How to build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas
When you live abroad an important element of your life is your social circle; your network, your support system. AKA Friends!
“So, no one told you life was gonna be this way”*
Sometimes we can feel so lonely overseas that it causes big problems such as depression, wanting to go home and more.
In fact, a lack of a support network is often cited as the number one reason for expat failure.
So, let's prevent this from happening in the first place! Let's make sure that you've always got the tools to help you find your own support network, wherever you are in the world.
How can you build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas? In this episode, I’ll tell you how, and share 10 actionable tips you can use to build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas.
Making new friends as an adult can be challenging; making new friends as an expat doubly so, but it is definitely possible. It can take time and effort, but it's worth it.
And I’ll share something really exciting to make sure that you always have your own support network with you at all times.
So, whoever you are, wherever you are in the world, wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’ve been, wherever you’re going, I’ll be there for you.
Join The Expatability Club: An expat community and advice hub where you’ll never feel alone or unsupported.
* From the 'Friends' theme song by The Rembrandts
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How to Find New Friends As an Expat
Hello, Expateers. Hello, friends. Great to be with you today. When I record these episodes, I really do feel like I'm talking to friends, which is absolutely brilliant. And none of you can interrupt me either. Hah!
In this episode, I want to talk about finding new friends as an expat. Moving overseas as an accompanying partner can be both exciting and lonely. Exciting, of course, because you're embarking on a whole new adventure together. And lonely because whilst your partner goes out to work and the kids go off to a new school, often you're left facing a brand new life on your own. Sometimes we can feel so lonely overseas that it causes wider, deeper problems such as depression, wanting to go home and more. In fact, it's often cited as the number one reason for expat failure. Let's prevent this from happening in the first place. Let's make sure that you've always got the tools to help you find your own support network, wherever you are in the world. Do keep listening because I've got something really exciting to share with you to make sure that you always have this support network with you at all times.
New starts mean leaving behind old friends, close family, social groups, networks, and even just familiar faces in your neighbourhood. This can be difficult. It's exciting at the same time because you've got this whole new adventure, but from time to time, you do have a habit of looking back. It's hard enough to make new friends as an adult, let alone when you're an adult in a whole new country. When you live abroad, an important element of your life, perhaps the most important element is creating your new social circle, your new network, your new support system. This is especially important for the accompanying expat partner, because you can end up incredibly isolated if you're no longer working. It's tempting to depend very heavily on your partner. But don't lose your independence just because you've changed countries. In fact, I'd say that finding your own friends independently is vital to your own wellbeing. You won't necessarily want to or get on with their workmates and friends. Well, if you do, then that's absolutely great and it will be really easy for you because all your social life will be organised on your behalf. But I think as the accompanying partner, you have more incentive to be proactive about making your own life and meeting new people in your own right, creating your own circle.
Now, a support network can actually be anything, really. Some workplace support system perhaps, office chitchat, although this can be problematic and I'll explain why later on. It can be friends that you can simply go to coffee with or have proper, deep, meaningful friendships. Basically, it's knowing somebody else outside of your immediate family who you can talk to on a regular basis. Obviously, in an ideal world, it's much, much more than that, but I'm keeping it basic for now. After a while, even with little kids keeping you really busy, the need for adult conversation becomes a deep necessity. Before you forget how to talk, how to adult. Trust me on this, it happens and when it does, it is mortifying. But having kids can actually help you find friends in the early stages if you're in the right situation. The right situation is taking your kids on the school run and meeting fellow parents at the school gates. This is the number one method of finding friends as a new expat parent. You've instantly got something in common. You have kids at the same school. But what about all the other Expateers? Those who don't have kids, those who are working and want to find friends outside of the office.
Those who have older kids where you don't have the whole school run experience. Those who have a door to door school bus service. What an amazing invention that is, by the way. Long time followers of mine will know just how much I hated the school run. So if you don't have the kids to help you find new friends, how do you go about creating a social network in your new home country? Making new friends as an adult can be challenging, but it is definitely possible. Some people find this much easier than others.
Back in the 1950s, sociologists identified three factors that are vital for friendships to take hold. Apparently, these three factors need to all be there, which is difficult as an adult and even more difficult as an expat. These three factors are proximity, unplanned interactions, and privacy. The one place where all of these happen naturally is at university, which is why so many people meet their lifelong friends while they're there. Adulthood actually provides very few situations where all three are on hand. Let's take a quick look at these three factors in a bit more detail and see how we can work them into our expat life.
