It’s funny: It’s been over three and half years since I moved abroad, however restarting my life last year multiple times in two cities (Paris and the Hague) reminded me how isolating expat life can be. I don’t always write about my personal life, but it’s hard making friends as an adult, especially as an expat. I’ll be including some tips for making friends as an expat.
We moved back to the Netherlands right around Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year usually. It’s a time to come together with family and friends. While living in the Netherlands, we’ve always thrown a Friendsgiving.
Last year, we returned to the Netherlands right in this period–so we were forced to seek out a Thanksgiving dinner with strangers as we didn’t know anyone in the Hague. It was still nice, however it’s amazing how much a year can make a difference. This year, we’ll be inviting friends from the Hague as well as Amsterdam. It feels good, but making and keeping friends is a conscious effort that is generally worth your while.
Be active online
This is a big one. Your local groups are a great way to meet people. Many expat groups are full of others who are new or just looking for friends, so it’s a great way to meet people in a way that is low-effort. A lot of people also love Meetup although it’s worked better for my husband than for me.
I’ve met a lot of my friends through online communities. I realize that is weird for some people, but I feel at home online and it’s a great way to make meaningful connections with people. (Think of it as a screening process to find the most awesome people that you want to be friends with!)
It was actually an online acquaintance that introduced me to a close friend that I made in Paris. I am truly thankful that she introduced us as I’m not sure how our paths would have crossed otherwise!
Know yourself and be honest
If you’re not an extravert, it’s tougher making new friends as you really need to find the energy to meet new people. Many events tend to be loud, chaotic, and crowded, so if you’re not good with groups, avoid these events as they might not be the best way to meet people.
Personally, I don’t do well with large groups although I am an extravert. I prefer meeting people one-on-one to see if we get along. It’s harder when there’s other people, music, or other things going on at an event as you can’t always have the meaningful conversations that you may want to have. I find that it’s not worth the time/money to go to these big meet-ups as a result.
This is a minor point, but I also think that it’s important to meet people sober even if you meet at a party (where you’re both drinking). Once you’re not drinking, there might be considerably less to talk about.
Lastly, don’t put on a facade to make yourself seem cooler or more agreeable. If someone is going to be your friend, you need to be honest about your personality and how you act. Sure, someone might be cooler than you and you might want them to be your friend, but friendships are about being able to let your guard down with another person.
Be friendly, but not too aggressive. Don’t be afraid put yourself out there!
Some people don’t do well with aggressive. There might be someone that you really would love to be friends with at your work. Being the instigator is a good thing, however take a hint if they’re not overly keen on doing something. Being too aggressive can put people off, especially if there’s a cultural difference.
I used to get a bit of anxiety about putting myself out there for new friends. Don’t be afraid to just suggest that you get coffee another time or hang out. If they don’t seem interested, that’s okay too.
Get a coffee/tea for first meetings. Don’t do lunch.
I used to agree to lunch, but it’s a bad idea as it can be expensive and lengthy. You’ll know fairly quickly if you click with a person and why endure an awkward lunch where you know neither of you will stay in touch afterwards? I prefer a coffee as it provides more opportunity to leave if I’m feeling awkward and it doesn’t take as long!
Know when it’s not going to work out and when someone is using you
I met a woman a while ago who someone else insisted that I’d get along with. It was very clear from the moment that I met her that we did not get along. I actually regret staying for more than one coffee.
Not everyone is looking for the same things in a friendship. I generally come into potential friendships as someone who is very open as well as earnest. I hope* that the other person is interested in knowing me for me, however not everyone is this way.
Some people are just interested in themselves and when you take a moment to pause to think about it, it’s very clear that they’re only out for themselves. As someone who is an entrepreneur and blogger, I’ve had a couple of people who have tried to use friendships as a way of picking my brain for their own businesses as well as “mentoring” them.
Seeing my friends is supposed to be my time to shut off my brain and relax; not work for someone who is trying to use me. Real friends are interested in you beyond your work.
Just because someone is from the same country doesn’t mean that you have anything in common
It’s always awkward when someone is from the same country and you realize that you have absolutely nothing in common beyond your country of residence. At first, I thought that it would be easier to be friends with Americans as we had more common experiences. However, I found that Americans in particular were often less committed to living abroad, moved around more often, and were more fixated on their life in the United States.
