Finding your tribe: making connections as an expat

Finding your tribe: making connections as an expat

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one”
– Jane Howard

If you’re planning on moving countries or have already arrived, finding a community who you feel at home with and who get you is one of the greatest achievements.

During the many Coffee & Conversation events that I organise, I meet many courageous individuals and couples who decided to pack up their bags and start a whole new life abroad.

Sometimes I can’t help but think that, when they made the decision, they didn’t quite see the many challenges that they would face, and maybe that was for the best.

Moving to a new country, where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture, habits or your way around, is a huge step. Newcomers are getting out of their comfort zone big time! It’s a very courageous step to leave your existing life behind and start all over again, especially when you’re older and set in your ways.

I sometimes believe that expats subconsciously do this as a (last) attempt to give themselves the gift of feeling alive. Because that is what one feels when ‘starting over again’. This new country, where everything is new and where you haven’t built up a safety net yet, requires you to be alert and fully awake so that you can organise yourself.

When I asked one of the newcomers why she made the move, she said: “I am here to refire myself, instead of retire!”

Over 65s are particularly motivated to give their life a big reset and are looking to find new meaningful and fulfilling ways to move forward and make the best of their lives ahead.

As social beings, we are all looking for a tribe, “our people”, a place where we feel we belong, so that we can live our new life, being seen and witnessed. This way, our anxiety will ease, and our nervous system can relax as we have been working overtime to settle.

That is why, as a life coach, I always advise newcomers to make connections before and immediately after arrival, especially when coming from another continent. Reaching out to others can make your experiences much more fun and fruitful.

Here are a few tips to help you feel part of the community:

Expat groups
Do an online search for expat groups in the region where you live or will be visiting, such as our own Expat Centre Portugal. Stay informed about activities by signing up to groups’ newsletters or social media pages. Participate in their programmes, whether they are in-person or online. This is how you may find others who share your interests, which in turn can lead to budding friendships.

Reach out to people in your field
Whatever your profession, passion or hobby, there are always likeminded others. Find them by reaching out to people who are in the same or similar fields. This is how you find people with whom you share common ground. Use the same technique by asking anyone you meet if they know people to whom they can refer you. It’s a small world, and it may be easier to connect than you think!

Common interests
Brainstorm a list of your interests and do an online search for activities that match them, then mark your calendar and go. Dances, cooking classes, playing golf, hikes in nature, or photography workshops are a few suggestions.

Everyday connections
Talk with everyone! The person at the café, the fruit and vegetable vendor or someone waiting at the bus stop. Be curious – ask them a general question, or share something about yourself, such as how much you like a particular type of coffee or fruit, or make a comment about the weather, depending on the situation. See what unfolds from there.

Meet-up groups:
Check out for events that may be happening in your region. It’s a great way to participate in programmes you might not have otherwise known about. It’s usually free to join and can lead to local and international friendships.

Tours allow for meeting new people while learning something new. For instance, sign up to a half-day wine tour or a walking tour. Tours provide opportunities for connection, whether local, regional or international. Check out options in your community, such as hiking, dog walking and bike tours.

Learn the language
To gain a more heightened sense of belonging, it is essential to develop some basics in the Portuguese language. In fact, language is a huge aspect of the culture and could help you meet new people. Joining a language course is a fun and practical way to focus on communicating in the language you need. Check our site to find out more.

Recovery groups
There are thousands of international 12-Step groups and there may be one in or close to your area. Check the websites for in-person or online meetings for groups that you belong to or their sister programmes. It’s a wonderful way to get support, particularly during the first years of your arrival.

Tourist information centres
Check out tourist information centres for local events and other activities. Read all the newspapers you can and search on your local council’s website. Or simply Google “local events”, “local things to do”.

Research organisations that are active in your community to discuss their needs and see how you can help them. Volunteering on a regular basis provides a framework for potential friendship, which can lead to activities outside of the organisation.

Carve your own path
Have an interest or a passion but can’t find a local group? Consider starting one of your own!, Facebook, and other platforms can get you started and help you build community.
If restrictions are in place, for instance, due to Covid, search for online groups where you can participate and feel part of a community.

What about a tribe for introverts?
The definition of an introvert is someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments. Introverts tend to feel drained after socialising and regain their energy by spending time alone.

Does this mean they are lonely with no friends and never leave the house? Absolutely not! They are often very happy in their own skin and just don’t need a bunch of people around them and can have a perfectly nice time on their own.

Many successful people are introverts, yet they have a supportive crowd around them too. When building a tribe, it’s good to keep in mind that everywhere around you are introverts, and they could be expats just like you. Whether you find others hang out at the airport, the gym, the park, or in co-working spaces, you will have similar needs for solitude, comfortable silences or minimal social activities.

Regardless of your personality type, seek out the tribe that feels best to you, and reach out to them whenever you feel the need, not when you feel “you should”. Be yourself and you will attract people that are right for you.

“Community happens when you make connections based on a sense of place and purpose”
– John Addison

By Ria van Doorn

Ria van Doorn is a life coach for internationals living abroad and founder of the Expat Centre Portugal.