Adjusting to a new culture

Making Friends and Building a Support Network When Living Abroad

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by Cyrus Kioko


Are you living abroad and finding it a tad lonely? Or perhaps you’re planning a move to a foreign country and are worried about the social aspect of it all. It’s natural to feel a bit apprehensive about making friends in a foreign country, but the good news is that you’ve found the only guide you’ll ever need on how to go about it. 

Making friends and building a support network when living abroad is all about putting yourself in situations where you’re likely to interact with like-minded individuals. Depending on your interests, this could mean anything from volunteering to taking a hobby class. 

In the rest of this guide, I’ll walk you through the most practical ways to increase your chances of making friends in a foreign country and provide you with tried and tested tips for supercharging your friendship prospects. Read on for a comprehensive guide on how to navigate the social landscape, embrace cross-cultural interactions, and foster connections that will truly make your international stay feel like home.

Ways to Boost Your Chances of Making Friends in a Foreign Country

Making friends in a foreign country is all about putting yourself out there. Taking the initiative and seeking out activities you love lays the groundwork for some awesome conversations that could blossom into lifelong friendships.

The trick is to put yourself in environments that:

  • Attract people with interests similar to yours. This is important because long-lasting friendships are often sparked by shared hobbies and passions.    
  • Allow conversations to flow naturally without any form of coercion. Friendships flourish when there’s a sense of autonomy and choice in who we spend time with. When interactions are imposed, people often feel restricted in their ability to choose their social circle, which can impede the natural growth of a friendship. While it’s not impossible to build a meaningful connection with someone who was initially forced to interact with you, it often requires too much effort to transition the relationship from an obligatory interaction to a genuine and voluntary friendship.
  • Encourage collaboration. Activities that require collaboration or teamwork naturally bring people together by fostering a sense of camaraderie that can spawn lasting friendships.
  • Have a positive and welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to connect and engage. Putting yourself in an environment that fosters warmth, inclusivity, and a sense of belonging makes it easier to approach and be approached by potential friends.
  • Are supportive. An environment where people are encouraged to support and uplift each other nurtures the growth of friendships.

Putting yourself in situations that meet the above criteria can drastically boost your chances of making friends and building a support network in a foreign country.

The question is, how do you do that?

Here are some suggestions. 

Take Up Volunteering Opportunities

Volunteering can be a fantastic way to make friends when living abroad. Not only does it provide you with an opportunity to contribute positively to your new community, but it also connects you with like-minded individuals who share your interests and values.

Volunteering often involves teamwork and collaboration, which as I mentioned earlier, naturally fosters interactions. The shared sense of purpose and the experiences you gain working alongside other volunteers can create strong bonds that go beyond just casual acquaintances. 

Now, simply showing up isn’t enough. You need to actually make an effort to connect with other volunteers at a deeper level by doing things like:

  • Maintaining a friendly demeanor. Smile, make eye contact, and greet fellow volunteers and organizers warmly. Approachability makes it easier for others to initiate conversations with you.
  • Initiating conversations. Don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with your fellow volunteers. Start by asking about their roles, experiences, and backgrounds. Simple questions can lead to more in-depth discussions. Just don’t be too intrusive or inappropriate with your conversation starters. 
  • Extending a helping hand to your fellow volunteers when needed. When you come across as someone helpful and considerate, people are often more inclined to open up to you and return the favor if you need it in the future.
  • Being a good listener. Taking an interest in others’ stories and experiences shows that you value their input. Just don’t feign interest for the sake of getting people to be friends with you; nobody likes a faker.

In short, be friendly and actively try to connect with the people you’re volunteering with. 

If you happen to strike a rapport with someone, be sure to exchange contacts and send a follow-up message or invite them to join you in other activities. This will further nurture the relationship.

If You Have a Dog, Use Them as an Ice Breaker

Dogs are some of the best wingmen. Science agrees, too, with multiple studies demonstrating a strong correlation between being a dog owner and having an easier time making and retaining friends.

One such study showed that dog owners generally have an easier time making friends. A different study conducted at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine unveiled a fascinating connection between individuals and their pets: People who share a deep bond with their animal companions tend to experience heightened feelings of connection not only within their human interactions but also within their local communities. 

These two studies’ findings mean two things for you as an individual trying to make friends and build a supportive network when living abroad:

  • You’ll have an easier time initiating conversations that could lead to friendships. 
  • You’re more likely to forge stronger bonds of friendship, especially if the other party is a fellow pet owner. 

Even without the science, it’s easy to see why dogs are effective friendship starters. Pretty much everyone loves dogs, and having one gives you a natural icebreaker and makes you more approachable.

Now that you understand why your furry friend can help you make and retain hooman ones, let’s cover how you can tap into their social facilitation powers.

