Navigating the Waters of Expat Friendship
When I was a kid, I had a best friend who lived across the street.
Since my teen years I have been a social floater, and those tendencies are still with me today. I’ve always been one to follow the beat of my own drummer, and I have never really had another “best friend” since my childhood. Maybe this floater syndrome is what has helped me become a successful expat, I really can’t be sure.
Eight years ago, I was living in Switzerland with two very small children, I couldn’t speak French, and my husband worked nonstop. I felt so isolated. Most likely the isolation was in my own mind, but I just couldn’t figure out where I fit in. It was our first expat assignment, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what I was doing. Writing was a way for me to get my feelings out without actually having to talk to anyone!
Fast forward to today. If you talk to those who are close to me, they’ll say I’m super outgoing and that I can talk to anyone. I mean, I do frequently scare people in the grocery store queue with my impromptu conversations. I like being around people, meeting people, helping people, and generally being involved in my community. But, there is another side of me that most people aren’t really aware of – the quiet, reserved listener, who feels inadequate and unsure about herself in large social situations.
I am a self diagnosed ambivert. An ambivert is someone who is equal parts extrovert and introvert. I’m super outgoing once I get to know you, but I can be really quiet in a group of people I don’t know. I can talk up a storm about something that has great interest to me, but I hate walking into a party where I don’t know a single person and am forced into small talk. I don’t particularly like the spotlight, but if I’m really enjoying myself with those who know me well…I can get caught up and steal the show. It sounds a bit manic, right? I know. I would probably hate being my friend!
But, after four international moves, I think I have finally sussed out the best way for me to jump from country to country and make friends. By being true to myself, I am more aware of when I begin to feel overwhelmed by the abundance of new bits and pieces each expat post poses. And, I have made a conscious decision to curb making any firm commitments (i.e. volunteering, joining clubs, etc.) which allow me to tread the waters of friendship for a while. By doing this, I am giving myself the chance to observe and sort out my surroundings before taking on something or someone I’m not quite ready for yet.
Luckily, I have been extremely fortunate to find a new tribe in so many places around the world. Sometimes the tribe is small (like two or three) and sometimes it’s big. It’s all about quality, not quantity…So, I tend not to get too worried about the amount of friends I have anymore. Being content with having found a few smiling faces in the crowd to help me navigate the crazy life I live is such a relief.
I’ve even had to navigate the “new” friendship realm at home too. Our “home” is nestled in a small town where my husband grew up in Michigan. The local bar is reminiscent of the sitcom Cheers (though a lot less fancy)…where EVERYBODY knows your name and maybe your personal matters too. Being the newbie in town (and only present for a couple months out of the year), I feel like a deer in headlights. Most people are only aware of me because of the surname I inherited when I got married. This being said, I’ve been super fortunate to find friends who are low key, relaxed and fun…who also understand that I’m not always around, but wish I could be more often. It’s hard to cultivate and maintain friendships when you are only around a few months out of the year, but I’m working on it.
Since becoming an expat, I have actually started making a new kind of best friend. These aren’t the kind of friends I see everyday, nor do I even talk to them as frequently as I’d like to…but I do have a connection with them which will bond us together forever. I try to see them as much as possible…though some I have not seen in years. This being said, I know things will not have changed much between us when we reunite. These friends are my anchors around the world. They have taught me what true friendship is, and have made an imprint on my soul.
The expat life is a seriously rough ocean to navigate, and when you aren’t great at steering the social scene in general, it can be even rougher. Throw in a little anxiety, and you are brewing a perfect storm. Gosh, I’ve been there, and there is nothing quite like it.
HOW TO GO ABOUT FINDING ANCHORS:
Here are a few of my tips I use when I’m trying to figure out how to bloom in my new garden. Maybe they will work for you too.
BREAK OUT YOUR SMILE
You look your best when you smile. Even if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, a smile just might be the icebreaker you need to start talking to your potential new partner in crime.
QUEUE UP SOME QUESTIONS
If you aren’t great at small talk, prepare a few general questions and stash them in your back pocket for emergency use. Most people love to talk about themselves, so if you aren’t ready to tell your life story to the next stranger you meet, pull out one of your fool proof questions to get them talking. It will give you some time to regroup. And, if you are an over-talker, asking a question will give the other person the opportunity to actually do some talking, and to give you a well deserved oxygen break.
GO SPEED DATING
Try everyone on for size. Chances are the first person you meet will not end up being your best friend. Think of it like when you go clothes shopping and bring fifteen different items into the dressing room. For every fifteen pairs of jeans you try, one might work. So, don’t be disappointed when you aren’t trotting around town with a new posse after day one.
Try different clubs, attend school meetings, try a class at the gym, join the neighborhood book club. It doesn’t mean you have to commit to anything, it just opens you up to more opportunities to meet people and find out what’s available in your area.
Don’t try to be someone you’re not. You want to attract people who like you for you. Finding friends who interest you is hard enough…don’t make them peel an onion to find out who you really are!
So here’s my theory:
I think we’re all a bit nervous about social pressures when we reach a new destination. The question of “Will it be easy to make friends?” is always in the back of my mind. It worries me, then I stress out about it, and then I think about my anchors scattered around the globe. They won’t let me sink. They are there to listen to my concerns, give me guidance from afar, and lift me up with their friendship so that I can sail into my new life with confidence. So, continue on a path of finding anchors, tug on them when you need them – they are the ones we can rely on when we need a little help from sinking.