Life Lessons from Overseas / Thoughts / Travel

Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Overseas (Part 1 of 2)

Earlier in the Life Lessons from Overseas Series: Culture Shock

I have to be honest with you, I’m either uniquely qualified to write this post or I’m highly unqualified to write it; because here is the truth: I don’t think I’m very good at making new friends.

One of the things I love most about writing is that the practice comes with a delete key.

In real life I often say the wrong things at the wrong time, I interrupt people when I get excited and I’m horrible at following a conversation with just one person while standing in a room full of other people.  I never know what questions to ask someone I’ve just met and I’m clueless as to how to parlay small talk into real conversation.  More often than not, I end up awkwardly saying “see you around!” to someone I would have rather said “let’s exchange numbers and hang out next Tuesday!”

In other words, being social-especially with people I’ve just met-is hard for me.  It does not come naturally.  Sitting at computer with the time and space to compose my thoughts and my words so that they come out exactly how I want them to?  That comes naturally.  Knowing instantly what to say to keep a conversation with a new friend going?  That does not.  It’s something I have to work at.

So consider this opening a sort of disclaimer.  If you are the social-butterfly type, the following may be a bit “duh!” for you; but if you are as inclined towards social awkwardness as I am, hopefully it will be a bit reassuring.

I’m splitting this “how do I make friends overseas?” topic into two posts: big-picture type stuff today and more specific tips and tricks of the friend-making trade after the long holiday weekend.  There is so much to write that I think if I put it all in one post, I’d cause you all some significant eye-strain.

And, since I’m something of an awkward turtle  with a somewhat limited repertoire of tips and advice, if you have any of your own tips or ways you’ve learned to make friends or start a conversation with a new acquaintance, please, please comment below or send them this way, I’d really like to include them!

Now, without further ado: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Overseas-The Big Picture Stuff

1. You May or May Not Find A New Best Friend at Every Post

I think when most of us say we want to make new friends when we move abroad, what we really mean is we want to find overseas clones of the people we love best at home.  We want to recreate the comfort and security we enjoy with those special people whom love us for, and in spite of, our quirks.  We want those fridge-raiding, clothes-sharing, “what’s wrong?-I’ll-be-there-in-five-minutes” sort of close friends.

Here’s the deal though, you may or may not find them.  In some ways, making friends overseas is easier than in the US-after all there is usually someone in charge of making sure people have the opportunity to get aquainted with one another.  On the other hand, your friend-able pool is usually a lot smaller overseas and comes with all sorts of weird diplo-related challenges.

After all, in America we don’t usually have to bring our friends through an armored checkpoint when we invite them over for dinner, nor do we usually live in the exact same neighborhood as our spouse’s boss, the boss’ boss and every other colleague your spouse works with on a daily basis.

I think trying to make new friends is a little like dating to try and find Mr./Mrs. Right.  A really great friendship is a mix of compatibility and a little bit of luck-finding each other at the right moment in one another’s lives, and–for us–while you both happen to be living in the same city abroad. What do you do if you can’t find them?  You keep looking, you keep hanging out with new people, and you feel grateful for the internet to keep you in touch with your good friends back home or living in other countries around the world.

Besides, if you don’t actually find your new best friend at post, that doesn’t mean you’ll have absolutely no one to hang out with.  It’s not a best friends or no friends sort of scenario unless you choose to make it one.  As long as you don’t mind putting in the effort, there are always at least one or two really nice people to hang out with.  And those 1 or 2 people might even surprise you.  They may not be your BFFs now, but they might somehow become them over the years when you meet them again in a different place.  The foreign service/expat experience is funny like that.

2. There’s No Time For Playing Hard to Get When Your New Best Friend Comes with an Expiration Date (sort of)

Or as Eve put it so perfectly:

Making friends in the foreign service is a quick and dirty affair and you have to trust your instincts. We could learn a thing or two from the baldies [editors note: Eve is referring here to her super adorable bushbaby and baby pals, not very forward bald men]. It’s not like in the “real world” where you have the luxury of years to casually let your friendship evolve over early Saturday mornings trolling yard sales, sharing favorite recipes, kicking back with a latte while your kids tear around the playground, hitting up the clearance racks at Anthro while reminding eachother that just because that ill-fitting see-through beaded maxi dress is 75% off, it does not mean it suits you…aw, come on, let’s go get cupcakes instead … If you sense you may like someone or have any similarities at all- you’ve got to dive right in, hope for the best and enjoy it while it lasts because it’s likely that in less than a year, one of you is going to be packing your bags.”

Yes, yes, yes.  Just, yes.  Too many times I held back in Chengdu, I didn’t call people and say, “hey, what are you doing right now?  Let’s go for a walk!”  I always assumed we’d have plenty of time to hang out later, that the people I liked would contact me if they really wanted to hang out, or that I’d be bothering busy people if I called out of the blue.  

