professional network and career while others dream of a “second family” away from home.
Our expat friends carry a special place in our lives as they not only understand our new life but also can help us land great job opportunities and expat-specific advice like opening bank accounts or investing. Topics that are usually covered in-depth for non-expats but offer little or vague advice for us living abroad.
I’m not a big fan of the saying “your network is your net worth” but it is true. Even though I kinda knew it, the immense benefits caught me by surprise. About five years ago, I decided to build my expat network and as a result I’ve discovered so many new life changing things that I otherwise might not have been presented with.
Besides the general “pleasure” of having great friends on a rainy day, many friends have not only shown me how to do things I already knew better but presented me with entirely new ideas that I would’ve never stumbled upon otherwise. Things like tricks to open a business in a foreign country, the best insurance and how to not be double taxed.
Besides close groups of friends to barbecue with on Sundays, I’ve also had awesome job opportunities with relocation flights paid for, jobs with unlimited holidays, great salary and responsibility just to name a few.
Whether we call it our network or friends, it makes all the difference between a miserable expat experience and a life changing one.
The way I did it was by focusing friend groups around specific interests, and then I’ve found one topic that just works no matter who you speak with and whether they are a stranger or a close friend. I’ll tell you more about it in a minute.
The CG technique explained
Before diving into the technique itself, it is worth sharing the roadmap so you can see where it fits in to make friends abroad that will last a lifetime.
The idea is to have different friend circles each with its own focus. One might be your family back home, another your friends from school, while a third might be the people you work out with regularly or your colleagues at work.
At any given time we’ll have many different circles depending on our interests. We can expand this approach to all our interests and automatically meet new people through each person in the groups.
For example, if you are interested in learning more about business you’ll naturally be introduced to your friends’ friends over time if you spend more time with a group that often talks about business stuff. If you have a side business, maybe that takes shape in the form of a small group of entrepreneurs that meets up every month over drinks and talk shop.
At the same time, you might enjoy a sport like surfing and meet up with another group of friends specifically for that on a Saturday morning.
These two interests and groups play different roles in your life. Sometimes there’s spill over and you’ll have friends in both circles but in order to build a strong network and make friends abroad, you’ll find that it is awesome to have friends that are totally different from each other and with different interests. It feels like two different worlds.
It will challenge you and you’ll notice that not everyone always dive head first into the typical “how’s work going?” kinda topic that so many of us like to default to.
This approach can work with almost any topic and activity that you’d like to meet more people around. There are some topics that tend to work better than others. A popular topic that doesn’t work well is language. As expats, it is often recommended that we go to language meetups and use that to connect with others.
In reality, you’ll quickly realize that just because you have a language interest in common it doesn’t mean you actually have anything meaningful in common. When two people come together just because of the same language, topics become grammar or the differences between that language and another.
Sure, some people are interested in that and all the power to them but for most of us, grammar just isn’t that exciting and when someone tells you that their hobbies are listening to music and watching movies, it’s a dead end. Who doesn’t like movies and music? That doesn’t say anything about a person or helps us find something meaningful we have in common.
The topic that wins EVERY time and how you’ll be making friends abroad in no time with it
So which topics are good?
There really is only one; the topic you have in common. Finding common ground is the key to making friends abroad. It is the glue that connects us together.
That means, when you are building your circles and you want to meet new people or even bring friends together for a new meetup, common ground is what makes the difference between whether you’ll never see each other again or if you’ll potentially make good friends.
Everyone and their mom thinks mostly about themselves and so we’ll win by doing the opposite. That means understanding what people are interested in and meeting them where they are. Not where we are. For example, if we ask them what they’ve been up to and they talk deeply about investing as an expat, that’s a clue we can use to build a relationship with them even if it isn’t our favorite topic of all time.
Instead of assuming it’s boring, I tend to focus on curiosity and finding something cool about it that I can use in my own life even if that is to bond with others who are interested in that too. This is challenging if you have absolutely zero interest in it, and if that’s the case, you might be better off picking another topic that the person has mentioned, that you do have some interest in.
But if you do have some interest, it’s a great opportunity to get a few tips while making friends with this person. Two birds, one stone.
The best part about the common ground technique is that it can be used in every situation and with everyone. It virtually works every time and through it you’ll always have something to talk about.
My mom taught me that it is good to know a little about a lot. This is where it comes in handy because you’ll be able to talk about many topics even if you don’t know them well, simply because you can ask thoughtful questions. By learning from other people, we can build up our knowledge automatically while building our network.
This is totally different from what most other people are doing. Most will focus on their interests and what they want to talk about with less consideration as to how interested other people are in that. By flipping it upside down and focusing on their interests with a lens of curiosity, we both get what we want.
A good way to turn this one conversation into someone who’s in your network and willing to help you in the future, is to ask for specific recommendations. That might be books to read, specific articles or places with good resources to learn more.
Then a few weeks later, contact that person, tell them how you took their advice and what you learned from it or the results you got (if any). For example it could be a specific article you read, what you liked about it and then thank them for their recommendation.
Most people ask for advice and never do anything about it, and that’s why this little technique works so well. As soon as you show them you did something about their advice, you’ll stand out.
It can be as simple as
We met at X EVENT. I liked Y article you recommended, particularly the point on ABC. My experience has been XYZ.
Anyway, I wanted to thank you for the recommendation. I’m sure you are busy so no response necessary.
- Build circles of friends based on your different interests
- Find common ground by asking questions and by focusing on their interests instead of our own to befriend them
- Take their advice and follow up to build a closer relationship