Number one, proximity. The proximity aspect to these making new friends factors just means that you're around each other all the time, or at least very regularly. You're in the same building, perhaps, the same street, the same small area. Obviously, this works perfectly on a university campus, not so much in real life. Yes, the workplace could be one such proximity marker, but maybe you want friends outside of work. And of course, if you're not working, this is all moot anyway. Even if you live in the same city, chances are you're not actually neighbours, and you may not get on with the neighbours that you are by. When proximity does work as an expat, it's usually because you're all living on an expat compound, so you're around fellow expats all the time. And these may well be fellow expats who all work for the same company, which may not be what you're looking for in a friend. Proximity is also part of the next aspect, which is unplanned interactions. These are when you see each other without needing to be proactive in making an appointment or a date to see them. Obviously, this doesn't mean a single random meeting.
It means regular, repeated and unplanned interactions, which is why they're called unplanned interactions. Well, there you go! These could include meeting each day at the school gates, I guess. This is where it gets tricky as an adult, as an expat, especially when you're either working or parenting or both. Especially both. Finding time for spontaneity is impossible. Finding times for spontaneous hanging out with friends is not easy when your time is limited and sandwiched between work, childcare, and sleeping. So, meetups need to be planned. They're not unplanned. Childcare needs to be sorted out, you know, all that. You may find you have less time and energy to invest in making new friends. It can all feel a bit forced, maybe a little superficial at first, when you need to plan an advance when you can all meet up with a group of new friends. And often you may feel that you just cannot be arsed with it all. But be arsed. You have to be proactive in this case. This is adulting. You need to force the issue. In order to break down the barriers, you have to meet frequently and under favourable circumstances, which neatly leads on to the third factor, which is privacy.
This basically means that you're meeting often enough, getting on well enough, and in a comfortable setting or situation that helps you let your guard down and confide in others. So not at work then. Confiding in others shows vulnerability, and this is a great way to develop close friendships. So open up a bit. Don't go full on TMI and share your deepest, darkest secrets with a random stranger, but make yourself a little bit vulnerable. I'd suggest keeping it fairly safe, at least to start with. Testing the water, so to speak. Perhaps start a conversation about how difficult you're finding something to do with your new life. I'll leave you to choose a topic. You don't need help on everything here. Close friends are what leads to personal discussions, but personal discussions are also what leads to close friends. So a nice Catch 22 you've got to negotiate there. I have to admit, I don't quite understand the psychology behind this, so I shall simply share what I found online. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable helps the other person to trust you because you are putting yourself at emotional, psychological, or even physical risk. Other people tend to react by being more open and vulnerable themselves.
The fact that both of you are letting down your guard helps to lay the groundwork for a faster, closer personal connection. So open up, be vulnerable, ask a favour, because apparently this helps by making the other person feel valued and wanted.
Anyway, I want to share a warning about privacy and vulnerabilities, especially about opening up about these at work or with a workplace support or welfare officer. Privacy can be pretty much impossible to find in the workplace, especially in an open plan office. Also, do you really want to share vulnerabilities and potential mental health problems with somebody in the office? Well, don't come running to me when you find out that your vulnerabilities have been shared because somebody else has an agenda that may include throwing you under a bus for their own reasons. I want to talk a little bit about some points to be wary of in this next section, which I've titled 'corporate support, privacy, confidentiality, and desperation'! Now, many companies who send their staff overseas have a spouse or accompanying partner support system. In our group, we had a community liaison officer who was tasked with looking out for the trailing spouses to make sure we were okay.
In some places, they were great. They were proactive, they were real, they organised meetups for everybody, and were genuinely supportive. In other places, though, well, not so much. There were also welfare officers we were encouraged to talk to if we were having mental health problems. Sometimes these were the same person, sometimes not. However, and this is a massive giant neon lit, 'however'. Both are employed by the office. Like Human Resources, they work to protect the business, not the people, regardless of what they say. I'm damn sure I'm going to get all sorts of emails about this, but this is my lived experience. Would you really be comfortable sharing your darkest emotions, your feelings with somebody whose job it is to protect the business? They may claim to be working solely for your benefit, but it's highly doubtful that these conversations will ever be off record. In fact, I would bet my kitten that there will be notes written on a file somewhere that may well be held against you in further assignments. Or worse, may actually impact you or your partner's career progression. And yes, I know I'm sounding cynical, but honestly, I do have reason for this.
I have seen it happen, and I have experienced it myself. One instance was I was at a coffee morning with other expat partners in the CLO, and the CLO was telling all and sundry about another person's mental health problems, gossiping about a marital affair that was going on and simply being all kinds of indiscreet. I cannot begin to tell you how horrified I was. Once that information is out there in the community, it cannot be put back in its box. Gossip spreads like wildfire. This is the key reason I make a big deal about me being an independent adviser, an independent expat life mentor, as I can see how using in-house support can truly backfire on staff as well as their families. As I am no longer working for anyone other than you, you can be assured that your vulnerabilities will never, ever get back to anyone.
