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8 Ways to Make Friends Abroad

Today’s guest column comes from Meredith Cox who lives and works in Shanghai, China.

For most of us, it’s hard to make new friends as adults. As you grow up, people naturally get scattered around, and if you’re like me, you might even find yourself living abroad — I live in Asia — a long way away from the relationships you’ve had your whole life. If you find yourself in a foreign country, whether your goal is to make friends with local people or make friends with other foreigners like yourself, there are a few basic tips you can follow to make sure you don’t end up spending all your time by yourself.

1. Force yourself to do things.

Take advantage of every opportunity you have to meet new people, even if you don’t want to because it’s the secret to making friends, obviously. It’s a numbers game: the more people you meet, the better your chances of finding people you like and get along with. So even if you don’t feel like it, do things and go places. My motto is that if I can afford it and other people will be there, I’ll go.

2. Talk to people.

It’s intimidating, but you have to talk to people. If you’re shy, start by setting small,
manageable goals for yourself, like, “I’ll say ‘hello’ to three people in this room.” If you’re more confident, start with small talk (weather, home countries, jobs, local events, etc.) and work up from there. If you’re not quite up to starting a complete conversation with a stranger, ask them a question (Do you know where Nanjing Street is? Have you heard this band before? Is this a good bar?). Other foreigners are usually easy to spot, so single them out and start talking. If you’re not sure where someone is from, always start in English — it’s become a common language amongst young people abroad.

The next step will be getting people’s contact information. If you really feel like you’ve
connected with someone, just come right out and ask for their number or e-mail. Be upfront and admit you’re new to the country and looking for friends. The worst they can do is say no, and yeah, you’ll be temporarily embarrassed, but you can slink away and never see them again. Just for the record: I’ve lived abroad for five years, asked dozens of people for their numbers, and no one has ever said no.

3. Learn the local language.

Make sure you take a class instead of private lessons. You’ll instantly meet others who are also new to the country. A language exchange where you teach someone English (or your native language) and he or she teaches you their native language is a fun, free, and less formal way to meet people while learning the language. You’ll find loads of ads for language exchanges online, in language schools, coffee shops and on message boards posted in places like import grocery stores. And don’t be embarrassed to wander around with your phrasebook in hand. A great conversation starter is to ask a local, “How do you say this?” while pointing to your book.

4. Steal your friends’ friends.

Friend-poaching is a good way to quickly extend your social circle after you’ve met a person or two. If one of your new friends invites you to hang out with some of her other friends, make it a point to get to know her other friends as well after you’ve been introduced. Chances are you’ll already have something in common. You’ll also find that social circles are much smaller abroad. Foreigners are always a minority, so it won’t be uncommon to find out you have mutual friends when you meet someone new.

5. Use your connections.

You may think you’re moving to a completely foreign city where you don’t know a soul, but that’s just not true. Let absolutely everyone know where you’re going and you’ll find you have a connection. Maybe your mom’s college roommate’s sister is now living there. And even though in your home country you’d probably never have a reason to meet her, now you do. Expatriates tend to be extremely welcoming to other expatriates, especially ones from their home country. Search out these connections and then actually meet these people. Even if you wouldn’t normally be friends with your mom’s college roommate’s sister, that woman knows other people whom you might very well be friends with.

6. Stay up-to-date on what’s happening in your city.

If you’re living in any kind of a decent-sized city, chances are pretty good there are weekly magazines or newspapers (either online or in print), forums and blogs that list events in English specifically aimed towards foreigners. Read these every week, religiously. Not only will you get to know your new city and find cool stuff to do, you’ll always have an idea of what’s happening and where to go when you’re looking for something to do with new friends. It’s much easier to ask for someone’s contact info if you already have a specific event in mind to invite that person to.

7. Do stuff by yourself.

It may be hard at first, but do stuff by yourself. You want to go to that new club but don’t have anyone to go with? Go by yourself. Your chances of meeting new people at home alone in your apartment are pretty slim, so push yourself to go out alone. You’ll learn to strike up conversations with new people and every time you do something you want to do, even if you do it by yourself, you’ll learn more about your new city and gain confidence.

8. Be nice.

Seriously, just be nice. Be friendly, smile a lot, give people compliments, make jokes, and say nice things about other people. It works in every language, in every country.

* In the last five years, Meredith Cox has lived in America, England and Thailand. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China. She likes new music, old music, and planning her next holiday.

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{ 12 comments… add one }

  • avatar Alecia January 6, 2012, 12:22 pm

    I’m not in a foreign country but I think these tips translate to any place you happen to be.

  • avatar Nadine January 6, 2012, 12:25 pm

    So timely! Thanks. I’m new in London, and although I have been working part time in a bar, where everyone is lovely, they are more my boyfriends friends (he works there full time). So I will definitely make use of some of these tips and try to venture out from my hilariously small flat now and then!

  • avatar jaybro January 6, 2012, 1:11 pm

    Wish I had followed more of these while I was abroad, especially #7. I missed out on a lot for no good reason.

  • avatar sohara January 6, 2012, 1:17 pm

    I belong to Toastmasters International, a public speaking group. Meetings are conducted in English, and in foreign countries they are thrilled to have native speakers come visit. (We’re happy to have visitors at ANY club.) Go online to Toastmasters.org and find a meeting wherever you are. There’s usually a contact email or phone number, and you can find the details to go visit.

  • avatar Jess January 6, 2012, 2:28 pm

    ahh thank you! i live abroad and my goal for the new year is the plug into the expat community here.

  • avatar Anna January 6, 2012, 4:09 pm

    I would so love to live abroad! Basically the only thing holding me here in OH is my 8 yr relationship…if this ends maybe I should consider going for it. I probably wouldn’t move to China but somewhere in Europe would be awesome :)

    • avatar Kristen January 6, 2012, 4:15 pm

      Ooh… Switzerland! Or Belgium!

      Imagine all the delicious waffles and chocolate and fondue…

      • avatar iseeshiny January 6, 2012, 5:15 pm

        And beer!

      • avatar Anna January 6, 2012, 6:53 pm

        French-speaking countries! I took French in high school and college and still know some…would definitely need to brush up on it but it would be easier than learning a whole new language. I would love to live in Amsterdam even though I would have to learn a whole new language.

  • freckles cdubs January 7, 2012, 3:34 pm

    I would love to move abroad as well, specifically Europe. Does anyone have any advice? If you live in Europe, do you like it? Is it a good idea to try to move to Europe? Any tips for how to go about doing it? Getting a job, etc?

  • muchachaenlaventana lamuchachaenlaventana January 7, 2012, 5:35 pm

    hey! i live in europe currently, southern spain. i love it. i am a teacher. i 100% believe that it is a good idea and something you should do if you are able…and you can be able to if you want! i used a program called CIEE.org and it was a little expensive but took care of mostly everything and I get paid to stay here and live a dream and learn spanish and be a teacher of english. this program only goes to spain (in europe) btu don’t let lack of spanish deter you…i knew practically nothing when i came over. GOOD LUCK!

  • avatar Akpabla Martin Kwasi March 29, 2012, 4:22 pm

    I’m in Ghana, and with this tips, think I’m going to make new friends.

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