The easiest way to go about this would be to start taking your dog for regular walks. It won’t take long before your pooch starts playing with other friendly dogs (with your permission, of course). 

As the fur babies enjoy their playtime, you can engage the other dog owners in every fur mom/dad’s favorite pastime: talking about their furball. You can break the ice with something as simple as complimenting their dog or asking about the dog. Here are some suggestions:

  • “Your dog has such a beautiful coat!”
  • ‘I’ve always been interested in [breed]. What’s it like having one?”
  • “How did you come up with such a creative name for your dog?”
  • Share a funny or heartwarming story about your dog. The other party will have a hard time resisting the temptation to share their own anecdotes; every dog owner has these, so don’t worry about starting a one-ended conversation.

Remember, while your dog can be a wonderful icebreaker, genuine interactions and shared interests are what truly light up the friendship bulb.

In other words, venture beyond the paw prints and dive into shared hobbies and passions. Connect over your favorite travel destinations, binge-worthy TV shows, or your mutual love for whipping up mouthwatering desserts, or any other appropriate topic. Friendship fireworks will sparkle when you get into the groove of genuine talks about stuff you both love.

Don’t forget to trade contact info. That’s the gateway to arranging hangouts or shooting the breeze over text. By nurturing these connections with authentic chats and shared interests, you’re not just making friends – you’re building a rad network where everyone’s tail is wagging.

Join A Local Gym

Staying active and fit while living abroad isn’t just great for your mental and physical health; it can also be fantastic for your social life. Gyms bring together people with shared interests in a casual setting, and bonding over a common goal of fitness and well-being isn’t unheard of. 

The fact that most people who work out do it regularly helps a lot. It means you’ll likely see familiar faces often, which offers plenty of opportunities to strike up conversations and build a rapport. 

Now, you don’t want to be the type of person who makes full-on introductions when someone is in the middle of their set. That’s a surefire way to get labeled the “chatterbox,” and no one likes those. Think about it: Would you like it if someone was trying to catch you for a chat in the middle of a heavy set of squats when you’re panting like a winded pup and your mind’s only mission is survival? Probably not.

So, what’s the proper way to initiate a conversation at the gym?

There isn’t a one-way-fits-all answer to this. It’s the small, subtle approaches that do the trick. 

My ultimate go-to is asking for a spot. I invite you to try it, but keep in mind that timing is crucial. You’ll want to choose moments when the person you’re approaching seems approachable and not engrossed in their workout. After the set, simply express gratitude for their help and let them carry on with their workout. 

As trivial as this interaction might seem, it creates familiarity. Chances are that person will give you a head nod or some sort of acknowledgment the next time they see you. If they seem interested, you can spark up a conversation by asking for tips on things like their routines, the right form for certain exercises, dieting, and so on. Gymgoers are usually generous with this kind of information, and chances are the conversation will progress naturally if the other party thinks you’re a cool gym buddy. 

If asking for a spot is too big of a risk (rejection sucks, so I get it), the next best option would be to enroll in a group fitness class. Group class instructors often foster a welcoming environment and may facilitate participant interactions, making engaging with others easier.

Showing up for social events, workshops, or challenges organized by your gym can also be a great way to meet like-minded individuals and build friendships. People are typically more open to socializing at these events than when trying to get a workout in, and chances of catching someone at a bad time are fairly low.

Join a Hobby Class

Hobby classes aren’t just a great way to learn something new; they’re also prime “hunting zones” for anyone looking to make friends. But for this to work, you need to choose a hobby you’re genuinely passionate about because enthusiasm is tough to fake. 

Think about what gets you excited. Is it painting, dancing, cooking, or maybe even rock climbing? Whatever it is, there’s a hobby class for it! And when you join one, you’re immediately surrounded by people who share your enthusiasm. That common interest is the perfect conversation starter. No awkward icebreakers required here!

Choosing a class for a hobby you’re truly passionate about will also help with attendance consistency. Familiarity plays a crucial role in moving the needle when you’re trying to make friends in any setting, and it’s something you can’t build if you’re a sporadic attendee.

Use Social Apps and Platforms to Connect With Like-Minded Individuals

Social media makes it easy to connect with people from all around the world. However, the degree of success you’ll enjoy using this tool to make friends and build a support network in your home-away-from-home will depend on how you use it.

A great starting point would be to join groups or communities specifically focused on expats or people living abroad. Not only are these online communities great for ongoing support, but they can also facilitate meetups that can set the ball rolling for long-lasting friendships. 

You can also use your favorite social media platform to find events that attract people who share your interests and passions. Most platforms have event listings, so this shouldn’t be too hard to do.

If you’re not particularly active on your favorite social media platforms or would rather not use them for whatever reason, you can use apps specifically designed to help people make friends. These work pretty much like Tinder and other dating apps, except they’re meant for making friends. 