Friends or so called friends with a self serving agenda, doesn't only apply in the workplace either. I can remember on first arriving in Japan and meeting a load of new women at the school coffee morning. Yeah, coffee mornings are a bit of a thing. The ubiquitous expat coffee morning.
That's one of the reasons I've called things like Expat Espresso and Expat Ristretto, because the coffee morning became a whole big deal. Anyway, I digress. So, I was at this coffee morning and all of the mums came around because, Ooh, new person! Let's go and find out. They all surrounded me asking, "What does your husband do?" No "hello, what's your name?" No, "Where are you from?" And nothing about me whatsoever. Just straight in with, "What does your husband do?" Now that question really gets my back up. I am ME. I am super independent and I self identify as a ME. I hate being referenced to anybody else. I am me. So I was immediately on guard. I had my own work as a writer at that point, so the whole stay at home mum assumption always made me really prickly. Anyway, when I told them that he worked at the embassy, they were almost grabbing me in their excitement. It was really strange. Puzzled, I stayed quiet and watched as they gushed at me and I just waited. I mean, there were about a dozen of them and it was just so strange. Suddenly it dawned on me that they wanted to be my friend.
How lovely. But they wanted to be my friend because it could mean that they would be invited into the embassy, onto the small compound where some staff lived, and more importantly to them, they could get invited to embassy events. Anyway, as soon as I told them that I didn't live there, they disappeared as quickly as they'd appeared and barely spoke to me ever again. So funny.
My friend Suzanne also mentioned this phenomenon. She says "I can find someone to talk to anywhere, but making friends is harder. Without the school playground, I found lifelong friends in South Africa through volunteering. Dubai was harder as a lot of people were only interested in networking to suss out who could help them or their partner should they lose their job." And this is something that you really do need to watch out for. It's networking, it's not really being friendly. A lot of people want to know what you can do for them. So beware of fair-weather friends, people who have an agenda to use you for their own gain. People who may be indiscreet, and people connected with work who may destroy your future career. Just one other warning before I go on to happier and more useful points.
Sometimes you may be so desperate for a friend that you'll be drawn into what I can only describe as a toxic friendship. Without going into detail as I'll be here forever, just be careful. Don't give away too much of yourself too soon. Yes, vulnerability is apparently a way to make close friends, but perhaps bide your time first. Suss people out, read between the lines, and protect yourself. So warning's over. Let's move on to how you can build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas.
The key to it all is to be proactive and to be intentional. Intentional cropped up time and time again when I was talking with my group about this. You can't just expect it to happen naturally. It's not like we're children and, "Oh, you sit next to me at school, we'll be friends". "You like the slide? Let's be friends forever." It's a bit more, well, adulting than that, really. You need to get out there and actually pursue those you'd like to be friends with without being creepy and stalkery, of course. What I mean is, if you meet somebody you think you'll click with, make a meeting date as soon as possible.
Take control, be proactive. Don't just throw out the, "Oh, let's do lunch", and then never speak of it again. Actually put something in your diary. It's easier to become friends with other expats because you're all in the same boat and you've instantly got something in common. You're all on the same journey, albeit you may be at different stages.
One of my lovely Expateers, Kelly, has some excellent advice as she's not long moved to a new country and is doing so incredibly well for herself. She says, "The biggest key, and I'm an introvert, is to just get out of your comfort zone. This is a really, really hard task, being the other to the partner who was transferred here. I went from a full time career to a repetitive groundhog day. There are days that I enjoy my solitude and then others I want to lose it, it's so quiet. I have a teenage daughter, so playground meetups are no longer a thing, but I have met mums at cafés and joined their WhatsApp group to stay in the know. I have joined an adult field hockey club for fun. I've joined a park run and I've participated in a volunteer charitable something or other.
I bring my dog to the park to run with other dogs and I meet their owners. I've joined Facebook groups and activities, Bingo nights, tours, galas, etc. And basically became a repeat customer at some local places just to become familiar with staff. Sometimes friends have found if you can get a job at a local café or lunch spot, it's an ice breaker to get to know the community as well. I've never had so much soup or coffee in my life! Whether these all develop into amazing friendships, that's yet to be seen, but it does help me crawl out of my shell and I feel less intimidated about going out. I do miss my close friends to vent to, though. This is a hard transition and it's difficult to share the tough times with people that you've only just met. And even with those from home who think I must be living a dream and are trying to live vicariously through my adventures. They don't want to hear the negatives. It's not a vacation, it's a relocation. There are good days and there are bad days anywhere. Just get out there every day."
