Expat advice: Remembering how to make friends

thanks to Spanish class, I made some new buddies

The strangeness of making new friends is what I set out to write about earlier in the week (before I was overcome by emotional navel-gazing) and has been second in difficulty only to the weepy goodbyes said to those people I mentioned on Thursday.

As a classic introvert, moving to a new country and making friends from scratch was already a bleak prospect. After factoring in the language barrier and some cultural differences, I was looking into an abyss. I mean, can you even remember the last time that you—as an adult—made a friend? And I’m not talking about that time you were at a party and scored an invite to a group lunch, all the while nestled in the comfort of your own social circle.

In your home country, it’s easy to take for granted how your already established relationships form a kind of safety net: they provide a place for you to meet new people and should you have a social swing-and-a-miss, you already have friends and so it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When your support system tally is one (because I have a spouse), every new interaction is imbued with pressure. A few weeks ago my friend Cherise and I were laughing at all the thoughts that whirl us into anxiety as we put ourselves out there: Am I coming on too strong? Do I sound stupid? Was that joke dumb? I was telling her how it gets easier, which is kind of true…I mean, I still feel awkward and uncomfortable, but now I’m used to it!

In all seriousness, I completely believe that making friends is like any other skill and if you keep at it, it will eventually feel more natural. If you’re looking for some more practical steps or ideas about where to meet people, go back to this post about overcoming culture shock. For me, however, the whole process of making friends started in my head. Keep scrolling for a couple of the roadblocks I had to overcome in order to get my social groove back.

Accept the fact that you need to make new friends

As awful as it is to say, while living in San Diego I’d enjoy meeting people and chat or ask questions all day long, but none of that information ever made it into my long term memory bank. I was never on the lookout for new friends because my roster was full. Part of that is I’m not someone to use the term friend lightly; and if I call you my best friend, well, please use your powers for good because I’d probably shave my eyebrows off for you if asked. In fact, one of the first words I tried to learn in Spanish class was acquaintance—my teacher quickly informed me that in Colombia, acquaintance is a frigid term, used more to give people the impression that you don’t like them rather than being a stop over between stranger and friend.

It was a huge challenge to pull down the stones protecting my ideas of friendship, but they had to go because they applied to a life I was no longer living. It took me about three months to realize that making new friends didn’t mean I was trying to replace my old ones and my new attachments didn’t necessarily have to be so serious. Whew.

Get rid of your idea of what a friend should look like

One of the most amazing things about living abroad is bumping into people of all ages, backgrounds and life stages. Perhaps your new Friday night dinner partner will be fifteen years your senior or they’re in your country under different circumstances and aren’t enjoying themselves at all. Maybe they like Star Trek or are vegans or have any other trait that would have immediately put them on the blacklist in your home country. When you’re in the market for a friend, you can’t be mentally closing yourself off because that person looks different ‘on paper.’ In my experience, I’ve only been pleasantly surprised to make friends with people who are older or younger, with wildly different political beliefs and personality styles. This aspect of friend-making has been such a lovely surprise that I challenge all of you with full ‘friend rosters’ to open up a bit.

Small talk.

I know, I know—we all just had a gag reflex, but it’s a necessary part of being social. When you go to one of those dorky expat events or have a dinner with your spouse’s colleagues, you have to have something to say! This one shouldn’t be too hard to get used to, though, simply because you’ll most likely spend your first weeks in your new city going to museums, finding new restaurants, and learning catchy (and maybe inappropriate) slang. All that time spent doing interesting things will give you interesting things to talk about. Another plus is that the misunderstandings and cultural blunders that inevitably follow moving to a new country will be perfect fodder for dinner table conversation.

