If you’ve lived in a foreign country for any amount of time, you would know how making local friends abroad can be really challenging.
Many of us move abroad because we’re genuinely interested in being a part of the society in some shape or form. The perfect way to do that is to surround ourselves with local friends.
However, what happens more often than not is that after several attempts at making local friends, our initial enthusiasm gets replaced by feelings of rejection and isolation:
‘It’s so difficult to make local friends here’
‘The locals here are cold and unwelcoming’
‘I never seem to move past being acquaintances with the locals’
‘I don’t seem to click with most of the locals here’
Sound familiar? Yeah, I’ve said those things too. Statements such as the above are so common among expats in private conversations and in expat groups on Facebook.
There’s even a study made by InterNations which attempts to rank countries according to how easy or difficult it is to make local friends there.
The challenge of making local friends abroad is clearly a common concern for expats around the world. But even so there will always be people who will tell you that you’re just not making enough of an effort…
I’ve personally also struggled with making local friends in all of the countries that I’ve lived in (although ‘struggled’ would perhaps be putting it mildly).
However, once I began to see it as a reoccurring pattern in my expat life and not tied to just one country, I wanted to understand why is it difficult to make local friends.
I clearly didn’t have any problems making friends as a rule, but there seemed to be an invisible wall between myself and many of the locals. I just needed to understand why.
In order to find some answers, I put on my researcher hat and started to dig for information and talk to different people, in the hopes that I’d be able to see things from a different perspective.
So if you want to know about the most common reasons why making local friends is universally difficult, and why you may be having very little success, continue reading.
1. SOME LOCALS HAVE NO EXPERIENCE WITH FOREIGNERS OR WITH LIVING ABROAD
I distinctly remember this one incident when I was still in middle school in Estonia. I had never lived abroad by that point but I was studying in an English-language focused program. Moving abroad was something most of us in the class were planning on doing one day.
One time, we had a huge group of students from England come visit us for a day as part of some cultural exchange program. We were all really excited about the prospect of foreign guests and having the opportunity to practice speaking English with actual native English speakers (oh boy…).
Many of us imagined that we’d quickly make friends and talk about everything under the sun. It was all just going to be so much fun.
What happened instead was that we actually didn’t know what to talk about with any of the English students, and they didn’t know what to say us either. The only things most of us (including myself) could think to ask were what I have later in life called the immigrant questionnaire:
‘Why did you move here?’
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘When are you going back?’
‘What’s [enter subject] like in your country?’
Let’s all take a minute to pay our respects to the amount of times we have all been on the receiving end of such questions… Okay, good, now let’s move on.
As much as I hate going through the immigrant questionnaire with new locals that I meet, the minute I can see their eyes glaze over upon learning that I’m not from around here, I know that they are simply racking their brains about what on Earth do I talk about with this foreigner?!
It’s awkward and annoying that I am categorized in such a one-dimensional way. I am more than just a foreigner! But in moments such as these, I also try to remember my teenage self who made the very same mistake and couldn’t see past the fact that someone was from a foreign country.
And this is precisely where the crux of the matter is. As much as moving abroad has become easier for many people in this world, there are still many more people who have not lived abroad, who do not care to live abroad and who wouldn’t accept any amount of money to live anywhere else.
Insisting on making friends with locals means that you’re much more likely to come across people who, quite frankly, don’t understand what kind of masochism drove you to leave behind the safety and comfort of everything you know.
You know, the kind of people that say ‘you are so brave for moving abroad, I could never do that’.
Because many locals won’t have a reference point for being able to relate to your life choices, chances are slim that they’ll be able to see you as anything other than a foreigner. And so, once the immigrant questionnaire has been exhausted, there is really nothing more to talk about with you either.
From there on out, it’s up to you, the foreigner, to insist on building this friendship with this coveted local by proving that you’re actually more than some strange creature from a foreign land.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
I’m not saying that you should stop trying to make local friends.
Simply, to spare yourself from unnecessary frustration, bear in mind that you’re potentially trying to become friends with someone that does not have living in a foreign country as a shared commonality with you.
