Most of us know the TV show Friends whether we are hardcore fans or just casual viewers. During the recent Friends 2021 reunion episode it occurred to me how many of us have been lonely and watched the show feeling that the six characters were our friends in some way.
So, before we dive into how we as an expat can make friends in a new city, let’s look at how the six Friends characters move to the big city and make friends with each other. There is a reason that the show became such a big success and one of them is that it is so relatable.
Looking at how the six Friends met might help us find popular ways that friends tend to meet in real life as a starting point. First, let’s get the easy ones out of the way. Ross and Monica are siblings so we can consider them the foundation or glue of the group at the beginning.
Monica and Ross know Rachel and Chandler from high school and university, and Rachel rejoins the group as she runs away from her first wedding. That leaves Phoebe and Joey. Joey becomes part of the show when becoming Chandler’s roommate and in the episode titled “The Flashback”, we learn that Phoebe answered Monica’s ad for a roommate and joined the group.
Meeting through needs such as a place to live is an effective approach to build a network fast before moving into our own place once their network is snowballing.
It can be a good approach if we are in our early 20s and open-minded but what if we are not or just don’t want to live with other people?
Why making friends in a new city is among the most powerful things we can do
In an interview with Joe Rogan, Elon Musk pointed out that as a species we are generally pretty bad (or inefficient) at communicating with each other.
It’s an interesting point since most of us work with another person whenever we have to do most things. For example
- When we order food delivery there is the person who processes our order (even if we submit it through an app) and the delivery driver
- At work, there are teams and bosses who usually has a say when decisions are made
- When we buy a product we might work with a sales person or customer service if something doesn’t work or we’d like a refund
Most businesses can’t function without depending on people for a part of the process. Similar to writing, we tend to assume that we do a pretty good job with making friends because we know the language and have spoken to lots of people throughout our lifetime. Especially, if most of the people we know talk in the same way we do.
Personally, I didn’t even realize what being a truly good communicator meant until I met someone who is a real master. That’s when I realized that there is another level that I hadn’t learned yet. It can be pretty dreadful to discover because that insinuates that we’ve been doing it wrong our entire lives and that can be a tough pill to swallow.
Whether that is true or not, I’ve found that it is more productive to look forward and consider just how many interactions we have with other people during a day (whether online or offline). If just 10% of those could be better (or smoother), imagine how that could change our life in ways we had never dreamed of.
The biggest challenge here tends to be that what we think and feel on the inside isn’t what we show on the outside and it is hard for the other person in the heat of the moment to dissect what we feel on the inside.
That creates a mismatch between how we feel and what the other person thinks we feel. As you can imagine, this is complex because things can mean something totally different in another culture.
A fun example is the number of times my German friends have met Indians that pointed out how they liked Hitler. Obviously, Germans get confused by this as it is taboo for them and the Indians weren’t joking nor did they mean anything bad about it. They were genuinely excited but simply weren’t aware that because Hinduism and Hitler used the same symbol, it doesn’t mean their values were aligned. I figure they might have heard a different story in history class.
Make friends in a new city: where to meet them (even if you are shy)
For many expats meeting people isn’t a problem but for those of us that tend to be on the shy side of things, it often presents more of a problem than connecting deeply with someone.
Instead of giving you a generic list of ideas, I’ll share a system you can use to ensure you meet new people on a weekly basis effortlessly. The tiny little detail that makes all the difference is that we turn meeting people into a habit.
As it turns out, many of the things we do each day are based on habits as a way for our brain to cope with all the impressions we get. It allows us to react faster to things we are familiar with. Habits sound kinda boring but have a terrific side-effect that they become automatic after a while whether we want it or not. It can happen with everything good or bad like drugs or brushing your teeth.
That means we can turn meeting people into a habit that we don’t think about along with what to say or how it will go. Compare that to thinking about it for hours in advance–it can almost feel hard to imagine that it is possible.
To get yourself started, I suggest setting up a calendar reminder so that you can tweak your approach as you go. Over time, you’ll find that you’ll like some approaches better than others–perhaps you meet more relevant people at certain places or you might realize that you hate large, generic events.
It doesn’t have to be a full hour or on Saturdays. In fact, I suggest starting with just 15-30 minutes to get used to doing this every couple of weeks. During that time I like to think about the approaches I’ve tried (e.g. those we’ll go over in this article), how they’ve worked, what I like and dislike about them.
Systematizing this might be unusual but I’ve found it to work well since it makes it easier to fit into a busy week. With that out of the way, let’s jump into each idea before you and I will dive into how to make close friends in the next chapter.
Where to make friends in a new city: my favorite approaches
1. Take one coworker out to lunch weekly
Since most of us expats work at a company, it’s the obvious place to start. We often go out and make friends in a new city when we first arrive but sooner or later we tend to get busy with work.
