The Challenges of Developing and Maintaining Friendships as an Expat
To give full meaning to our life, we all need to connect with other people. Certain relationships accompany us through life; others enter and exit as each chapter opens and closes. No matter the type of friendship and who it involves – childhood, school, college, work or other friends – a friendship is a magical tool that can bring out the positive energy in your life when everything else feels difficult or negative. I believe that friendship is truly one of the most precious things in life. So how do expats, who often have to say goodbye to old friends and practise making new friends, deal with friendship?
Friends, the family we choose
As an expat, I have always built a family from my friends and they remain a top priority for me. Maintaining a friendship takes work and commitment, flexibility and understanding – but the payoff is huge. My good friends are as close to my heart as my own family, regardless of the geographical distance between us.
Building friendships as an expat
Making new friends and maintaining an established friendship is one of the biggest challenges for expats. But remember: there are other people looking for friends like you! Others who are also new to your location, hoping to make indelible impressions that will translate into long-lasting friendships; friendships that will evolve into late evenings, trying out new restaurants together, and sharing brunch on Saturday mornings.
Forming long-lasting bonds
Some people are lucky to form lasting bonds. Given that most expats are almost always in transit, though, friendship in the form of seeing the other often lasts only a short while. Some stay friends on social media while others find that certain friendships fizzle out, having served their purpose.
And then there are those who are brave enough to start a new friendship all over again with another friend or couple. They are in it to win. They believe that, somewhere out there, is the friend (or group of friends) that will be just the match they are looking for! They will go on long weekend trips together and sit around a bonfire while their children play together. They will share many memories and milestones. That is the goal after all, to create a “new family” abroad, and this is what real friends are.
The challenge for long-term expats
I think we can all agree that one of the worst parts of being an expat is having to regularly say goodbye to friends. Either they are leaving, or you’re leaving, or both!
I have experienced (and heard about from other long-term expats like me) the pain of saying goodbye over and over again. This is difficult and sometimes makes you wonder what the point is of investing in friendships when you know that one of you will move in a couple of years. This creates a sense of the temporary, of less stability. Friends come, you invest in them, then they leave and you may feel lonely in a host country which seems so familiar but is without real friends to enjoy it. I have heard long-term expats admit that they will always ask how long the other person will stay and, if the answer is a year or less, they distance themselves. They get detached to protect themselves from another painful goodbye.
Don’t let fear rule
But I wonder, can you really limit who you like and want to spend time with? How can you stop yourself when you are attracted to a person’s friendship? Why lose an opportunity for friendship because of fear or a past experience? Perhaps it can help to approach this from a different perspective: because your time together may be limited, you know to enjoy the friendship to the fullest and make the most out of it.
What about the locals?
Here is another solution for having meaningful friendships as long-term expats: make friends with locals. Mingle with them, learn about the local culture and the language. Moreover, there is a bigger chance that the friendship will last longer as they are less likely to move away. Of course, nobody can guarantee that that your time together will be infinite.
Real friendships last a lifetime
Friends do not always have to be together to remain friends. Good friends may be separated for years, but when they meet again, they feel as close to each other as they used to. Real friendships last forever. And even though your friends might get busy with their own families, love life or work, all it will take is a little message or a reunion to rekindle all the happy memories and make new ones in the process.
For the long-term expats out there who have said goodbye countless times to their friends or who feel lonely because some of their best friends are a continent away, remember your friends in other places and know that the friendship and love are not gone! They are still there, perhaps in different times zones, but waiting for you to (re)connect or plan your next meet-up.
Remember: having to say goodbye to your friends is one of the worst things of being an expat, but saying hello to them again is just about the best thing!
Don’t let yourself be discouraged
Having a strong friendship is one of most beautiful parts of life and aspects of us being human: laughing out loud, going out for movies, singing songs, making crazy plans about marriage, career and life…
To all the expats out there sitting at home waiting for that Skype call, shorten the conversation on Skype, and get out.
Don’t be discouraged if your first evening at a social event doesn’t yield a Saturday spent at the beach with your newly found friends. Attend the next meeting, and the next one. Eventually, bonds will form, and you will have your coveted long weekends or day at the beach with friends.
It takes time to build long-lasting friendships, and common experiences and values will lead you to this gift!
To our friendship!
By the way, as a tribute to my long-standing friendship with the team at IamExpat.nl, this article will also appear on their new website. A big huge thanks IamExpat.nl for the amazing collaboration and keep up the fantastic work!
As an expat, how have you dealt with the difficulties of making new friends in a foreign country and/or keeping old ones? Let us know in the comments!
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8 commentsWrite a comment
” Don’t be discouraged if your first evening at a social event doesn’t yield a Saturday spent at the beach with your newly found friends. Attend the next meeting, and the next one. Eventually, bonds will form, and you will have your coveted long weekends or day at the beach with friends.”
Yes Vivian, I can concur with that comment. It has been my experience. I have been burnt in many personal experiences before, and meeting new people still gives me apprehension. But I force myself out because the missed opportunities mean that I lose out on the richness life has to offer through new friends, acquaintances and experiences.
Some of the friendships started awkwardly but I persevered and went for the subsequent meetings, and eventually many friendships have been forged. And we still meet up whenever we can. Or they call me to visit for coffee or visit them in their hometowns.
So it does work out Vvvian. It may not work out at first but persevere and you eventually get there if you chin up and do not give up:))
Thank you so much for your comment which I am sure it will be of value to other members of the Expat Nest community. You are such an example and you walk your talk!
I couldn’t agree more with you more on keep trying, not giving up when things don’t go as planned…! The right people eventually come into our lives and based on our past experiences (and what we have learnt from them) we are ready to welcome them and to give them the right place in our heart!
A very good advice to bond with the locals. To take but an example, when I lived in Athens in the early nineties, I got friends with the owner of the petrol station in our street. It turned out that he was a member of a (English speaking) theatre group and I attended a very nice performance by them. Who would have thought that the petrol station owner would be an actor in his off time. And the other day I stayed a few days with friends too befriended when living in Athens. Nowadays they own a gorgeous boutique resort on Zakynthos. So all in all I consider myself one lucky fella and the friendships that lasted exceeded by far those that never materialized or dissolved. As John writes, go for it and keep on trying. In the end one will hit a few winners as to say so.
Thank you so much for your comment and sharing your experience in making friends in Greece (some memories came to my mind when you were talking about some places in my homeland ðŸ™‚
Great also to see that you found John’s comment to the point and of inspiration to you.
Love to see this interaction in our community!
Glad that you found this article valuable, especially the point on making bonds both with internationals and
May your initiative, courage, and your values of friendship be an inspiration to us all!
As you and John highlight: socializing as an expat, however difficult at times, will ultimately pay off in the shape of a few invaluable, lifelong relationships.
All the best,
Having been an expat in not just one but two countries(France and Netherlands) in my short life of 26 years old, I have to admit that saying goodbye has a bittersweet effect. Bitter as it is hard to leave or to be left back, sweet because it motivates you to reconnect in a different place with a familiar face. So many times I have visited my friends worldwide and these welcome hugs at the airport were the best of my life! True friendships know no goodbyes, so what I decided is to say instead is “A bientot – See you soon” and try my best to commit to that, just for the sake of all the joyful memories that me and my friends managed to built together in our “foreign land”.
Thank you for your comment! Indeed, as you say, leaving behind some, and reconnecting with others are two sides of the same coin as a relocating expat… Perhaps both emotions are amplified: sadness about leaving a place and its people, and excitement about arriving at your destination, where other loved ones are waiting for you. It sounds like you see the beauty in these unique experiences; keep being the happy expat you are!
All the best,