As it happens, though, it’s bound to be a pretty big part of your new life and identity. You’re more likely to hit it off with repat locals who share the same sort of curiosity for the world or masochism, if you will, to leave their comfort zone as you do.
2. SOME LOCALS HAVE NO SPACE FOR NEW FRIENDSHIPS
There can be major differences across cultures, but also individuals, whether people have room for new friendships.
In many places, and for many people, meaningful friendships are made during school years and these often last a lifetime.
Once that window of opportunity has closed, everyone else after that is forever stuck in the ‘acquaintance’ category. Even if the new people could be much more compatible friends than some of the childhood friends with vastly different lifestyles and values.
But for many people, shared history trumps compatibility.
One of my expat/globetrotter friends from Germany, Maria, told me a story about how she started a new job in Denmark and got along like a house on fire with a female colleague (a local on top of that!). Maria invited her out on many occasions, but this female colleague never took up the invitation. At some point, the colleague was bold enough to say to my friend:
‘You’re fun, but I already have all the friends that I need’
Talk about being straightforward!
Without even having been on the receiving end of such honesty, I was shocked. It opened my eyes to the fact that people may have very different approaches to how they make friends, or whether they invest in new friendships at all.
This brutal honesty also helped explain some of my own past experiences where a seemingly great connection with a potential new (local or not) friend led to a dead end.
Nevertheless, it’s not like this explanation made any sense to Maria (or to me!), but at least she knew why the budding friendship wasn’t going anywhere. Just like in dating, she was free to redirect her efforts to getting to know people who were actually open to new friendships.
Even so, I kept thinking about that story days after because I found it difficult to reconcile it with the way I was brought up.
My friendships have always evolved alongside my own personal growth as a person. As a result, I am unlikely to hold on to past connections if they no longer seem to bring any joy to either party, even if the realization that it’s time to let go takes a while to dawn on me.
I would say that having a flexible mindset around new friendships is an asset as an expat. But I have to pinch myself every now and again and remind myself that just because I was equipped to deal with a life full of change, that is not necessarily the norm for many people.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
So when it comes to making local friends abroad, I try to look out for those who also display an openness to new friendships. Otheriwse, I simply stay friendly towards those that I think could be great friends but don’t seem too interested in investing more of their time in building a friendship.
3. MAKING FRIENDS ABROAD AS AN ADULT IS DIFFICULT – WHETHER THEY’RE LOCAL OR EXPATS
The reason why many life-long friendships are established when we’re young is because in school/university/clubs/hobby classes, people have regular, if not daily, opportunities to see each other and go through similar experiences.
When we’re young, we also have so much more free time to create shared memories (or let’s be honest, scar each other for life for no good reason).
Fast forward to when you’re out of school, partnered up, working full time and potentially raising kids. Gone are the days when you’re able to meet the same people every single day, bond over your struggles with largely the same things, and spend a large portion of your free time together.
In short, making friends as an adult is a different ballgame. People often have divergent goals, interests and responsibilities. Even trying to consistently find time to meet up with people you know, let alone meet new people, takes time and energy.
It’s a lot more likely that you’ll become friends with someone at work bonding over your shared frustrations with your boss, at a socially active sports club/hobby, or someone from your kid’s/kids’ school or hobby class.
Although, these are more likely to become circumstantial friendships that often don’t stand the test of time or distance. But that’s okay, because not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime.
The struggle to build friendships that are meaningful are magnified when you add another obstacle to the above – moving abroad as an adult and becoming an expat.
Suddenly you’re also stripped of most of the common ground with locals who, under different circumstances, could potentially easily be friend material.
And so you find yourself struggling in the new friendship department. Both because you’re an adult now, but also because you’ve chosen to live your life as an expat.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
But this isn’t the part where you give up trying to make local friends. First you need to recognize that locals can also be mindful of the time and energy they invest in towards new friendships (if at all).
Just because you’ve showed up with all of your enthusiasm and seem like an all around nice person doesn’t mean that anybody owes their time to you.
The lack of interest or warmth towards you may have nothing at all to do with you as a person. Rather than keep on pushing, simply redirect your efforts towards those that seem open to new friendships and have the time for it as well. They do exist.
Which of the reasons resonate with your experience of making local friends abroad? 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.