Habits and having a system can help change that so we have nice and steady flow going and on particularly busy weeks we can scale it down to a minimum instead of stopping completely and never starting again. On weeks where we have more time and want to meet more people we can do more temporarily without feeling stressed that we need to set this much time aside in each week in the future.
Taking one coworker out to lunch each week is a great place to begin and I suggest starting with other foreigners just to make it slightly easier at first. Once you get used to that, it is easier to go out with the local staff where it might be a challenge to understand each other if neither is fluent in English and the restaurant is noisy.
If there are not that many people in your company, the next ideas might work even better.
2. Organize your own meetup or help someone else host theirs
Being an organizer can be a pain for those of us who just hate logistics but to meet new people it’s a great approach especially if you feel shy. You’ll constantly have tasks to take care of which allows you to step in and out of conversations easier since people won’t expect you to hang around too long.
It also offers you an easy way to meet the guests and casually break the ice by telling them that you are organizing the event and that you wanted to say hi, introduce yourself and hear what brought them there.
Organizing your very own event might feel overwhelming at first but when I did it, it was as simple as picking a topic, a bar and time that is convenient for most. Then I shared it in a few relevant Facebook groups and lots of people showed up. We were just sitting around a bar or a few tables and people were talking to each other. Nothing fancy and no speeches, just a casual meetup around a shared interest.
3. Ask friends for introductions to other friends in your new city
This approach can be a hit and miss depending on how many people you know in the new city you move to. If you don’t know any, go to the next idea. Basically, all you do is ask your existing friends if they know anyone in this new city that might share some interests with you and if they could connect you with them. For example:
“Hey NAME, I’ve just moved to CITY for work and I know it’s a long shot but I’m wondering if you know anyone here that is also interested in INTEREST/HOBBY?”
No matter their response, remember to thank them. If they do know someone, you might continue with “Cool. Would you be ok introducing us? I’d love to meet other people interested in INTEREST/HOBBY”.
The easiest thing to talk about when meeting this friend of a friend is how you both know your mutual friend along with the hobby you now have in common. The easiest way to start befriending them is to ask for recommendations in the city related to the hobby you both share.
That brings me to the next idea.
4. The multiplier method
This idea is more advanced, powerful and has several steps:
- Pick an interest you wanna explore in the new city
- Go to Facebook groups and ask for recommendations
- Try the recommendations and report back to those who recommended them and share your (good) experience with them privately in a DM. Now they are in your network
- Take them out to coffee to thank them
Now you’ve both met those who gave you the recommendation and those through the interest itself. People love it when we ask for something and actually do it since most people just ask and never do anything about it.
Step one and two are self-explanatory and for step three, the DM could be as simple as “Hey NAME, I wanted to thank you for your recommendation to try RECOMMENDATION. I had a great experience particularly because of XYZ. I’d like to buy you coffee and say hi as a thank you sometime.”
One note; be aware that if you suggest alcohol it could be seen as a romantic invitation and thus get turned down as a misunderstanding.
When you meet them in step four, it might make sense to break the ice by asking them about their own interest in the hobby you share.
Speaking of ice breakers, here are a few that tend to work well with expats.
Good ice breakers
To meet new people, one of the challenges is what to say in the moment we meet them. Here are three of my favorite questions to ask other expats to get the conversation started.
- What brought you here/to this country?
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been here for and how do you like it?
These questions are innocent and easy small talk without going too deep and offering the other party a way out if they don’t want to continue the conversation because they can simply avoid asking the same question back. But at the same time they are easy to ask back for someone wanting to continue the conversation.
How to make close friendships if you are shy
Making close friends is one of the expat challenges I hear the most but shy or introverted expats tend to be good at this.
From the first impression to lifelong friendships
The ‘stages’ it takes to build friendships can’t be rushed but they can be sped up with experiences to create a closer bond.
Our friendships are created from building blocks and are made up of two simplified stages:
- Meet for the first time
- Experiences together and discovering (more) mutual interests
Meeting someone for the first time is pretty self-explanatory and is all about the introduction, first impression and finding common ground to base additional meetings on.
The second block is bigger and never ending. It almost works as a circle where we share multiple interests that lead us to do more things together. From time to time that creates situations with opportunities for one or both parties to build or breach the trust of the other person. That will then continue to either deepen the friendship or make it more shallow if the trust is breached.
Companies try to speed up this process and build relationships quicker through team building exercises where team members have to practice trusting each other, for example via extreme sports where one has to hold the weight of the other.
When we first move and want to make friends in a new city, our circle tends to expand rapidly as we meet new people and the snowball effect kicks in over time. Then as routine sets in, we often take the foot off the gas and as a result, our social circles shrink and get scattered more into a few core groups of friends and lots of acquaintances as we stop cultivating our circles.
Most of us have already done the hard work of kickstarting the process but we slowly let it die out when instead, it could stay the same with little systematic maintenance work on an ongoing basis.
