Knowing how to make friends abroad is not something any of us are taught how to do. For most of us it’s a matter of trial and error.
If you’re considering moving abroad, or you’re already living abroad and failing at making new friends, continue reading to learn about the five most common mistakes to avoid when making friends in a foreign country.
1.NOT BEING REALISTIC ABOUT THE KIND OF PEOPLE YOU’RE TRYING TO BE FRIENDS WITH
In general, it can take a long time to figure out who are ‘your people’ and who most definitely are not. Often we only learn to recognize who we truly click with through trial and error.
Moving abroad is almost like a crash course in figuring out who are ‘your people’.
Unless we already have a pre-existing relationship with the place we’ve moved to, we often don’t even have a clue about what people are like in our destination country, or how to recognize those that we can easily connect with.
You don’t yet have a roadmap, so to speak, to be able to distinguish who is who.
In contrast, in a place where you’ve lived for several years, or your whole life, you will know exactly what “type” of person this or that individual is. Based on that initial assessment, you also know better whether to invest more of your time in them or not.
When you live in a foreign country, you don’t have that ‘roadmap of people’ just yet.
The tricky thing about this is that you can feel like you’re doing all the right things to meet new friends but not going anywhere with your efforts.
Sometimes our lack of success has to do with the fact that ‘your people’ are simply not available where you’re trying to find new friends.
Maybe you’re truly a city person but now you’re in a small town where people are not as open as you are.
Maybe your core values don’t align with the people around you at work or in a hobby club.
Sometimes it’s not about you or the efforts you are/are not making.
Sometimes it’s truly that there are not that many great connections available to begin with. But it can take a while to recognize that you may just be looking in the wrong places rather than in the wrong way.
2. BEING AFRAID TO PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE
If you’re not used to finding your way in new and unknown social situations, making new friends abroad is going to be a steep learning curve for you.
While making friends is very much a numbers game (and sometimes just comes down to dumb luck), you’re not even in the game if you don’t put yourself out there and allow yourself to learn from you mistakes.
You’ve probably heard this before though. So you may know and agree with the importance of putting yourself out there in theory.
But when it comes to putting yourself out there in practice… Well, then you’re probably going to come up with a million reasons why that’s not something you want to do.
These days I can confidently say that I truly enjoy finding my way in new social settings. I’m also getting better and better at recognizing when a person/group/environment is not a good match for me.
But I would never have said the above some 10 years ago.
Back then I did not know how to deal with new social settings, what to say to strangers, how to approach them, how to make connections and how to avoid dead ends.
It’s taken a conscious effort on my part (and plenty of observing those who make socializing look effortless) to learn the tricks of mingling fast so that I can quickly weed out the connections that probably won’t go anywhere.
And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the most important step in putting yourself out there is simply saying ‘hello’ to someone and staying with the discomfort of not knowing how this person is going to respond.
If putting yourself out there to meet new friends abroad is a particularly sore point for you, let me know in the comments if you’d like to know more about how I’ve learned to, well, get out of my own way.
3. GETTING DISCOURAGED AT THE FIRST SIGN OF FAILURE
When we’re not used to making connections and finding new friends abroad, it’s easy to get discouraged at the first sign of failure.
Our idea of failure can take many forms:
- Not getting a positive response when you invite someone out
- Feeling like you’re being talked over or ignored in a group conversation
- Not being invited to parties
- Being friendly to everyone but no one taking an interest in you
These are all small moments that communicate to us that someone, or maybe even a group of people, is rejecting us. While that definitely stings (a lot) when it happens, we can also choose to turn it around and see it as a blessing in disguise.
People that genuinely like you and connect with you won’t have a reason to reject you. So when someone does reject us, it’s a sign that we need to redirect our efforts and make ourselves available to other connections.
Making friends abroad is a numbers game. Vast majority of the people you meet are not going to like you, connect with you, or they may at best just be lukewarm about you.
If you don’t operate on the expectation that you’re going to become friends with every single person you meet, and rather keep the mindset that maybe 1 in every 10 will have actual friend potential, any rejection that you do experience will simply melt right off your back.
Because rejection is simply information that these are not ‘your people’ – but there are other more suitable people out there that you haven’t met yet.
4. NOT TRYING OUT NEW ACTIVITIES TO MEET POTENTIAL NEW FRIENDS ABROAD
Some of us have a very strong sense of self – what we like and what we don’t like – while others are more flexible and adaptable.
In order to meet new friends abroad, learning to become more flexible and being open to going beyond your comfort zone will benefit you in more ways than just finding people to spend time with.
Because there’s a certain amount of compromise that living abroad requires from us if we truly want to make it work in a foreign country.
It’s perfectly good to have hobbies and routines for how we want to live. But if you truly want to make your life abroad a good experience, you will need to let go of some of the things you’re used to having in your life.
Let me make an example.
I once made a friend who had just recently moved from the U.S. to Denmark. He only ended up living in Denmark for 2 years and for most of this time, he complained about how things did not work in the way that he was used to.
I’m not sure what he expected, but perhaps the biggest lesson that I took away from watching his struggles in Denmark was this.
While he had no problem putting himself out there, he only joined the same two club activities he was already involved in back in the U.S. What he failed to account for was that just because he shares the same hobby with these people, they are not going to be the same kind of people (which brings us back to Point 1 before).
His disappointment with these clubs spilled into other areas of his life and soon enough, he packed his bags and went back to the U.S.
Maybe Denmark really wasn’t for him and he realized that he really did appreciate how things were back in the U.S. through this experience.
But there’s definitely a lesson to be learned here about being more flexible about what our life will come to look like in a foreign country.
So if something is not working out, it’s time to adjust our approach and try something new before jumping ship altogether.
5. NOT DEVELOPING YOURSELF AS A PERSON
I’ve left this final point as the last one as it’s perhaps the most tricky one to write about, especially with a broad audience and an even broader range of factors to keep in mind.
But it needs to be said.
When we fail to make friends abroad, some of us put the blame on ourselves while others put the blame on external factors or other people.
On our own it’s often difficult to determine which one plays a bigger role in our failure to make friends in a foreign country.
But those of us who tend to find a problem more easily in our environment or other people, would do well to take some time to also examine whether how we come across as a person could have something to do with our lack of success.
Because sometimes how we show up in social situations can actually repel people, even if we’re lovely otherwise.
Maybe we don’t have well-developed social skills or the social skills that we’ve adopted don’t translate well in another context. As a result, we inadvertently put people off from getting to know us better. Getting an unbiased opinion from someone would be your best bet at figuring out what might be sending out the wrong message to people.
However, if you’re already really good at putting the blame on yourself for failing to make friends, there’s a big chance that you’re being too hard on yourself. Working on your self-esteem and valuing what you bring into the world will do a world of good for you and your ability to attract people that genuinely value you for you.
In either case, it would be a useful exercise to ask someone that has no stake in it what they think about your social skills.
Have you made any unfortunate mistakes in your efforts to make friends in a foreign country? Let me know in the comments below.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.