Being ready to talk about yourself also falls under the ‘small talk’ category because when asked what you do, it would be embarrassing to say that you spend your afternoons binge watching The Sopranos while slowly feeding on a sleeve of crackers and an outrageously expensive (considering the quality) wedge of imported cheddar cheese. When faced with explaining myself in Spanish, I realized that a lot of those stock answers I’d throw out in my native language were kind of outdated. I also had to quickly brush up on conversational cultural norms: one of the first questions Americans ask when introduced is what people do for a living, but this can be offensive to some. Rather, it’s more accepted bring up your own personal accomplishments and meant that my usual self-depreciating humor only made everyone uncomfortable.

All of this experience has been shaped by the fact that we live in a very open and inclusive culture, and have had the opportunity to make friends with both Colombians and expats from all different countries—I’m sure that someone in a more closed culture would have a completely different perspective. Even so, I can’t help but notice how I’ve had shades of these experiences each time I’ve moved throughout my life. Now, be a good reader and share yours in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “Expat advice: Remembering how to make friends

  1. Making friends is so hard!! Wasn’t college nice? As I get older, the core group problem seems harder, but there are more opportunities for those unique friendships with very different people. And I agree, those are special friendships.
    By the way, I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be your friend (:

    1. Ooo so many good points here! Part of it too is that if you’re not in a place for long, it’s easy to make casual acquaintances with folks, but you can’t rush close friendships.

  2. What an interesting post! I moved from San Francisco to Boston at the age of 34, and found it very difficult to make friends here. Part of it is that Bostonians aren’t an overly friendly lot by nature, though they’ll open up if you give them time. But part of it was what you describe — being an adult with a career and other concerns in a sea of other adults who already had “full rosters.”

    Fortunately, twenty years later, I’ve got a nice group of friends here. More importantly, I keep making new friends over time. The thing I’ve discovered is that it just takes time. You can certainly hit it off with someone new, but in order to develop a genuine friendship, I think it takes a year or two.

    And as you write, stretching the confines of your boundaries is a healthy thing to do at any stage of life. Good for you that you’re doing it!


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we thought we had added your blog to our blogroll. But hadn’t, so did so today.

    1. Thanks for reading, Kim! I think you hit the nail on the head that as an adult, time is really the most necessary ingredient in building lasting friendships. As I’m facing a move every two or three years, it’s been hard for me to change my definition of what a ‘friend’ looks like, and to learn to hold people a little more loosely.

  3. Hi, Danielle! I currently live in San Andres, and am married to a Colombian National. At this point in our relationship, I am considering at least part-time residency in Bogota, and although I speak passable Spanish, want to devote myself to some intense learning. Do you have any recommendations regarding Spanish classes? I know tutors are highly-recommended, but I’m not sure I can afford them; I’ve been told Universidad Javeriana has good Continuing Education classes, but presume they might move rather slowly. I’m not averse to any option, but wondered if you had experience with any of this…Thanks, Wally

    1. Hi Wally, I’m glad you found the blog! I took group Spanish classes in the mornings at Nueva Lengua in Bogotá, which is much cheaper than 1:1 tuition. I was very happy with the school, and if you take advantage of the afternoon activities you’ll get even more practice. Another option is a language exchange: as I’ve lived in Colombia I’ve met lots of friends who want to better their English, and we’d meet for a couple of hours a week to take turns speaking in Spanish and English. Of course, this option takes a little more work to make sure that your personalities, abilities and dedication match up :-)

      If you’re not yet living in Colombia, you could try lessons via Skype. For instance, I found some online tutors from Spanish schools in Antigua, Guatemala (another popular place folks go to learn Spanish) who offer 1:1 lessons via Skype for around 8-10USD/hour. Good luck with your plans to move!

  4. Hey there, I can totally relate. I am an American in France and at least here where I live, people really keep to themselves and are family focused. I’ve written about making friends on my blog and it’s a real struggle. Small talk isn’t part of French culture and people tend to not want to intrude on others’ lives to be socially polite so yah, as I said I can relate!

    1. Hello Diane! I stumbled across your blog a couple of weeks ago and loved your perspective on French culture :-) As much as I dread small talk, I can’t imagine how to start a conversation without it! Even though it’s been a struggle, I’m thankful to be living in such an inclusive culture. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

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