What’s my number one piece of advice to first time expats? Say ‘yes’ to everyone and everything.
Saying yes is a biggie because building your social circle and finding your tribe is one of the most important factors in finding happiness abroad. I wrote previously about how finding friends as an expat is like dating, and how you have to put yourself out there, be vulnerable, sift through the bad dates to eventually find your tribe.
Moving abroad is an incredibly stressful time. You’re out of your comfort zone, trying to create a home where nothing is familiar, settling in the kids, organizing bank accounts and visas, jumping through a hundred other administrative hoops. You’ve left behind your loved ones, your childhood friends, your tribe. On top of all of this you know that you need to get your social life up and running. In fact, your happiness in your new country practically depends on it.
But what if you just can’t be bothered?
As new expats, the thought of making friends can be exciting, if a little daunting. We often launch ourselves into the friendship fray, scheduling coffee mornings, play dates, dinners, group visits to IKEA all for the sake of making those all important (although often short-lived) friendships. Throughout our time as expats we face so much pressure, both internally and from the outside world to make friends. But what if, after a while, you don’t feel like spending what little free time you have making idle chit chat, or suffering through yet another new mums gathering at the school where you force down the instant coffee whilst answering the usual three questions: Where are you from? How long have you been here? Who does your husband work for?
Are you suffering from Expat Friendship Fatigue?
Expat Friendship Fatigue can hit at any time. It can follow a bout of over-scheduling, it can creep up on you after a year of care-free socializing, but perhaps it is most common among expats who have moved many times, who know intimately well the urgent need for friends in a new location, but are bone tired of the whole damn process.
Symptoms include the desire to hole up in your house and never resurface; late night Whatsapp sessions with your besties back home (these can sometimes include six besties in four different countries all at once); a feeling that no-one you meet here will ever be as wonderful, fun or understanding as the friends you left behind; a general lethargy towards small talk or being with people who you don’t really love spending time with; usually you’re on fire, but lately you’ve just been a bit meh.
As a long-term expat with five relocations under my belt, I have faced this situation often enough to have formulated some insights into what I call Expat Friendship Fatigue. These observations are based entirely my own ruminations and experiences.
Before you read any further, I want to reiterate that making friends as an expat is vital. Don’t think for one second that you can create a well balanced, happy life abroad without connecting with people. It’s impossible. We meet people in extraordinary circumstances, and because of this our friendships often burn brighter and are more intense. Your friends become your family in a very short time, and are absolutely indispensable. So holding on firmly to that truth, how does one navigate through the feelings of Expat Friendship Fatigue when they occur?
The first thing to do is try to understand why you’re feeling the need to withdraw. How you react will depend on why you are feeling this way. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Am I being lazy? Sometimes you just don’t feel like making the effort to get out of the house. But if you know that once you’re there, you’ll have a lovely time at the local coffee shop meet and greet, then you know you’re just being lazy and should get your butt up off the couch and make an effort.
- Do I need a break? Sometimes you’re just plain exhausted. You’re networked-out, energetically depleted, and will probably come across as boring and disinterested if you make a social commitment right now. In this case, I do myself and the outside world a favour and retire for the day. Introverts often feel this way, and it is important to allow yourself time to regroup and replenish.
- Is this a lack of confidence? Being an expat is all about learning to live outside our comfort zone. Every. Single. Day. Be kind to yourself, don’t hold yourself to such high standards. You don’t need to have everything figured out by day three. We’ve all been the terrified newbie who doesn’t know where anything is, has no clue how to work the public transport, and sets out two and a half hours early for a coffee date ten minutes away. Be honest about feeling self-conscious and overwhelmed and you’ll find you’re not the only one. Take a deep breath and take the plunge, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment afterwards.
- Am I feeling homesick? For me personally, sometimes I feel so homesick that I don’t have the will or the energy to commit to my new surroundings. Going into denial about your physical surroundings is normal, and is a part of the dislocation process of leaving your life behind to start something new. Give yourself time to wallow, give yourself a break, its perfectly normal to feel sad and defeated. There will come a point however when you’ll have to put yourself out there. Take things one day at a time but don’t allow homesickness to get the better of you. The sooner you’re up and out, the better you’ll feel.
- Am I just getting old? Let’s be honest: the older we get, the less bothered we seem to be about winning any Miss Popularity awards. By the time we reach our mid 30s, (and definitely by the time we’re 40, so I’m told) our motivations change. We no longer care about how many friends we have on Facebook…in fact executing a friend-purge on Facebook feels as good as decluttering the guest room. We are more secure in our minds and our bodies, so we no longer seek approval from the ‘in crowd’. We value our quiet time, goodness knows there isn’t much of that anymore. We’ve got nothing to prove. We’ve been around the ‘expat dating block’ and been on enough bad dates to realize that sometimes we’re just happier on our own.
- Am I relying too much on social media? In our world of FaceTime, Skype and social media it can feel as though whilst we are geographically removed from our tribe, we are never emotionally apart. This can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s vital to maintain our global friendships, and social media allows us to do just that. But, it is a mistake to close yourself off to the friendship potential right there in front of you because at the end of the day having a coffee and a chat in person (or a night on the town) is irreplaceable.
- Is this a quality vs quantity thing? Whether you’ve left behind a small close-knit circle of childhood friends, or have moved so many times that you have a large network of amazing friends all over the world, there sometimes comes a point when the little voice in your head says, ‘yes but I have enough friends, why make more?’ Personally, I know that I’m a quality over quantity person. What works for me is to find a handful of genuine girlfriends who become like family, and after 15 years and six countries my expat family has grown beautifully. There is always space in my global tribe, but I’m not going to race around like a crazy person exhausting myself with an over-scheduled social life just for the sake of it. Sometimes you have to be patient and let the magic happen! You know what type of person you are so be true to that.
Expat Friendship Fatigue can come and go, whether you’re new to the expat game or a seasoned veteran. I guess it just comes with the territory of being an expat and existing in a world where reality is fractured, relationships are scattered and friendships are more intense. Sometimes you need to push your fatigue aside and get on with things, and other times its Okay to take some time out. Let’s be kind to ourselves.
There is a lot on the web about making friends abroad, finding your tribe and building a good social life as an expat. And this year in March, there is a whole conference dedicated to just this! I’ll be going, and I’m excited to meet some online friends in person and broaden my tribe.
The Families in Global Transition (FIGT) Conference will be held in The Hague, The Netherlands from March 23-25th 2017. This years theme is Building on the Basics: Creating Your Tribe on the Move. It promises to be an informative and supportive weekend. More information can be found at http://www.figt.org/FIGT_Conference.