“So, no one told you life was gonna be this way”
When you live abroad an important element of your life is your social circle; your network, your support system. AKA Friends!
As a matter of fact, the lack of a support network is often cited as the number one reason for expat failure. Sometimes we can feel so lonely overseas that it causes big problems such as depression, wanting to go home and worse.
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.
Making new friends as an adult can be challenging; making new friends as an expat doubly so, but it is possible. It just takes time and effort.
A support network
Now, a support network can be anything, really – think of it as a social network, too – both online and offline.
Basically, it’s knowing somebody else – outside your immediate family – who you can talk with on a regular basis. In an ideal world, it’s much more than that, but I’m keeping it simple for now.
These could workplace colleagues – chatting around the water-cooler type relationships – casual but regular, (although these can be problematic, as I’ll explain towards the end of this article). It can be mates you go to coffee with from time to time. And any stage right the way through the ‘friendship spectrum’ to proper, deep, meaningful friendships.
The main method of finding friends as an expat parent is at the school gates. You’ve instantly got something in common – you are parents, and 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?
It’s too easy to become very isolated as a new expat, and this leads to a very dispiriting life (understatement!).
How do you create a social network in your new home country?
You’re aiming to build an active and fulfilling social life for yourself overseas, and to do this, you have to be intentional and proactive.
These are the keys. You can’t just expect it to happen naturally. You need to get out there and actively pursue those you’d like to be friends with. Without being stalkery, of course! What I mean is, if you meet someone you think you’ll click with, make a meetup date as soon as possible. Take control, be proactive.
If you don’t make it happen yourself, you can’t expect it to just happen.
11 actionable tips to help you find new friends
- Join groups, clubs or classes that interest you. Language classes would be an obvious choice for an expat. Look for groups that align with your interests. Joining a group or club tailored around a common interest can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals.
- Say ‘yes’ to every invitation you receive. Even if it’s something that doesn’t appeal to you. You may find someone there who dislikes it at much as you – instant connection!
- Attend events. Look for local events such as art shows, concerts, or community festivals. These events provide an opportunity to meet new people in a relaxed, fun atmosphere.
- Use social media. Social media can be a great tool for connecting with new people. Join Facebook groups, follow local businesses or people on Instagram, and engage with them to start building relationships. Don’t be creepy though – you know what I mean!
- Be open-minded. Be open to meeting new people, even if they don’t seem like someone you would normally be friends with. You might be surprised by how much you have in common.
- Follow up. When you meet someone new, don’t be afraid to follow up with them. This is the intentional bit – Invite them for coffee. Building a friendship takes effort and consistency.
- Mutual friends. once you’ve made a connection with someone, ask to meet their friends. Yes, you must be a bit forward; if you particularly like someone, you trust their judgement in friends.
- Join a club. OK, yes, I already said this, but perhaps there aren’t any clubs near you. So, create one! There’s still a big demand for book clubs. Or a hiking and exploring club. Whatever floats your boat. Proactive, see?!
- Be noticed in your local area. Visit the same places regularly; the same coffee shops, the local gym, the same church. Familiarity with the people in your immediate locale helps you feel more at home, and more confident. Confidence will then help you move forward in your friend finding mission.
- meetup.com is often recommended; although I’ve not tried it myself, I’ll trust my contacts that this is a good opportunity.
- Talk to strangers! People want to talk to each other, they’re just waiting for someone else to do it first. So, be that someone else and talk to strangers!
Corporate ‘support’, privacy, confidentiality and desperation – ie ‘friends’ who use you
Now, many companies who send their staff overseas have a trailing spouse / accompanying partner support system in the same location as you. But sometimes this support is at HQ back in your home country, which isn’t helpful!
They are generally tasked with looking out for the trailing spouses, making sure we’re doing OK, someone we can call when we need to find a dentist, vet, lightbulbs, that sort of thing.
There are sometimes separate welfare officers; people we, or someone in our family, can talk to if we have mental health problems.
Sometimes these two roles were held by the same person. Sometimes not.
Some companies don’t have either of these in place, at all.