It’s not that I don’t love celebrating American holidays, but I don’t feel the need to constantly talk about my home country. It’s more important that I connect with new friends on the basis of our lives abroad. I’ve found that my own friendship circle is far more diverse now than it was in the past and I love always learning about new cultures. (I still love to share American holidays with my friends!)
Get into sports (or whatever hobby).
A lot of people have hobbies that they love and it can be the single best way to meet people. For Jacob, rock climbing is his passion and that has been a great way to make friends. More general, especially in the Netherlands, sports are a big way that people make friends as adults. Joining a sports league is a great way to be more active.
Don’t be afraid to break out of your shell. One comment that I have to add to this is that I’ve generally not found that expat catered events (such as parties and breakfasts) that require tickets are not worth my money. I’ve tried several times over the years attending these kind of “exclusive” events where you need to purchase tickets ahead and I’ve honestly never made a friend out of a single one of them. I like to get a feeling for the kind of person who is going to a certain event, so I can tell if it will be worthwhile for me (or not).
It’s okay if you only do certain activities together and you don’t need to see each other constantly
Not everyone has to be your best friend–and honestly, it’s fine if you see each other in a specific circumstance. It doesn’t mean that you’re not friends, but you have interests in common and choose to spend time together. It’s fine to have your work friends, your sport friends, and your other friends.
Different cultures value different things. Similarly, some introverts don’t feel the need to be as social as often. Although I used to do weekly trivia and drinks with friends (I miss this!), I generally see my friends in the Netherlands more sporadically as people keep busier schedules as a whole and I find it’s harder to be more spontaneous about doing something in the evenings.
Friendships take a while to develop and fall apart
You do not become best friends with someone overnight. Some friendships move slowly. You see each other periodically over some months and do more things together. Other friendships rapidly progress. You meet each other and immediately start doing things together. I find that a lot of expats tend to be more skeptical as a whole about new friendships, so keep in mind that it can take months to really cement friendships.
Your friendships might fall apart. What once kept your friendship together has evaporated or their life circumstances have changed. (You often see this after people have families and not all of their friends are at the same stage yet.) Similarly, people move away. This is normal and it means that you need to start over. It sucks, but it’s too common when making friends with other expats.
Don’t be hurt if you’re not invited to something
Locals as well as long-established expats have other friends. Sometimes, they’ll be busy with family or friends and it’s not an occasion for newer friends. This is often the case in the Netherlands and although I first took it personally when I wasn’t invited to the birthdays of Dutch friends. Simply, I got over it.
Know when to cut ties
Friendships are not a one-way street. You can make a lot of effort, but if the other person never reciprocates or always bails at the last second, is it worth your time to be friends with this person? . It really sucks when you put a meet-up on your calendar only to have the person bail last minute with an excuse.
One of the advantages of being a foreigner in a new country is not having to maintain friendships that you don’t want to have and that aren’t worth making the effort for.
I’ve definitely struggled with some people that I’ve stayed in touch with with the hope that things would improve, but they never did. If someone doesn’t value your time enough to bail, it’s not always about you doing something wrong; they maybe aren’t in the place to start or maintain a friendship at the moment. It’s just not worth the emotional labor if they’re not putting the work into being friends with you.
I swear that it’s worth it when you have a good group of friends. It just takes time to find those people who make even the most boring parties worthwhile! To many future parties and coffee dates with friends who make living abroad so much better!
I really appreciate your nuanced take on what it’s like to make friends as an expat. I very much recognize my own approach to making friends in what you describe. Especially the part about preferring one-on-one scenarios to loud events despite being an extrovert. I certainly go through phases of introversion, when it comes to being social, I’m definitely an extrovert… in one-on-one situations 😀
How would you recommend making new friends in the NL at the moment…? I’ve been here for nearly a year and I haven’t been able to make any friends. I have one friend in Amsterdam but I can’t go there all the time. With classes and meetups all non-existent and no place to meet up with anybody (besides standing around in the cold outside…)… I don’t know what to do. I almost feel like giving up on this country, and I just got my visa to stay. It’s just so lonely!
Hi Kendal, I’m in NL and I find Girl Gone International is great! They have online meet-ups during corona. 🙂