Kelly has nailed it. She is my Expateer star. She has taken all of my teachings from ExpatChild and my podcast and my personal advice inside the group. She is doing it all and reaping the benefits, and I'm so proud of her. Getting out there and being so proactive as an introvert expat is really hard work, and yet she is doing it.
What else can you do proactively to get out there. I've got a list of 10. There's probably a lot more, but 10 will do for now.
Join groups, clubs, or classes that interest you. Language classes would be an obvious choice for an expat, but I've had massive fun and found friends of all sorts. Ikebana, mosaicking, bird-watching, photography. Cooking classes may appeal to you, or pottery, for example. Hiking, wild swimming. Look for groups that align with your interests. Joining a group or a club tailored around a common interest can be a great way to meet like minded individuals. Plus you will enjoy it regardless.
Number two, say yes to every invitation you receive. Even if it's something that doesn't really appear to be what you'd like to do, you may find somebody there who hates it just as much as you do. Instant connection.
Number three, attend social events. Facebook is a great place for finding this, or perhaps Google where you live and see what's on nearby. Look for local events such as art shows, concerts, community festivals. These events provide an opportunity to meet new people in a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
Number four, as I say, social media, Facebook. Social media can be a great tool for connecting with new people. Join Facebook groups, follow local businesses or people on Instagram, perhaps, and engage with them. Start building relationships. Even talking to somebody online can be really, really helpful at this stage. Everybody that moved during lockdown was in a very, very difficult position because they weren't able to get out there and meet new friends. But they found that online friend making, if you like, was incredibly useful. Stopped you going mad.
Number five, be open minded. Be open to meeting new people, even if they don't seem like somebody you'd normally be friends with. You might be surprised by just how much you have in common.
Number six, follow up. When you meet somebody new, don't be afraid to follow up with them. This is the intentional bit that I mentioned just now. Actually make a follow up date. The Brits are very good at saying, "Oh, let's do lunch!", which basically translates as, "I never want to see you again". But also might mean, "Let's do lunch". Try and pin down an actual time and date. With our busy lives, especially if we're parents, it is really important to book things in ahead. So invite them for coffee. Book the lunch date. Building a friendship takes effort and consistency.
Number seven, mutual friends. Once you've made a connection with somebody, ask to meet their friends. Yes, you have to be a bit forward with this one. So if you particularly like somebody, you trust their judgment in friends, so try and get to meet their friends as well.
Number eight. Join a club. Yeah, I know I've just said this already, but perhaps there aren't any clubs near you. So why don't you create one? There's still a big demand for book clubs or hiking and exploring clubs, whatever floats your boat. Proactive, see? Create your own club.
Number nine, be noticed in your local area. Now, I don't mean going round with lime green wig and beige pantaloons. I mean being a frequent visitor, going to the same places, going to the same coffee shops, the local gym, the same church, if that's your thing. Familiarity with the people in your immediate locale is the proximity and regular unplanned meetings part of the three rules to finding friends. Plus, even being on acquaintance terms with people you see regularly helps you feel more at home and therefore more confident. That confidence will then help you move forward in your friend finding mission.
Number 10, an app called meetup.com is often recommended. Although I've not tried it myself, I'll trust my contacts that this is a good opportunity.
Now, expats versus locals. There's a great tendency amongst expats on an international assignment to only mix with fellow expats from their own country. With other expats of your own nationality, yes, it's great to be able to talk about what you may miss from home in your own language with the unspoken reference points of culture that you both share and who probably has the same sense of humour as you. It's always refreshing to be able to laugh about the problems you're having and discuss the things you find quite curious about your new country. Just because you share the same nationality, this doesn't automatically mean that other expats are going to be your BFF, your best friend.
In fact, I found my good friends overseas with expats of other nationalities and locals. I felt my personality gelled better with them. But then I've never been a really typical Brit, but no, I'm not going to go into that. Ultimately, it's much more important to find your kind of people, people that you have things in common with, not just nationality. The other challenge is that when you only make friends within the expat community, you are perpetuating the expat bubble. You're living the stereotype. Expat networks are usually quite established, and whether you know it or not will have some reputation within the local community. In some places, such as expat hubs like Singapore or Dubai, there is a huge and established network of expats. But again, it's still about finding your people. It's easy to slip into these communities, even if you know that they're really not your thing, really not your people. Shall I say that this is the lazy way out? It's okay, I get it. Finding friends is difficult enough as it is, so why not take the easy route? But stop and ask yourself whether their social scene is what you want to be filling your life with.
