Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Expat Truths: Making Friends

Just over a month or so ago I shared my scary experience of meeting a group of extremely negative expats which stayed with me for a long time after (more than ten years and counting).

The response I got to that blog post ranged from,

"Didn't it occur to you that they maybe needed help?" to "I have had the exact same experience. Don't go there."

However, a common theme was that many of the expats who made a very welcome comment had been through a negative experience meeting other expats at some stage or another.

Sometimes friendships are meant to be - but most of the
time they need hard work.
Photo Credit: Shirley B
When you stop and think about it it's not such a crazy phenomena is it? Most friendships needs time to blossom. Sometimes you meet someone and you just know you're going to get on like a house on fire, but most of the time friendships needs time to grow. And there needs to be common ground, experiences and circumstances in common; something to relate to.

If you throw culture shock in to the mix then it may well be hard to even establish if there is common ground. If an experience is scarily negative and there is no second meeting then of course friendships are impossible to build up. Biting the bullet and trying it a second and a third time may have meant me, in time,  seeing the real women step out from behind the culture shock. But I'm an introvert who doesn't relish evenings out with lots of unknown faces. I'm also highly sensitive and soaking up the negative emotions of others wasn't high on my to do list -  I found it hard enough adjusting to my own expat life, let alone helping others out of their deep, dark culture shock holes. It took a lot for me to crawl out from under my safe stone and meet the group in the first place. I had no strength or desire to try again. That's the plain truth. So it stayed at one haunting meeting. Other readers of my first blog post pushed through the pain of the first meeting, some with happy endings, some ultimately giving up at a later stage.

Expat Truth: How easy it is to make friends as an expat depends on your own character traits and your emotional resilience. 

What also comes through in all the comments is that sharing a common language or nationality is not an automatic pass to blissful friendship. It makes sense too. You're not friends with every single person you know in your passport country just because you speak the same language. That's not what friendships are based on.

Making friends as a new expat often drives us to seek out people from the same country as we are from, people who speak the same language. But there is no guarantee of a pre-destined friendship just because we are, for example, all Brits together. Kelli summed it up with her comment,

"We're friends because we gave to be, not because it's someone we would really choose in 'real' life."
Expat Truth: A common language or nationality does not make a friendship.

Also notable in the comments was that making an effort with locals is highly rewarding. A mix of expat and local friends make for a balanced, varied social life that has a positive impact on expat life - but it takes effort, as Anne Canaveera points out,

"All of them [French expats] were saying they thought Irish people were not welcoming and they didn't make any Irish friends. Well the truth is they were working together, living together and going out together, so it would have been hard for an Irish person to feel part of a such a close group of French friends. Anyway, I told them I had Irish friends and didn't socialise with expats only. The answer was: Oh, but it's not the same for you! Maybe it's not the same because I made an effort?"
Meghan Fenn, an American expat living in Britain found that she needed perseverance to befriend the locals but the result was rewarding,
"I think it's hard making friends with the locals. You have to get to know how they go about making friends and the British sense of humour and way of doing things is very different to the American way. It took me a long time to get used to it. I still have the scars from a toddler group experience I had when my first child was a baby. It was horrific! I persisted though and made some good friends from that same group who rejected me initially. It took several years though." 

Expat Truth: Making the effort to make local friends is rewarding, even though it is tough.

Expat Truth: Making new friends as an expat can take years.

And finally, if you have a truly horrific social experience and start doubting why you moved in the first place take a step back, a deep breath and move on. Ace CB explains succinctly with her comment that there are types of negativity,
"You can have a realistic view of the negative whilst still having a decent attitude."
Most of us have had a negative experience trying to make friends overseas but we have lived to tell the tale (and write blog posts about it), and then gone on to meet a wonderful set of friends elsewhere.
Yes, there will always be negative aspects of expat life, things that don't feel right or as good as 'back home' but as Bronwyn Joy so elegantly puts it,
"Some types of negativity breed solutions, other types breed more negativity. And when you get stuck in the spiral it's hard to get everyone out again."
Expat Truth: The philosophy 'something is better than nothing' does not apply to negative friendships. Escape whilst you still can.