We all need downtime, we all need those days to just knock out the to-do list and then kick back solo-style with a book and a cup of tea.  Turning acquaintances into close friends though, requires that some days we be brave, that we call someone we’d like to get to know better and make some plans.  Making real friends in real life requires good old-fashioned hanging out, face-to-face time, there is no way around it.

(And yes, blogger friends whom you’ve never met in real life can still be super amazing “real” friends; but if we are talking about people who live in the same place you do and who you can go see without using Skype, you really have to spend some time together in real life, otherwise it just gets a little weird.)

3. Your Friends Overseas May Look Nothing like Your Friends Back Home…And That’s Ok

My best girl friends in the States are liberal, crunchy, yuppies like me who read the same newspapers, shop at the same stores and hold mostly the same world views as I do.  They are insanely wonderful girls who I love to the moon and back, but I’ll admit- it’s pretty easy to be friends with people exactly like myself.

The people I spent the most time with overseas?  Honestly, at first glance, it would seem like we had nothing in common but our address.  Some were agnostic and liberal, some were devoutly religious and conservative; for some Chengdu was their first overseas experience ever, others had never once in their life stepped foot in the United States of America.

It turns out, you don’t have to share religious views to enjoy Harry Potter; and you don’t have to come from the same economic, or geographic background to empathize with someone over things like our relationships with in-laws, siblings and spouses.  So many of the life experiences that make us who we are have nothing to do with the labels and stereotypes we sometimes rely on to divide the world up into people we could and could not be friends with.

Is it more comfortable to meet people who think exactly like we do and share the same values we do?  Yes, that’s a flat-out yes; but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to become comfortable being friends with different people.  That’s one of the really wonderful opportunities that comes with the expat experience–learning how to get along and be friends with people who are very different from ourselves.

4. Make Friends Outside the American Diplomatic Community (when you can)


Because big cities abroad are often full of many smaller expat communities that don’t always overlap; and they often have very different experiences living in the exact same city as you do.

It’s really easy for any expat community to get caught in a rut, recommending the exact same restaurants, markets, tailors, and activities for, literally, decades.  Hanging out with locals or a different expat community gives you the chance to branch out and have some new and fun experiences you might not have otherwise known existed.  My favorite restaurants, favorite tailor and favorite dumpling shop were not recommendations I got from anyone at the Consulate in Chengdu, they were places I found through my friends outside the Consulate community.

Making friends outside the American Diplo community also gives you a chance to escape “the fish-bowl” once in awhile.  Embassy and Consulate people might end up being your closest friends–but things can get pretty insular when all of the people you socialize with are also the same people your spouse works with.  As such, there is something very liberating about hanging out once in awhile with people who don’t know everyone you know and who don’t give a damn about the commissary hours or what’s happening with the mail this week.  It forces you to have real conversations about real things-which often leads to closer friendships.

5. Make Friends with Local People If You Can..But Don’t Sweat it If You Can’t

When asked what they are looking forward to most about living in a new city overseas, many people will say they are looking forward to making friends with the local people who live there.

That’s absolutely wonderful…and sometimes sadly unrealistic.

Truly I don’t know if there is a better way to learn to love a country than by hanging out with someone who has lived there since the day they were born.  I never liked China better than when I was hanging out with Chinese people my age, sharing a meal or running through the countryside of Sichuan.  Those moments made the world feel really small and made China feel really vibrant and exciting.

But when I step back and think about it, those moments were only possible because the Chinese people I knew represented a very tiny minority in the country: young, relatively affluent English-speakers, usually dating or married to Westerners or with at least some prior exposure to Western culture.

Which means that, say you live somewhere where most people don’t speak English or where people can’t afford to hang out at the same places Westerners hang out; or say there are strict social norms about the ways men and women are allowed to socialize; or perhaps many people in the country desperate to get out by any means necessary…then honestly there is a good chance you will have a hard time being able to form close relationships with local people–if they even want to be your friend in the first place.

My point is this: if you can make friends with local people in the country you are in, do it.  Put some serious effort into making it work because those times when it works out will likely give you memories and a sense of perspective that you’ll carry with you forever.  And don’t think you have to go out to someplace special to meet people.  Talk to the local staff at the Consulate or Embassy, befriend your language tutor, make a point of chatting daily with your housekeeper and any other staff you employ.  You’ll be seeing a lot of these people, it’d be nice if you can be friendly, if not bona fide friends by the time you leave.

On the flip side though, don’t beat yourself up too much if friendships with local people don’t work out.  It’s usually a much harder relationship to establish and maintain than either side might realize at first.

