How to make friends in a new country or city
Lots of us find ourselves thrust into new environments for work, travels or studies, and we’d argue that translators and other people who are interested in languages are perhaps even more likely to seek out new adventures in foreign places. But no matter how excited we feel about heading out into the unknown, it's normal to feel anxious or lonely at times, first at the beginning, and then after a few months when the initial excitement starts to subside. In this month’s ‘Mindfulness and wellbeing’ article, we'll be sharing some tips about making friends in new places.
First of all, it’s always good to do the groundwork by finding out whether you know anybody in that place already. Write to anyone you know who has lived there or been there, local or foreign. Often people will be interested in showing you the city, or at least be willing to give you some practical advice about living there, and some recommendations for good places to see. If you have family connections in that country, use them, and if you're working for an international company with an office in your destination country, try to make contacts there too.
It’s also worth checking on sites like Meetup and Eventbrite to see whether there are any events being hosted for internationals that you could join, and joining Facebook groups that are specific to your new location. If you’re part of a volunteer organisation or religious community that is active there, then you could try making contacts that way too. Similarly, if you have a hobby at home, try to pursue that abroad, particularly if it's in some way representative of your country and therefore likely to have equivalent groups in other countries.
If you're new to a city, you could also consider house-sharing, even if this isn’t something that you’d be inclined to do at home. As well as being easier than dealing with estate agents and setting up bills in your own name, it's a chance to meet new people during your earliest days in a city, and perhaps more interestingly, to see what members of the local population are like behind closed doors. If you do this, then it’s good to choose a household that's either local, or has mixed local and foreign housemates.
But what if you want to branch out more, and build lasting friendships with people from your host country?
One of the biggest challenges of living abroad anywhere is resisting the urge to operate in expat bubbles, and making connections with the local culture. If you’re experiencing communication barriers because you’re not yet confident in the local language, you can often find yourself caught in a negative feedback loop where you need to be able to learn the language to be able to speak to people, but you also can’t improve your skills in the language without speaking to people. And even if you relocate within your home country, or to a country where your own language is spoken, you can often get the sense that as a newcomer, you’re operating on a different schedule to local people, who already have their own families, social circles and commitments.
It’s worth pointing out that while only you can decide how much time you want to spend in the company of fellow expatriates, there’s nothing innately wrong with wanting to spend time with people from your own community, and there can be some cases where it can be helpful to have someone from closer to home (for example, if you’re having a hard time there, or if you want to make the occasional criticism of some element of life in your new environment). That said, surrounding yourself with familiar people can detract from your ability to appreciate the host culture and also make your eventual integration more difficult, so we’d recommend striking a balance and trying to find some way into the local culture too.
To help bridge the gap in the short term, we would highly recommend going to language school. Not only will this help you to integrate into a new country, it's also a good way to meet people and share experiences. On the one hand, by definition they will all be foreign, but on the other, they're likely to be actively interested and involved with being a part of the host culture, so you can live that journey together. Then, once you’re more familiar with the language, you’ll feel more confident striking up friendships with local people. A lot of expats are also married to local people, so you might be able to meet new people that way.
If you're moving to a place that shares your native language, try going to foreign language classes. Many big cities have cultural centres for the big European languages (such as Alliance Française and Instituto Cervantes), and this way you can learn, or brush up on, another language while meeting like-minded people.
If you already have a good command of the local language, you could also try going to adult education or sports classes, so that you can learn a new skill or improve your fitness in the company of others. If you have a poor command, you could try doing things that are less focused on language, like a dance class, or even try going to a conversation class for another foreign language that you speak.
Regardless of your language skills, it’s important to enjoy the small interactions, particularly if you frequent the same places regularly. If you're completely new to a city then sometimes even developing a rapport with your local barista or supermarket cashier can mean a lot in helping you to feel less lonely, and indeed it can sometimes be the apparently peripheral people that most provide you with a sense of support in a foreign environment.
And if you feel really overwhelmed, try to avoid isolating yourself by making an effort to spend time in the company of local people but without necessarily being forced to interact. Even just going for a run or sitting in a café or park will make you feel more like you’re part of the environment, as well as helping you to acclimatise and feel better attuned to things like personal space and body language too. The most important thing when in any new place is to avoid the instinct to isolate yourself, and to try to thrust yourself into your new environment as much as possible, which is often easier said than done - but don’t give up!
Lastly, stay safe, don't take any risks that you wouldn't take at home, and always follow local guidance plus any country-specific guidance that is issued by your home country. Always meet people in public places, and if you’re going to a house viewing or on a date, consider sending a friend or colleague your location. Know the phone numbers of the emergency services and the contact details or your embassy or consulate, and make sure you’re aware of any local laws that might be relevant to your social life there (such as drinking alcohol in public). And never drop your guard! When experiencing a new environment for the first time, it’s easy to fall in love with the place and people, but always try to exercise the same degree of caution that you would do anywhere else.
With that, we hope you have everything you need to start up in a foreign place - but we’d love to hear any other advice you might have, either from your own experience or from others.
Safe travels, and until the next time!