Because of the compounding effect over time that we know from finance and investing, we can get dramatic results over time with little effort compared to the amount of energy it takes to restart the process from scratch later. Not to mention the benefits that will compound over time such as invitations to cool experiences, meeting friends of friends and relevant expat job opportunities.
We can’t just think about this in terms of the sheer number of opportunities we get since they are not all created equal but I think we can agree that with more opportunities (whatever they mean to you: social gatherings, job opportunities, etc.), the higher chance we have that some of them will turn out amazing.
We’ve established that the key to turning first impressions into lifelong friendships is establishing trust. The more we have in common, the more we tend to do things together and the more we get opportunities to build trust.
While it’s challenging to speed up this process, there are a few things that can work. One is to always do what we said we were going to do, and then increase the number of times we told someone that we were going to do something. It can be as simple as always being on time if the other person values that.
That sheer volume tends to help the process as the other person subconsciously sees that what we say and what we do is the same. That tends to lead to trust in other areas although there isn’t always a spillover effect – think about trusting that someone to be on time compared to assuming they can be trusted with your retirement fund because they are always on time.
The tricky part for us expats is that the people we meet often are from different cultures than our own and so our set of values might not match. The most common example is cultures that value being on time vs cultures that are always late. There is no right or wrong and the best approach I’ve noticed has been to cater to each person you want to build a deeper friendship with since we tend to be in groups with people from many different cultures.
You’ll be able to build the most trust in situations where you could cheat (or at least didn’t have to be nice) for example by buying a drink when the other doesn’t.
Why you probably don’t want to make lifelong friends with everyone
The uncomfortable reality is that not all friends are created equal. Some people are toxic time wasters while others genuinely wish you the best. Someone once put it like this “a good friend will go out drinking with you when you feel bad. A great friend will help you solve your challenges.”
It sums it up well and without wanting to sound harsh, there are just some people in this world that we don’t fit well with depending on our personality. To conclude this point, I like this video showing Ross from Friends appears to be a toxic friend.
There is no specific checklist to look for but my point is to practice becoming aware of how certain friends make you feel. Next, let’s look at specific tips you can use when you are talking with people and want to go deeper.
The best topic that works every time
I’ve found one topic to work particularly well when wanting to go deeper with people and that is to look for common ground or mutual interests. Being curious by nature makes this a lot easier and I’ve always been able to find something to talk about even with people I had nothing in common with.
In that case, use the approach of focusing on them and treat it as an opportunity to learn about something they are good at. If it’s a topic you don’t know a whole lot about, you could start out by sharing that you read ABC point in XYZ magazine, don’t know much about the topic and are looking to learn. And so you are curious to hear what their experience has been.
Focusing on them can be great since most people are focused on themselves but be careful not to turn it into an interrogation by machine-gunning questions at them. Share short stories or personal interests from time to time to mix it up.
Another topic I’ve found to work well for bonding is how different the local culture is if you are speaking with a fellow expat. Just be careful it doesn’t come across as negative but rather as surprising or curious as we don’t know the other person’s point of view yet. Some countries consider certain things very offensive such as the law against speaking badly about the king in Thailand.
Finally, whether you are a sports fan or not, I’ve noticed that especially the Olympics and football World Cup is a great chance to bond since you come together as countries against other countries in something as harmless as a sport. With sports clubs, people might be a fan or not at all but national matches tend to bring interest from people that normally don’t take an interest in sport.
On that note, l also want to point out that there are certain topics we should generally steer clear of until we are close with someone, as they tend to stir the pot and cause a lot of friction. The two big ones are religion and politics.
People tend to act emotionally on those topics and there are no right or wrongs, just different arguments depending on which side of the table you stand on. Joining in is usually not productive for making friends.
A common problem we have in conversations is thinking about what to say next instead of truly listening to what the other person is saying.
How to not think about what to say next while keeping the conversation going
Even if people don’t say anything we can typically sense if they aren’t fully present and it makes us feel like the other person would rather be somewhere else.
One of the “tricks” is to look for conversation extenders (yes, that’s a term I just made up). They are tiny intros into other topics that you could steer the conversation into based on something they brought up earlier. Like a conversation trail of sorts.
For example, perhaps the person you are speaking to said “back when I was playing football….” and then finished their point, to which you might respond “oh you played football in school? Me too!” and then make a point or look for common ground.
Each conversation will usually have many of these ‘trails’ and believe it or not, with practice you can build a habit of automatically noticing this, filing it away in the back of your mind while you listen to the other person’s point and then bring it back to the front of the conversation later. It gets easier as we get better.
- Realizing that our social skills and ability to make friends aren’t as good as we might like to think is a daunting experience
- After making friends in a new city, most of us stop instead of maintaining a simple system and continue to meet people and let it snowball but doing so can change our life dramatically over time with little effort as restarting the process is a lot tougher than maintaining it
- Building trust is the most powerful thing we can do in our relationships and the more opportunities we get to do it, the deeper our relationship can go