We don’t need to be relatives to be family

Internationals abroad are known for being open to learning new things and making the best of what life offers. Maybe without realising, they use very specific skills to build up their life in their new country.

One of the top three skills is making friendships. And I don’t mean superficial friendships, but creating new, meaningful and deep connection with people you’ve recently met and have no history with whatsoever.

Friendships are critical to your life in every way as the single greatest determining factor on your overall well-being and life satisfaction is not your income or your marital status. It is the quality of your relationships! Having healthy friendships impacts, at the end of the day, the quality of life and how satisfied you are.

Be courageous

Especially for internationals abroad, community is important, and there are a lot of different ways to achieve that. Building friendships asks for you to be pro-active and take initiative. I’m sure we all know the very daunting feeling of entering a room filled with strangers, but this is the only way to go!

We might experience fear of rejection, but once we’ve started to connect with people, we soon find that newcomers are very welcoming to other newcomers. And don’t forget, the same way we fear rejection from the other side, there is an equal chance for acceptance and for people to love you and bring you in.

Be intentional 

To meet others and make new friends, it’s imperative to get out of the house and join existing groups. Simply find them online or in a newspaper, register and show up.

The very first event I organised for the Expat Centre Portugal was Coffee & Conversation, and it’s still one of our most successful events. It’s very easy: you drink a cup of coffee and if you like where you are, you stay; if don’t, you can leave. No strings attached. No one will take it personally. Many internationals come to our events to check us out and get a feeling for who we are. Many come back, others don’t. That’s okay. Everyone has to find their tribe; it needs to be a match on both sides to work out.

Alternatively, you can form your own community. If you are thinking to yourself, “I know that once I arrive in Portugal, I want to be part of a warm network,” why not start a group? Allow yourself to feel empowered to initiate and make it happen yourself. Experiment and see what happens.

How to maintain friendships?

It’s important to be intentional. We see friendships as a natural thing, but, as unsexy as it may be, we have to put it on the calendar. We can be forgetful. For example, if your friend says she has an important appointment next week, make a note of it on your calendar and ask her how it went.

When we do things like this, it leaves that emotional impression of “he/she cares about me”.

Building sustainable relationships

No matter what stage of adulthood or life we’re in, we’re always trying to navigate platonic relationships as well. Sometimes there are issues (maybe caused by intercultural miscommunication) and you now want to have a hard conversation with your friend.

Wanting to express yourself means that you want to invest in the relationship by making yourself, your emotions or your boundaries visible. From experience, I can say that it’s always a risk because you don’t know whether the relationship will survive – and it can be more challenging to have this conversation in a foreign language, as you may miss the nuances – but it’s the only way forward if you want more depth in your relationship.

Also, if you want relationships in your life where you can totally be yourself without holding back or having to walk on eggshells, being in a strong quality relationship means you have to be capable of being vulnerable sometimes.

Another tip I’d like to share is when your friend is upset about something you’ve said or done. Do not take it personally because 99% of the time it is not personal. You might have triggered them without knowing. And a trigger is always related to something that happened in the past.

Make sure to not respond on an impulse, but instead listen … ask what they mean and keep listening. Then ask them what else is there and soon you’ll find out that the atmosphere changes and the connection is restored.

When the time is right, you may choose to ask what was behind the words or actions that triggered them in the first place.

People are not perfect, we all have flaws, and one of them is to take things personally or to overreact when it’s not needed.  It’s a sign of a healthy relationship when you allow each other to make ‘mistakes’.

Indeed, to have physically-, mentally-, and emotionally-strong, quality relationships in your life is a work in progress, but it is what creates quality in your life.

As adults, we want that quality of life, we want to live long, and we want to thrive, especially in this stage of our lives where we longed for new things, so much so that we have moved countries to experience them. We have to start seeing friendships as an important ingredient for that.

Building a friendship is a slow, gradual, natural process of creating something meaningful with this other person.

If you’re going through something big, instead of withdrawing yourself, I suggest you reach out and be your sincere, vulnerable self. Be realistic; you’re in need of a friend. Say things like: “I am going through this, I moved and I am feeling isolated. Can we meetup or phone call every Tuesday?” You will be surprised at how eager people are to show up for you.

I suggest we look at friendships more from a wellness perspective. We all need to spend time with people who care about us and support us so that we can give and receive kindness, attention, laughter.

Creating friendships is a skill where we at the Expat Centre are very good at, offering you different events to choose from each week. Come and check us out!

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