In some places they are great; proactive, organising meetups, being genuinely supportive. In other places, though – well, not so much…
However, and this is a massive, giant, neon-lit however…
Both are employed by The Company. Like Human Resources, they work to protect the business, not the people. Whatever they say.
Would you really be comfortable with sharing your darkest emotions, your feelings with someone whose job it is to protect the business? They may claim to be working solely for your benefit, but it’s highly doubtful these conversations will be off record. In fact, I’d bet my kitten there will be notes written on a file somewhere that may be held against you in further postings. Or worse, may impact you or your partner’s career progression.
Yes, I know I am sounding cynical, but with reason, as I have seen it happen, and experienced it myself.
One instance was a coffee morning with other expat partners and the Trailing Spouse Support Person (trying not to be outing, here).
They were telling all and sundry about someone’s mental health problems
They were sharing gossip about an extra-marital affair that was going on.
So horrifically indiscreet. Once that kind of information is ‘out there’ it can’t be put back in its box: gossip spreads like wildfire. I suppose they were trying to make themselves popular to gain more friends themselves?
This is the key reason I make a big deal about me being an independent advisor, an independent mentor – as I can see how using in-house ‘support’ can truly backfire on the staff, as well as their families. As I’m only working for you, you can be assured your vulnerabilities will never, ever get back to anyone.
And this 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, another ubiquitous expat coffee morning!
They all surrounded me, asking “What does your husband do?” No ‘Hello, what’s your name, where are you from’ or anything about me at all, just straight in with that.
Now, that question always gets my back up and makes me prickly as hell. Anyway, when I told them he worked at the Embassy, they were almost grabbing me in their excitement.
Fascinated at the response, I watched quietly as about a dozen of them babbled at me.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that they wanted to be my friend because it could mean they’d get invited into the Embassy – onto the small compound where some families lived. And more importantly to them, being my ‘friend’ could mean they’d get invited to Embassy events. Aha!
As soon as I told them I didn’t live there, they disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared and barely spoke to me again.
So, be careful 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.
Another warning: sometimes, you may be so desperate for a friend that you’ll be drawn into what I can only describe as a toxic friendship. Just be careful. Don’t give away too much of yourself too soon. Bide your time first. Suss people out. Read between the lines. Protect yourself. And it’s OK to say ‘no’.
Proactive, intentional, time and effort
Overall, the key to finding new friends in a new country is to be proactive and 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 worth it. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight – it would be quite strange if it did, to be honest.
Moving beyond ‘acquaintance’ level can be difficult, which is why you need to be proactive, intentional in a non-creepy way. Keep putting yourself out there and you’ll eventually find people you connect with.
Good friends add so much to our lives and in many cases, and especially with the expat lifestyle, friends become our new family.
With time and effort, you can build a strong network of friends in your new home. You just have to be patient.
I’ll be there for you!
(Don’t worry, I’m only singing on the podcast!)
Expat life is a journey, not a destination. Expat life changes, it grows, it shrinks, it throws up challenges, obstacles, curveballs (2020 anyone?!).
Along the way you have amazing adventures, experiences, meeting 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 – but it can also often be a roller coaster at times.
Those hard-won friends move on to pastures new. You move on to pastures new and have to start over. But now your kids are older, and you can’t do the whole school-gate thing any more.
You’re back to square one.
Throughout it all, throughout your expat journey – from home to away and back again, I’ll be there for you.
I’ve created a wonderful, safe, confidential online space for you where you can be yourself, through the ups and downs of expat life. Where you can find support, friendship, advice and so much more. For the times when you need a little advice, someone to talk to about anything, and with your own, personal Expat Expert in your pocket whenever you need me.
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.
Welcome to The Expatability Club!
Your 'one-stop-shop' for succeeding abroad!
I help expats of all levels of experience build a successful life, career and family overseas.
Welcome to The Expatability Club: the community and advice hub where you'll never feel alone or unsupported
Expatability Chat Podcast
This article is extracted and adapted from my Expatability Chat Podcast episode, 'How to Find New Friends as an Expat'.
So, for even more value, and advice, please tune in to get my - apparently soothing - voice in your ears.
You can find my podcast here, or on your favourite podcast platform.