Do you remember how you made friends as kids? It was perhaps as simple as, hey, let’s play together? And the rest is history. Making friends as grownups, though, is a different ball game. Sticking your neck out there to make new friends comes with a lot of personal growth. But also… it can be scary! And the process may feel lonely, since mismatch/rejection/ghosting is part of the deal. Not much different from a romantic relationship, eh, one has to ‘kiss many frogs’ to meet a good friend 🐸🤗
Factor in the situation of being an expat /international/migrant, things become more challenging because of the perceived temporariness of their stay. From my personal story, when I moved to The Netherlands for my 4-year research contract, I didn’t know if I would stay or leave afterward. I didn’t feel settled enough during those years to make efforts in turning acquaintances, sports buddies, colleagues, etc into actual friends. (Plus, I was stressed enough with my Ph.D., guys 😬) And seeing everyone in my social circle pretty much comes and goes was not exactly encouraging. Altogether this seemed reason enough to withhold emotional involvement and avoid a deeper friendship, from my side at least.
Even if you’re not an expat, you may resonate with the challenges of making friends. As grown-ups, people we know tend to already have their lives including social circle established, leaving little to no room for the kind of contact that could be the start of a new friendship. And, did I mention introverts? (Yeah, you are? I’m one too 🙋♀️) Being an introvert, while it has many blessings, takes more careful energy management in where/how to pick up friends without draining ourselves 🤔 Introversion is not shyness. It’s just that introverts expend energy in social situations instead of getting energy from others as extroverts do (a crash course on this topic here).
Independent of our intro-or-extraversion preference, though, I feel what we sometimes miss is a sense of human-to-human connection. Social situations usually need us to put on a ‘mask’ and stay on a superficial level. If you’re ready to skip the small talks, let’s explore the alternatives here. Allowing ourselves to open up and experiencing mutual vulnerability is actually key to that sense of emotional connection, which opens the way to friendship. So, can we co-create a space where all these things can unfold? This has been an interesting topic in social psychology. And they have come up with a wonderful evidence-based tool at our disposal – The 36 Questions. It’s basically 3-set questions that encourage the pair/group to gradually open up more (mutual self-disclosure) and boost interpersonal closeness. (Warning: they’re also dubbed the questions that lead to love, I’d say it’s a possible side effect, if the chemistry is right 😉)
For the record here, I’m not a dating agent or a matchmaker. As a mental health professional and founder of Expat Wellbeing, my work & passion is to improve the wellbeing of internationals in a holistic way. Our social life, particularly as an expat, is a big factor in our wellbeing. Do we feel connected with the people around us? Do we have a friend or two with whom we don’t feel like a stranger? Do we have social support when the goings get tough?
Social contact is our biological imperative, just like eating and sleeping. Healthy friendship is where we find safe, nourishing, and sometimes, healing emotional connection.
So we’ve been using the principle of ‘The 36 Questions’, creating our own variants, adapting them to the group setting, highlighting specific themes, and contributing to new friendships. Always with respectful sharing, everyone chooses for themselves what they’re okay with to share. It started as low profile meetup, usually over potluck dinner. Acknowledging the needs of the international community for connection, it has now become a series of more organised gatherings we call Expats Connect. Our intention is not to further segregate expats from the multicultural Dutch society by hosting a gathering specifically for them. The theme of connection is definitely resonating with the non-expats. We’ve been welcoming non-expats in our gatherings as well.
Beyond the socialising, it is also about creating an empowering experience. That no matter how short or long your stay is, you know that you deserve meaningful memories and heartwarming connections in your expat journey. It’s also a playground to practice our friendship skills, that are for sure transferable to other areas in our life.
- Communication, through listening and sharing,
- Compassion to ourself and others, by acknowledging our common struggle & life questions,
- Giving & receiving support, with respect & awareness of boundaries,
- Building trust & openness, towards others yet oftentimes it’s also towards ourself,
- Knowing ourself, e.g. what is my way of inviting fun, what’s my preference in social interaction, am I okay with sharing this stuff?
We all have various resources to make friends and establish our roots in the place we live in. When social drinks, parties, uitjes (means both ‘outing’ or ‘onion’ in Dutch 😇), all the ‘extroverted’ activities, seem to become a routine and you feel like you’re missing something in your social life… try this alternative. You’ll be surprised at the deeper layer(s) of human-to-human connection you may uncover ♥