Be honest, do you want to be doing something different but lack the confidence to go native or go it alone? Now, in some places, the expat bubble exists for a reason, perhaps for safety, or perhaps you need to live on a compound, or for cultural reasons, for example, in Saudi, perhaps. Yet it can be equally difficult in places without an expat network. And yet again, I'll roll out my mantra, everyone is different.
I found it impossible to find friends in Germany, expat or local, for reasons I've never quite worked out. But never mind. In Japan, I had a wonderful mix of friends, expats of all nationalities and Japanese people. And then in South Africa, even though I lived on an expat compound, my closest friends were South Africans who are the most wonderful people, and those expats who did not live on that compound. You can extrapolate from that what you will. You'd probably be right. Being friendly with local people gives you an opportunity to learn not just the language, but also the culture, the way of life, their outlook, and it will most certainly broaden your experience of your life abroad. You'll discover cultural diversity and they'll help you to really understand the place and will probably tell you about areas you may not discover if you were just hanging out with other expats.
It's about trying to find people you have things in common with. Obviously, if you speak the same language, it does make it easier. The ideal solution is to make some friends from your home country, some friends as expats from other countries, and some local friends. It does seem such a waste to go somewhere and hang out purely with people from where you've come from. What's the point of that? So don't let this be a wasted opportunity. Overall, the key to finding new friends in a new country is to be proactive and to be open to trying new things. Don't be afraid to put yourself out there and try new activities or join groups. Making new friends as an expat takes time and effort, but it's well worth it. Don't be discouraged if it doesn't happen overnight. It would actually be quite strange and creepy if it did, to be honest. Remember those key factors, proximity, unplanned interactions, and privacy. I'm going to add a couple of others here as well.
Do things that you'll enjoy without using the experience to find friends. Friends are easier to find if you're not desperately looking. By doing something that you'll find fun and interesting means that your life will be enriched regardless. The other thing, well, basically a little bit of magic.
Moving beyond acquaintance level can be difficult, which is why you need to be proactive if you want something deeper. You need to be intentional in a very non creepy way. Keep putting yourself out there and you'll eventually find people that you connect with. People want to talk to each other, it's human nature, but they're usually just waiting for somebody else to do it first. So be that somebody else and talk to strangers. Friendship is incredibly important, especially for an expat who has to make new friends quickly or suffer a lonely and dispiriting life overseas. Good friends add so much to our lives, and in many cases, especially with the expat lifestyle, friends will become our new family. With time and with effort, you can build a strong network of friends in your new home. You just have to be patient. But don't dismiss the acquaintance level. Just being able to talk with people, being recognised, recognising people in your own area, your own locale, really does help. Yes, they're only acquaintances, but being able to say hello, it really does help your confidence and it helps you feel more at home.
You see, expat life is a journey, not a destination. Expat life changes. It grows, it shrinks, it throws up challenges, it throws up obstacles. It chucks curveballs our way. 2020, anyone? Along the way, you'll have amazing adventures, fabulous experiences, meet fascinating people, learn about new cultures, open your eyes and mind to a different way of being. Not only is expat life a journey, a journey through time zones and emotions. It can often be a roller coaster at times. Those hard won friends that you made move on to pastures new. You move on to pastures new and then have to start all over again. But now your kids are older and you can't do the whole school gate thing anymore and you're basically back to square one. Social media and technology have made it so much easier to keep in touch with those friends if they and you are so inclined, because not everybody does. Throughout it all, throughout your expert journey, from home to away and back again, I'll be there for you. Do not sing, Carole. So yes, I'll be there for you. I'm currently creating a wonderful, elite, expat space for you where you can be yourself throughout the ups and downs of expat life.
It'll be somewhere that you can find support at any stage of your expat life journey. You can find friendship, get advice, and so, so much more. I have heaps planned, and it will all be in a very safe online space. So whoever you are, wherever you are in the world, wherever you've come from, wherever you've been, and wherever you're going, I'll be there for you. Must not sing this. I must not sing this. I must not sing this. "I'll be there for you." I'm sorry, I really shouldn't have sung! I will be there for you. I would love, love, love to see you all in there.
So please make sure that you join the waitlist so that you can be first to hear of all the updates before anybody else and get priority entrance when the doors to this very exclusive club are open. The link is in the show notes, of course, and I cannot wait to tell you more about this, and I am so excited about meeting you all in real life as it were.
That's all for today, folks. No, I'm not Bugs Bunny. I'm just trying to stop myself from singing the Friends theme tune.
I'll talk to you again soon. Take care.