6. Everyone is an Awkward Turtle Sometimes…That Doesn’t Mean You Should Become a Hermit

There are a lot of people in the world.  Statistically speaking, it is highly unlikely that you are the most awkward, shy, or anti-social person on the planet.  Thus, it’s also highly unlikely that everyone around you is vastly more awesome at making friends than you are.  If they were, there would be no awkward turtle moments, all of those super-socially adept people would be able to instantly erase them for you with their diplomatic magic tricks.

We all spend so much time online these days where we have that wonderful ability to edit and censor ourselves until all we’re left with are a few quippy sound-bites.  It’s easy to forget that, in real life, sometimes we say things we don’t mean and sometimes we don’t know what to say at all.  That’s part of the deal.  You aren’t the only person who is going around feeling like a total arse for something you said at the party last night.  We all are, all the time–especially during those difficult getting-to-know-one-another moments.  Real friendship isn’t all about politeness and diplomacy and being perfect, its about being vulnerable and honest and sometimes having to apologize or clarify when we misspeak.

I think most of us have days when we’d rather just hole up in our house on the couch than go out and “be social.” When Will was really little, I joined a baby group full of expat and local moms in Chengdu.  Most weeks I was the only American in the group.  A lot of days just the thought of packing up all of his gear and shlepping across town in a cab to hang out with a bunch of women I barely knew made me want to curl up in a ball and take a nap instead (if Will would have ever let me).  In fact, I canceled a few times because all I could think about was the work involved, both getting there and then figuring out what to say to the other moms once I did.

But of course you know what’s coming right?  Once I made the commitment to going, I never once regretted it.  I always expected to come home totally exhausted from the effort; but instead I usually came home feeling so refreshed, with a smile on my face and all sorts of interesting things to tell Chris about when he got home at night.  Being a part of that baby group made Chengdu a lot less lonely for me at a time when it could have been downright depressing.

Honestly, hanging out with anyone at all can make a new place a lot less depressing, especially when your bottoming out with culture shock.

Bonus: You Aren’t Imagining Things, People with Little Kids Really DO Have an Easier Time Making Friends

I’m so sorry, I hated to write that sentence but it’s so true.  Kids are like little grown-up friend magnets overseas because so many of the community-organized activities revolve around them–things like holiday parties and play groups and going to the pool on the weekend.  Most of the time the assumption is that somehow, if you are young and single or married without kids, you somehow have this magical ability to go out and find friends all on your own.

I don’t know why, but people with little kids seem to have very idealized fantasies about what happens at bars on the weekends.  Must be something about never getting to go out to them anymore.  We forget about the loud music that makes conversation impossible, the sloppy drunks, the ulterior motives some people have when they befriend American diplomat-types.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that making friends is impossible without kids-heck no.  Chris and I made some of our best friends in Chengdu before we had Will-its just we weren’t quite prepared for how difficult it would be to do so and we didn’t realize that we’d really have to look outside the diplomatic community to find them.  Tomorrow I’ll share where we met some of them as well as some tips from another blogger who gets a serious gold star for her tips making friends in the local community.

Remember to send your best tips for making new friends!  From great get-together activities to conversation topics to clubs to join, let me know if you have some ideas!


25 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Overseas: An Awkward Turtle’s Practical Guide to Making Friends Overseas (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Great post! Looking forward to part two. I would never guess that you are an “awkward turtle.” True, I really don’t know you very well, but just the fact that you reached out to me and said, “Hey, welcome to this community! I’m happy to answer any questions over coffee” shows that your first post has really changed your approach to socializing and making new friends. My first internet friend!

  2. I loved your post! My husband and I can relate on so many levels. You’ve even inspired me to blog about this subject at some point. This will be our first tour and we leave for Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina in August. When I do write about it, may I refer to your blog? Thank you!—Tiffany—

    • Thanks Tiffany, you are so sweet. Sarajevo! That sounds like such an exciting and interesting post-and beautiful! You can totally link, whenever, no worries!

  3. This is important to hear. I especially connected with your words, “Real friendship isn’t all about politeness and diplomacy and being perfect, its about being vulnerable and honest and sometimes having to apologize or clarify when we misspeak.” I still have so much to learn here… Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks so much Valerie! I really appreciate your kind words! Would love to hear more about your experiences! Are you overseas currently?

  4. I like your point that there is no time to play hard to get. I definitely jump into friendships..hey we just talked five minutes at a party but you guys are going to the beach tomorrow? All day road trip! It works. I am actually going to miss that when I get back to the states.

    • Seriously, your experience in Mexico is such an inspiration! It sounds like you have had an amazing tour in a place a lot of people could have been pretty grumpy about. When do you come back state-side, where are you headed next?

      • thanks! it hasn’t been easy but at a small post you just have to escape the Consulate scene! I am going back to DC in August and then I learn Albanian and head to Macedonia June 2013. I am pretty ready to jump back into American life just for a little bit 🙂

  5. Hey Dani. I totally feel you. I had amazing friends in BKK and it’s been a bit more difficult in Jakarta. Mainly because the infrastructure hinders travel between my neighborhood and my good friend’s neighborhoods. I still try to do so. You just have to work a bit harder but you usually end up making amazing friendships that last a lifetime.

