Last year, I wrote about the challenges of talking to strangers on the road or in unfamiliar social situations. I shared five ways to break the ice and endear you to your newly acquainted. One recurring question since then has been: how do I meet people in the first place? This is especially important when you’ve just moved to a new country.
We examined InterNations’ extensive Expat Insider survey, based on data gathered from over 14,000 of its 1.9 million members around the world, and put together a guide on how to make friends in a new country.
1. Don’t FEAR the familiaR
Many expats and travellers like to boast of how they “really got under the skin of a country” or “immersed themselves in the local culture”. There is seemingly a level of honour in severing ties with home. In reality, only 16% of expats report having primarily local residents as friends. Another 34% claim they have primarily expat friends with this figure increasing the younger the expat. The remaining 50% say they have a mixture of expat and local friends with older expats (51 years and older) generally having more local friends.
There is no shame in seeking familiarity when you first arrive. It doesn’t make you obtuse, ignorant or insular to want friends in a similar situation or from a similar background. As time passes and you settle in, you can make more of an effort to integrate with local culture.
A great tip is to set yourself a time limit. Spanish expat Victor told us: “When I first arrived in London, I gave myself a maximum of three months to settle in and spend time with fellow Spanish expats. Because I set myself this deadline, I made a bigger effort to make local friends and integrate more.”
2. GET SOCIAL
Expat Insider tells us that the majority of new arrivals make their friends at work but there are plenty of other channels to explore.
Our readers recommend two main channels:
Get online: There are hundreds of location-based expat groups on Facebook and LinkedIn as well as curated lists of people to follow on Twitter. In addition, there are numerous online forums and organisations that cater to new arrivals. The aforementioned and free to join InterNations has the biggest global membership with 1.9 million members across 390 cities and hosts over 4,000 events throughout the year. Popular alternatives include expatfinder.com and meetup.com. It’s also worth following local expat bloggers who can be a great source of information.
Take a class or join a sports team: “It’s a bit of a cliché but it works,” says Tomás, a Frenchman who now lives in Bogotá. “I barely spoke any Spanish when I arrived but that didn’t get in the way when playing with local teams. If you want to meet like-minded people who share similar hobbies and interests then there’s no easier way. “
3. Think different
It’s worth expanding your notion of what friends should be. Don’t get hung up on only finding like-minded people. Friends don’t have to be the same age as you or from a similar background or even speak the same language. Common ground can usually be found with anyone if you try.
4. Don’t fear rejection
I’m guessing if you have decided to pack up things and head off to a new country then you’re not exactly a shrinking violet. However, settling into new surroundings and maybe starting a new job will always be challenging so you need to keep your expectations in check. Not everyone is going to be friendly or welcoming. That’s fine. Not everyone back home was your friend either. It’s okay to meet up with someone every now and again to watch the football or grab coffee; you don’t need to become best friends.
5. Learn the language
Taking a language class is a great way to find new friends. It allows you to meet fellow expats in a similar situation and also interact more closely with locals. It’s a win-win situation. If you already speak the national language of your new country, you could try to learn its second language (if there is one) and really impress the locals. As well as joining classes or courses there are often language exchange options available which can offer a more personalised and reciprocal learning experience.
6. Follow leads
Say yes to drinks after work or to the neighbour’s offer of coffee. If a contact says they know someone in your new city whom you might like, follow it up and see where it goes. There may be volunteering opportunities or community events you can attend. If you’re a parent you may be invited to school events or other children’s parties. Whatever it is, follow these leads and see where they go. If nothing else, this will help you get to know your new environment and explore your new town.
7. Talk to strangers
So maybe you shouldn’t strike up a conversation with the naked guy going through your bins, but you should be willing to chat to people you meet on the go. When back home I have my own circle of friends and support system so tend to just plug into my iPhone or read the newspaper when I’m on the metro or sitting alone in a cafe. On the road or in a different country I tend to look up, catch people’s eyes and be more open and approachable. At social events and gatherings, mingle with as many people as possible and use some basic tricks to strike up conversations.
8. Enjoy your own company
I am comfortable in my own company and can while away hours if not days wandering a new town or city, people-watching, or reading my book. Every year I spend weeks camped out in the wilderness with only myself for company. This attitude is invaluable when settling into a new country. I’m not saying you need to excommunicate yourself and head for the hills to “find yourself” – only that you’ll find settling in so much easier if you are comfortable being on your own.
9. Don’t be hard on yourself
It’s important to give yourself plenty of time. Things don’t tend to happen overnight and can take longer than you expect. Moving to a new city or starting a new job can be daunting enough; leaving your friends and family will probably be one of the toughest things you ever do, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Not everyone can be that person: that confident and popular extrovert who makes it all look so effortless.
10. Keep your old friends close
Even though they’re thousands of miles away on the other side of Earth, a good friend will always be there for you. A chat on Facebook or a quick call on Skype can work wonders and cheer you up after a lonely day or frustrating journey home after grappling with the ticket-machine at the station. It’s not easy to always stay in touch – you’ll likely be on different time zones and schedules – but good friendships are precious, so cultivate them as best you can.