Before moving abroad for the first time my biggest concern was not the new country, culture, religion or even the university I had to study at. Nor was it the fact that it was halfway across the globe and I’d never been that far away from home before.
I was wondering what it would be like leaving friends behind and moving to an entirely new place not speaking the local language and not feeling particularly confident in English.
My English was just fine but there is a difference between transactions like ordering at a restaurant and articulating feelings or thoughts in deep conversations–the ones that bring people closer together. Those that bring two people from acquaintances to friends.
In this article, you and I will dive into why leaving friends behind and moving is a great opportunity in disguise, how it counterintuitively can help build stronger friendships with those staying behind and a totally different way of thinking about the friends in your life that has left me much happier.
Leaving friends behind and moving is a great opportunity in disguise
Leaving friends behind and moving for the first time is one of the toughest challenges I know of. But, like me, you might just realize that it isn’t as bad as it is made out to be.
I’ve noticed that often the decision to move is harder than the actual task itself. I guess because the decision is emotional whereas the execution is more practical and logical.
After moving we’ll find things we love about the new place and want to share them with old friends but they won’t understand. They might never truly understand. And it is that realization that makes us want to find new friends–not to replace the old ones–but to share this new experience. People who understand what it is like to move away from everything you know and settle into something new and different, where we have to relearn everything.
There is a more productive way to look at this. A reframe. The experience of moving and leaving your friends behind is an opportunity for an experiment to see how close you really are with the people around you, who are truly your friends and who are more of a seasonal thing.
It can feel gut wrenching but I’ve found that it is powerful in the long run since many of our relationships get stronger with this polarizing experience. It feels scary at first but if we look at our entire life, it is usually better to do this now than later.
There is a great little exercise that helps me every time and the question to ask yourself is “what could I do to make this the best thing that ever happened in my life?”
The answer is yours and yours alone. You might have always been wanting more friends to do sports with and this is a great opportunity to explore that.
Another way to look at it is as an opportunity to do something most people are too afraid to ever do: make new friends from scratch.
It is scary but it is also one of the most empowering things we can ever do because we are not taught this at school and when we go somewhere new, we have the opportunity to make a fresh start if we want to. Especially, if we have to do it in English where before having done it in our mother tongue.
The challenge is that we are supposed to know how to do it. We are just supposed to know somehow without ever being taught how to do it at home or in school.
It’s a topic that most people avoid (who the hell researches how to make friends?) and so most do it in secrecy. We have now thrown ourselves into that and when we go to google for help, all we get are useless lists of vague suggestions that we already knew: go to networking events! Sign up for a hobby! Go to events with co-workers.
No shit, Sherlock.
For most of us, our weapon of choice is making friends at places we already go like school, work or that hobby-thing we have been doing for years. All of which are stripped from our arsenal and we get stuck.
Suddenly, we have to go and find people to connect with for the first time. And not just people but people that we have something in common with. We have to figure out where those people go in the first place, how to connect with them across different languages and cultures that on the surface might appear similar but deep down are quite different.
How to make friendships stronger than ever when leaving friends behind and moving
I’ve found that moving abroad helps make some friendships stronger than before while making others weaker, but the reality is that it would most likely have happened anyway, just at a slower pace. We tend to drift away from people that we aren’t close with as our life unfolds and we start a new job, move to a different location, have kids, etc.
The little detail that makes all the difference is whether you want things to stay the same or if you are dreaming and wondering what else is out there. This blog is written for those who are ambitiously wanting to make a change.
I’ve found that looking back and the experience I’ve had with each of my friends, there are usually always a few specific situations that stood out and defined the type of friendship we have together. Maybe it’s university, being colleagues at a specific company or that we lived abroad in the same country at the same time for a while.
Contrary to what many believe, we don’t have to have the same experiences and do the same things with everyone we know. I’ve found it more fun to share specific interests with friends that enjoy the same stuff and other interests, with others.
Just as if you like two different sports and go to two different clubs to take part in them. Each of those two groups will likely not like the other sport. It doesn’t make sense to try and force it.
I’ve found that the best way to go about it is to redefine the relationship with each of the friends you are leaving behind and want to stay connected with. This might sound odd but it doesn’t have to involve the other person, especially at first, since it’s something you have to figure out for yourself.
Figure out what you have in common, why you hang out together and consider what part you’d like to play in their life–what kind of friend you want to continue to be for the other person (close friend, acquaintance, etc.) For example, you might have a friend that you usually only party with that you’d like to do other things with, like sports.
Friendships can become stronger because of that and the experiences you create together begins to weigh more compared to casually hanging out, although that can be nice, too.
An example that has worked well for me to stay in contact with close friends has been skype calls around a specific topic that both have in common like sports.
What if English isn’t your mother tongue?
If you are leaving friends behind and moving abroad, it is likely that most of your life will continue in English and it can feel stressful if it isn’t your mother tongue.
The jokes you’d normally make in your native language might not work translated into English since the same point is often made with a different example as the culture is different. In English, you might say “use elbow grease and hard work to get it done” whereas in my native language, we say “use knuckle grease and hard work to get it done” but the point is the same.
Being able to relate to one another is one of the most important things when making close friends and the humor might also be different which makes it hard to relate. For example, some countries have a very ironic humor compared to American where there are often word plays and puns.
Humor is usually one of the last things we learn about another culture as it is among the most complex, yet it is one of those things that makes us connect well. With humor across different cultures, I’ve found the trick to be finding common ground to laugh at. Some cultures prefer jokes at others’ expense and these are usually the ones that work the worst when you want to make new friends.
Instead, find something you can both laugh at–perhaps something that is foreign and strange to you both. If you are both expats and used to live in the same country, it might be how weird that country and its culture feels to you.
Friend circles: a more fun way to make friends?
I’ve made a fun observation over the years: we change our interests and priorities throughout life but for some reason we are proud to have had the same friends since school. We pride ourselves with that as if they would naturally change and prioritize exactly like us throughout life.
It doesn’t make sense. Sure there is an overlap here and there as friends learn from each other but we want things to stay the same and instead of doing what we really want, we adopt ideas or hobbies not to feel left out or be a burden, even if we don’t care that much.
The downside is that when we find a new hobby that they don’t care about, we can’t drag them there. But it gives us an opportunity to make new friends that are interested in this new hobby and one friend doesn’t rule out another friend.
When you’ve been abroad for a while, you’ll notice how expat friends, old friends and other friend groups each play their own specific role in your life since one group won’t understand everything about your new or old life. For example, old friends won’t understand what it’s like to live abroad if they’ve never tried it before and that’s what new friends are there for.
In fact, you might find that having different circles of friends for each of the things you value is a great experience. You’ll meet up with close friends about the exact same things that you love and they’ll love it too.
You’ll also learn a ton from people in each area simply because everyone you hang out with is more interested in that topic. It’s a lot more fun to talk about something that both parties really enjoy rather than one just being friendly enough to somewhat engage in the conversation.
I have to admit, some of the most important things in my life came from things I got introduced to from friends. Things that I had no idea even existed before because friends can function as a filter of sorts, since you already trust them and have a good idea about what might be relevant for you.
- We slowly drift away from old friends throughout life, moving abroad works as a jetpack to speed that up. While it might feel tough, it will make you feel better after a while since you understand who your close friends are and who are time wasters. Most people never get that experience in life
- Asking yourself “what could I do to make this the best thing that ever happened in my life?” when leaving friends behind and moving helps us reframe it to an opportunity to go after something we’ve always wanted
- Focusing your friendships as circles around specific interests you have in common tend to allow us to become closer friends while having more fun