A common theme in my work, is people lamenting how hard it is to make genuinely good friends as an expat. Whilst it's pretty easy to find friendly faces and form some quick, casual friendships, most of us want to cement something more meaningful with a handful of people who are really connected to us.
It's not easy. I see a lot of people rush gleefully into the 'best friends forever' state with a relative stranger only to reveal too much, fall out and regret it later. And others who are very cautious, don't connect and are left feeling alone and overly reliant on old friends back home. In the pressure cooker of expat life, I see people trying to get their needs met but ending up getting hurt.
So let's have a look a what's going on under the surface ...
As human beings we all have a fundamental need to be connected to others and we all need time to ourselves. Psychologist, Eric Berne studied this and came up with the six ways that we spend our waking hours:-
As you go down the list, the level of recognition you get from the other person and the emotional intensity you feel, increases, but at the same time the risk of hurt and rejection also increases. Each of you will have your own patterns of spending time in the different modes, depending on how much risk you’re comfortable with, how much you need acknowledgment from others. For example, introverts will spend more time in Withdrawal, extroverts more time socialising with others.
In order to engage with others, you need to meet them. As soon as you've mastered the basics of the local language you can start practising saying "Hello", "How are you?" with the people around you. Simple interactions like greeting the local cafe owner each morning, will help you start to feel at home and give a small feeling of connection. This is in the Rituals category in the above table. It's a great starting point, low risk and it delivers and small 'feel good' factor. When you're ready for more, most cities have plenty of networking groups for expats and global nomads, Internations is fairly ubiquitous and Meetups have something for everyone. In Lisbon, we have the wonderful International Women of Portugal (IWP), who have been providing support, group activities and events for women for over 25 years.
Low key events like coffee mornings or sunset drinks are casual ways of sizing up a group of potential new friends. They fit into the Pastiming category in the table, so there's not much risk but equally there's not much real connection either. It's a good starting point, but don't get stuck here, the real goal is to find an activity that you are interested in. It stands to reason that if you like hiking and you go out for the day with other hikers, you are more likely to find new friends with similar interests. Activities sit below Pastiming on the Time Structuring table so whilst there is more risk of 'hurt' there is also the reward of more recognition from others.
An activity has a focus, so unlike a coffee morning where you may feel awkward or struggle for something to say, the activity carries you. You're likely to learn together, have new experiences, overcome challenges and laugh, all of which are enriching. The other thing that happens when we're engaged in an activity, especially one that includes elements of play or competition, is that we (and the others) reveal more about our true characters (that's why it's more risky). So we get to see who is generous in defeat, who sulks, who takes the time to help others, who takes the best for themselves etc. It's honest, useful information when deciding to become closer (or more distant) friends with someone. Over 2300 years ago, Plato* said "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation". You know that actions speak louder than words.
Connection with others is important for positive mental health, Pastiming events and especially Activities provide connection opportunities with people in the same physical location. Simply meeting with others where you live has proven mental health benefits and over time, some will become friends. It's important to mix with others outside of the international community, in fact Expatriates with a mix of both Expat and Local friends are statistically more likely to have a positive experience overseas.
In the early days abroad, most expats still need to be in frequent contact with their very close circle of established friends, even if they are a plane ride away. It is these special friends (and our Partner), the few people who know you and accept you 'warts and all' that you are most likely to have a genuine, meaningful, trusting relationship. This is the Intimacy category in the Time Structuring table. It is important to actively maintain these friendships, especially as you transition from one country to another. Everyone has a deep seated need for real intimacy. For those of you who move with a partner or our family, this may be enough special people to provide what you all need. For many others, especially women, they additionally need their old girlfriends. A pitfall that I see some expats fall into is in the absence of their old, special friends, they attempt to form a close, intimate relationship with a brand new friend too quickly. It's usually too much, too soon.
This leaves both the Withdrawal and Psychological Games categories from the Time Structuring table. Both of these are more problematic but important when thinking about friendships.
Introverts tend to be more aware of of needing time to themselves, which Berne describes as Withdrawal, but in fact most people do need time to recharge before going out again to connect. The first few months living in a new country can be draining and it's vital to set aside some time and space to be alone. This can be almost impossible if you're sharing a house with others but it's essential self-care. It's easier to reach out and be with others if you've already centred yourself.
Everyone plays Psychological Games to some extent, in an attempt to get meaningful recognition from others. They are played out-of-awareness and often the first clue you get is that the discussion follows a familiar pattern and then the game ends dramatically and both people feel upset or angry. The 'Yes, but....' game is quite common. It follows this type of pattern:-
Complainer: "I wish I had some friends."
Helper: "You could meet new people at a language class."
Complainer: "Yes, but I'm rubbish at learning languages."
Helper: "How about popping into that Expat coffee morning."
Complainer: "Yes but, I don't think they're like me, I think they're all older."
Helper: "What about finding a Meetup?."
Complainer: "Yes but, I've looked, there's nothing interesting."
Helper: "You could...."
Complainer: "Yes, but..."
This repeats, until, the Helper gets angry and says "I give up, you never actually do anything!" and the Complainer is more unhappy than when the conversation started. Some Expats are compulsive Complainers and some are happy Helpers, this is OK from time to time, but you don't want it to be the sole basis of a friendship.
In summary, the most effective way you can make new friends as an Expatriate to engage in an activity that you enjoy. If you can also hold on to your old friends, exchange pleasantries with those around you, avoid playing psychological games and make some time to be alone and recharge.....you'll come through the transition with flying colours and new buddies!
*quote often credited to Plato but this has been disputed.