Having been an expat myself, the biggest challenge I can remember is setting up a social life away from home. When I had just arrived in India, I was struck by the fact that really everything seemed different than back home: the cars, the streets, the buildings - nothing looked even remotely like the Netherlands. Yet the biggest obstacle was the fact that the people were different. My trusted Dutch friends and my family members were missing in my new life.
Determined as I was to gather new friends around me as quickly as possible, I decided to socialize fanatically: I went to every party I could find, joined several expats meetups and attended every ‘expat ladies coffee mornings’. Immediately upon entering an event I scanned the room: is there a friendly face somewhere? Which ladies and gentlemen would be potential friends, perhaps have the same interests as me? On top of that there was always the pressing question: how long will this person stay in India before he or she is transferred to the next destination?
For many expats this is recognizable: when you start to build up your life in a new country, new friends are also part of it. The first period abroad can be a lonely time due to the lack of friends and family. These feelings of loneliness make you more vulnerable and more insecure when approaching other people. Asking someone to have lunch together can therefore feel as if you are entering the dating market and you are asking a potential lover on a first date.
Social contacts and building a network can make an important contribution to a pleasant time abroad. But how do you do this?
1. Don't think, just do it!
Because you may feel vulnerable when you first talk to a stranger, you may have a tendency to think a lot about yourself, what you’ll say and how you come across. This makes it more difficult to have a relaxed conversation and can even prevent you from going to meetings in the first place. Therefore, try to be aware of the fact that you may be nervous and insecure, but don't let it stop you from talking to that friendly-looking person.
(If you are experiencing a lot of anxiety in social settings, please read our next blog to see if you match the criteria for a social anxiety disorder.)
2. Be active
Instead of meeting up with potential new friends for a cup of coffee, you could also get together for an activity. This eases the pressure to fill the time talking. Explore your new hometown together, take up a language course, engaging in sports or do something together with the children. In this way you get to know each other in a more relaxed way. By undertaking activities in a group you get to know more people in an easily accessible way. For example, you can become a member of a sports club, artistic or excursion group or other expat networks in your host country.
3. Be open, but critical
Many expat communities are close social structures. Expats are often dependent on each other, certainly in countries where there is a big cultural difference with the host country or – like in the Netherlands- the locals aren’t very open to starting new friendships. Therefore, try to be open to others, but also be aware of your preferences: you don't have to become friends and meet up with everyone. Stay in touch with your feelings and put your energy into people and friendships that make you feel good.