I recently shared the scary experience I had 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.
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 have 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 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.
“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?