    • Its amazing how things like traffic and getting across town can make such a huge difference in how easy it is to make friends, isn’t it? I’ve heard Jakarta can be a really hard place to be in that respect, but its amazing that you’ve been able to make a good set of friends anyway! Good on you!

  6. This is such a great post! It took us a while to understand how this whole embassy lifestyle is — I thought “we are all in the same boat, insta-friends, yay!” and meanwhile our experience was the opposite of it. We were new, and thought that if people liked us, the would call us and invite for stuff, after all, it’s not like we knew our way around. Of course, we were wrong, we never got invited for anything, and though we tried making friends with other newbies, it seems like everyone has their own little clique here, so over a year into post, we can’t say we have any embassy friends. We hang out with some people occasionally, sure, but actual BFF? Not even close. I never had a hard time making friends, and left a huge social life behind in DC, so this came as a pretty shocking (and to be honest, depressing) reality. One of the reasons I’m excited for Rio next: at least I won’t depend on the embassy to make friends (really hard making friends with the locals here, for the most part, they don’t tend to mix with the expats). Now we have a year left here, so don’t even try anymore. Why bother? I think it must also be a problem with a huge embassy as everyone is spread out in a different part of town, no one goes to embassy events and the CLO hasn’t really tried to make non-family oriented events for people. (I mean, easter egg hunt is fun if you have kids, but it would be nice to have events that include those of us who don’t have kids yet, you know?)

    And yep, huge mom group in this area, if we had kids, our experience would have been the complete opposite.

    I’m finally now feeling not-so-lonely as I found a set of other Brazilian women that I just adore, and I now have people I see on at least a weekly-basis.

    • We have some friends who went from a tiny to post to a big mega post like Manilla (but not Manilla) and they said it was so much harder to make friends than they thought it would be-precisely because there are so many people. In a small place, everyone has to be invited to everything and so everyone hangs out, more or less. In a big place, people don’t have to do that, everyone is trying to find their own little circle and if you aren’t in it already it may be hard to join it. So sad to hear that Manilla hasn’t been good for making friends and yes, totally, not having kids makes a really, really big difference. Glad to hear you’ve met some great Brazilian women though! It is really nice to have non-Consulate friends i think and hopefully Rio will be even better!

  7. I’m a new mom, but not really new to overseas life. I’m not sure that making friends with kids is easier – after all, you’re so much busier and have much less time to yourself – but it seems like it is different.

    But I never really had big troubles making friends pre-baby. My husband and I love to invite people over for dinner (we usually had one or two people over at least once a week) and to go to bars/pubs (we go when it’s quieter – not on Friday nights – and chat with the bartenders or whoever else has just stopped in for a pint). We had no trouble hanging out with people who did have kids so our pool was not limited to other singles/childless couples. Kids are a nice excuse for making friends, but not a necessary one.

    • You make a great point, having kids does make things busier and sometimes harder to plan. Your comment is a great reminder that not every Post around the world is the same. I think for people who enjoy getting out and finding their own friends, not having kids doesn’t hamper them. But I did know several singles in Chengdu who sort of looked at the community-sponsored social events for kids and wished there was something similar for them to attend, especially if they weren’t too into the bar scene. Just goes to show though that everyone has different experiences!

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  11. This is great timing for me to read this. I tend to hole myself up in the house with my kids. I’m a bit of a homebody but definitely need friendships. I need to nurture the ones I have.

    My husband and I always joke that it’s a good thing we like each other so much. We really are best friends and I have to say that helps when we are both wishing we had our best buds around.

    Female friendship is necessary though and I could be better at starting friendships. I loved all your points!

    • I tend towards homebody-ness too. In fact, I think if I was actually a model of perfection for anything in this series, well then I’d probably have nothing to write about! 🙂

  12. I was just rereading this series of posts now that we are finally AT post. I have already had many omg-this-is-so-awesome! moments and a few i’m-never-going-to-make-any-friends-or-work-ever-again darker times. But just reading this is helpful! Things take time, and not everyone is as super-extroverted or as “good” as making friends as they seem … It’s just tough being new and breaking into existing cliques.

    • I always tell Chris that my experience of a place seems to always end up far more roller-coaster-y than his but also far richer in the end. The lows are lower as a spouse but the highs are also much higher I think. And it’s true. Not everyone is as “good” at being an adventurous expat as they seem. It’s just that when you are talking to someone else you’ve just met, you never talk about those days of sitting at home on the couch doing nothing! All anyone talks about is either the cool things they are doing or how much they hate the place! 🙂 Honestly though, sounds like you guys are off to a tremendous start!!

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