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Making friends as an expat has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and whether you’re hoping to figure out how to make your own friends as an expat or you have a loved one who is struggling while making friends as an expat, I hope this guide to make friends while living overseas can shed some light on the best ways to live a full life while abroad.
I have always believed in ‘quality’ over quantity when it comes to friendships.
I don’t have millions of them, but the ones I do have are usually permanent and mean something more than “Hey, I know we haven’t talked in 10 years, but will you help me move this weekend?”
That being said, I’ve lived in the UK for the majority of the past 8 years (read my story on moving to the UK as an American), and can count on one hand the number of close British friends I have.
Most of them I’ve met through shared workplaces, either here or abroad.
I went to UCL, a British university, for about 6 months, and I did not leave with one friend that I didn’t know before.
Hey, sidenote! If you’re traveling to the UK or live in the UK, whether for a short period of time or as an expat, why don’t you join my Facebook group where you can ask questions, get advice or just look at pretty pictures of this part of the world! Just click here to request to join and I’ll add you!
It’s partly my fault.
I could have tried harder, interjected myself more into conversations, opened my door more often.
Even now, I could join some ‘Meet-up’ groups, do some volunteering, find a group hobby, and I’d probably find SOMEONE.
But making friends as an adult is difficult, much less making friends with people that you share no common history with.
Instead I find myself gravitating towards “American in London” type groups and nurturing friendships with American friends who just so happen to live in London.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m intimidated.
The ‘over-the-top’ friendliness of Americans is something I take for granted.
I rely on people talking to me first and making that first ‘friendship move,’ but here I could be waiting for decades.
When I was a student surrounded by mostly Brits, I found the atmosphere a bit ‘cliquey’ and closed-off.
No one was knocking on my door to find out who had moved in, that’s for sure.
This isn’t to say anything negative about making friendships in the UK, but it is different.
I’ve found that the hardest part is taking the first step, because once you start to develop a relationship, the friendships are no less meaningful than the ones I am used to at home.
It’s just that you don’t really make friends here in the check-out line at the supermarket.
You can’t be expected to have the Welcoming Committee show up on your doorstep with a loaf of bread (Brits will read that and laugh and think I’m joking, while Americans will be like ‘oh, yeah, my mom is on one of those committees!).
You have the make the effort to meet people and say “Hey, I may be American and slightly different than you, but we both love trashy television and oh my god, did you hear Adele’s new single? Want to get dinner?”
Guy has suggested for years now that I go out and make some British friends rather than international ones who always seem to come and go, but making friends as an expat is…have I mentioned…hard!
Especially when you’re in the depths of seasonal depression or being homesick – but you can do it.
Essential Tips for Making Friends as an Expat
1. Try and meet your neighbors
One of the easiest way to make friends as an expat and to get over culture shock is to try and find people within close proximity to you.
Especially if you don’t have a car or you rely on public transportation that isn’t available all of the time, you might feel isolated unless you make friends with people who live around you.
You can do this in a lot of different ways, depending on the ages and types of people who live around you.
If you live somewhere that has local get togethers or neighborhood groups, consider joining one of those.
There will often be people in these local groups who are well connected and can make introductions for you to similar people in the neighborhood.
If there isn’t an organized group, try and figure out who your neighbors are and figure out how you could connect with them.
Be the person to knock on doors yourself and introduce yourself – in certain countries people might think you’re a little crazy, but the worst thing that can happen is that people think you’re a bit too friendly.
You could also try and cook something from your home culture to bring around.
Everybody loves making friends as an expat through food (this might set you on the road to weight gain from being an expat, but oh well!)
2. Make the most of any existing family connections
If you’re an expat in a foreign country because you have a significant other in that country, or perhaps you’ve moved as a family with kids that you’ve enrolled in local schools, make the most of these connections.
Your significant other probably has friends who have friends you can meet, or your significant other’s sister might know someone the same age as you who works with them that they’d be happy to introduce you to.
If you have kids enrolled in schools, do your best to get involved in the school and set up lots of playdates for them with people’s kids who seem interesting – in the nicest way possible, use those kids to the best of your abilities!
They’ll make new friends and hopefully you will too.
3. Be open about your search for friends
Finding friends when living overseas can be lonely and it can be hard to deal with anxiety while living abroad, so make it obvious to people that you’re open to making connections and making friends.
This doesn’t mean you need to wear a sign around that says, “Hey, I’m desperate!”, but you can bring it up to your colleagues or family members and any friends you do make that you’re finding it difficult to make friends.
Let people “set you up” with people that they know – if they think you’re perfectly fine and brimming with friendships, they might not go out of their way to help you make those connections that they’d be otherwise happy to.
4. Recognize that it takes time to build a friendship
Think about some of your best friends from home.
It’s unlikely that you were strangers one day and best friends the next.
Even if you hit it off, it takes time to become true friends and become involved in someone’s life to the point that they would invite you places or talk about their life’s struggles with you.
So start small.
Invite a mom from your kid’s school to coffee.
Make it a point to ask a coworker how their weekend was every Monday.
Bring a box of cookies to the next door neighbors so that the next time they see you out and about, they’ll say hi.
Friendships will bloom over time, you just have to be persistent and not expect everything right away.
Patience is key.
5. Open up to expat groups
Don’t shy away from groups of expats.
It’s not a bad thing to make friends with other expats – you should be aware of the fact that people may leave the country you’re in before you if you make friends with very short-term expats, but hey – a friend is a friend!
6. Use the internet to make friends as an expat
Not in a creepy way, but the internet can be a great way to make friends as an expat.
You can join Facebook groups for your local area or for your country or county.
The area I live in has groups for moms in the area, residents in the specific neighborhood nearby, or just people who live in the general area.
You can always post on here putting out an open invitation to people to meet up for coffee with you – you would be surprised how many other people are also looking for friends.
The caveat here is of course to make sure you’re meeting up in public spaces at first and that people know where you are – it’s 2020, but stranger danger is still a thing!
You could also use a more dedicated Meet-Up group that allows people with similar interests who live in similar areas to get together.
You’ll find everything from local hikers to people who like to play chess to groups dedicated to watching cult movies.
These are organized get-togethers, so you’ve got less of a chance of meeting up one-on-one with some creepy individual, and you maximize the amount of people you can meet in that space of time.
7. Volunteer or find a job
If you need to get out of the house and want to give back and/or you need to make some actual money, volunteer opportunities and jobs are great ways to meet people.
Now, you can’t always guarantee that people you will meet through these situations will become your best friends forever, but there is a high chance that if you are sociable and friendly, you’ll soon find some new people to talk to.
In the case of volunteering, you’re working together towards the same cause that you’re passionate about, and you’re bound to find things to talk about with people who have also chosen to do that sort of volunteering.
In the case of a job, most people realize that it makes more sense to get along with your coworkers if possible seeing as how you spend more time with them than at home usually.
Use this to your advantage and soon you may be making friends as an expat in your everyday encounters.