Some friendships demand a U turn
Photo Credit: Enrico Corno
Part of the secret of positive expat friendships is recognising the different types of negativity around you and getting out whilst you can. There'll be a new group of people around the corner that will be a better fit - if you keep looking and keep trying. Sometimes it may take years and if you're a long term expat, you have the time to get it right so that you can echo (crocheting goddess) Nerissa's inspirational words, 
"I have stepped back from the toxic relationships that being an expat often forces upon you. Now I can say that I honestly have a wonderful, tight knit circle of friends whom I love dearly and would be friends with no matter where on this planet I lived."
Which, at the end of the day, is what we are all looking for right?

10 comments:

Meg Fenn said...

Amanda this hits home with me. A lot of what I write about in Bringing Up Brits is about making friends and the challenges that come with that. In England, I've found it's easy to meet people - I've met lots of people - but making friends and forming meaningful and lasting friendships is another thing all together. It takes time, as you say, it takes effort and sometimes it can take years. It's a hard one but SO worth it in the end. I've finally made some good friends here and it took and still takes effort on my part because they have their own friends and their own families here. I'm one of their friends, yes, but they are my lifeline here. Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

I havr to say that this article seems to just butter up to the englush mentality of no complaining rather then to help expats integrate and understand the culture. It is a very difficult culture to understand. Books like pride and prejudice are so famous for a eeasin because it reflects british life at the time. Many of those social ways still exist on a different level. My children for instance feel uncomfortabke opening up to new people their age. I often hear "i dint kniw them"

Anonymous said...

Or she is not my friend. Like in all cultures we judge by appearance. And having a husband with a decent job, looking decent and being a reasonable weight plus having britush like social skills help too. I have a friend who as soon as they meet her is looked on with disapproval when she speaks but obviously wealthy so is accepted. Whereas another friend who is divorced and on benefits but has british grace is relented to hang out with other benefit moms despite coming from a wealthy american background. Both in the south eadt suberbs outside of london.

Norman Viss said...

I just wrote a blogpost on this topic from the 'repatriate' experience. Making friends can be just as hard when one repatriates: http://expateverydaysupportcenter.com/one-is-the-loneliest-number/

Amanda van Mulligen said...

Thanks for sharing Norman - it's something I hadn't thought about, facing the same issue on returning to a country. But it makes sense.... life has moved on, especially when so much time has passed. Look forward to reading how you'll tackle it.....

Amanda van Mulligen said...

Thanks for your comment Meg. I love how you put it and it is a great point. For expats that ONE friend can make all the difference to staying sane as an expat!!

Holly Kooi said...

This struck a familiar chord. When I first came to Austria, I was so discouraged I hadn't made any local friends yet, and at the same time was determined to not go in search of a mini US of A in my part of the city. Now I've developed a great circle of local friends, but occasionally long for the "ease" of friendships in the States. By that I mean no translating in your head, no cultural confusion, no jokes taken the wrong way because the humor didn't translate. But like Meg said, these friends are my lifeline here and I'm grateful to even have the opportunity to work for and in these friendships.

Ersatz Expat said...

As a transient expat I get to see this from a slightly different angle. Trailing spouses (often women but increasingly men these days too) get together and, if you get the wrong combination of people, these clubs can turn into a recipe for negativity (bad food, bad weather, bad locals).

Funnily enough the last posting was always better and the next posting will always be bliss it is just the current one that is the pits.

I like to meet people, both expat and local, spend time with them and get to know them. Very few of these relationships blossom into real friendship however but when they do they are worth their weight in gold.

Jesica said...

This is is my second expat experience and it certainly starts to get a little easier. Being introvert as well it was and is hard even to get out there and talk to other people. Still being in UK I've also noted people being nice, polite but friendship is a different thing, that's harder to find here. About negative expats, I've had my fair share. When I do find them now I avoid them. I used to hang out with two other expat girl and they would complain and wine all the time but I couldn't avoid tjem then so I would go home to my partner and say I know they are only focusing on the negative and I won't let them get me. When we moved to UK it was different, we didn't know anyone and now after over a year I can say I know a few people and slowly things are looking up. It takes everything you've got.

Diane said...

Hi there, your post rings so true for me. I'm in France, been here almost 3 years, and just now am I started to get friendly with people. I have one French friend. I had a stalker situation about a year ago that scared me into not doing anymore meetup groups. But everything you said is so, so true. Happy holidays to you!