Tagme is a particularly good option, especially if you like simplicity. It has a super user-friendly interface, not to mention it only matches people with similar passions through an age filter and what the app refers to as Tagwords.

Tagwords are essentially keywords every new user has to select during the registration process. They represent your specific interests and hobbies, so be sure to make your selections accordingly if you end up giving Tagme a go.

Join a Local Sports Club

This way of making friends works pretty much like joining a gym. Similar to gyms, sports clubs bring together folks who are into the same sport or activity. This shared love can easily kick off chats and lay the groundwork for forming bonds.

Joining a sports club should be relatively easy, especially if you’re fairly decent at the sport you play. That’s because most clubs are always on the lookout for new talent to help them win competitions against other sports clubs. 

This, however, doesn’t mean it’s entirely impossible to get accepted into a sports club if you’re an absolute amateur. Many sports clubs welcome individuals of all skill levels, including amateurs. You just have to do your research to find one such club and demonstrate your commitment to honing your skills. 

Join a Language Exchange Group

You probably know that joining a language exchange group is one of the most effective ways to learn the local language quickly in a foreign country. What you might not know, however, is that it’s also one of the most underrated ways of making friends. 

This has a lot to do with the way language exchange groups are set up. When you join one, you get paired with another person who’s a fluent or native speaker of the language you’re looking to learn. Typically, your partner will also be interested in learning a language you’re fluent in. 

So if, for example, you’re an English speaker looking to learn French, you’d be paired with a French speaker who’s trying to learn English. The goal of this kind of pairing is to facilitate reciprocal learning, where you and your partner take turns teaching each other your respective languages. 

In addition to teaching each other your respective languages, your exchange group/club may encourage you to discuss your cultures, traditions, and experiences as part of the learning process. The group may also incorporate structured activities, games, or themes into your meetings. All these activities make the learning process more engaging and fun, creating the perfect environment for genuine interactions that may lead to friendship. 

Finding a language exchange club in your home away from home shouldn’t be too hard. Most of these groups place ads on various online platforms, so plugging keywords like “language exchange group in [your city’s name]” or “language exchange meetup in [host country name]” into your browser’s search bar will likely yield several results. If it doesn’t, try the following:

  • Contact local language schools and universities. Chances are they offer language exchange programs. If not, they might know about local language exchange groups.
  • Check with your local community center. Most cities with significant expat populations have community centers or organizations that host language exchange events or have information on local groups. Visit these centers or check their websites for event listings.
  • Use language exchange platforms. Language exchange apps and websites like Tandem, ConversationExchange, or HelloTalk can be a great way to connect with language exchange partners in your area. These platforms often allow you to specify your location and language preferences. Some cities even have dedicated language exchange platforms or websites specific to that location.
  • Ask locals or expats. Locals and expats who’ve been in your host country longer may provide valuable insights on where to find language exchange programs or even invite you to join theirs.

Join Expat Communities

Expat communities exist to provide ongoing support to anyone who might be finding it tough to navigate the challenges of living in a foreign country. They facilitate things like cultural exchange, information and resource sharing, and professional networking, making it easier for expats to settle in, make new friends, share experiences, and alleviate feelings of isolation.

Most of these communities have an online presence on various social platforms, so you shouldn’t have too hard of a time finding one. Simply head over to your preferred social media platform or online forum and look up local expat associations or clubs. Cities that often attract expats almost always have associations or clubs dedicated to helping newcomers adjust to the area.

Make An Effort With the People You Spend the Most Time With

Of course, I’m referring to people other than your family (if you brought them with you, that is). Think about where you spend most of your day: Is it school, work, or a different setting? Whatever that place is, you should try to make one or a couple of friends from that setting. This is a practical and super-effective way to expand your social circle. 

Building connections with the people you spend the majority of your day with can have a significant impact on your overall experience in a new city. After all, these are the folks you’ll interact with day in and day out, and they can play a pivotal role in helping you settle in and feel at home.

Proven Tips for Supercharging Your Friendship Prospects Abroad

So far, we’ve covered how to get yourself in situations that increase your chances of meeting new people. However, that’s only one part of the equation as far as making friends in a foreign country goes.

The other part is giving any casual interactions you may have the best chance of blossoming into friendships. 

Here are a couple of tips to help you with that:

Leave Nothing to Chance: Be Intentional 

Counting on luck alone to turn surface-level interactions into solid friendships might not be your best bet. Sure, random run-ins can sometimes lead to awesome friendships, but why leave it all up to fate? It’s a good idea to roll up your sleeves and get a bit more hands-on when it comes to building connections. 

Research agrees, too.

A publication in the Journal of Personal and Social Relationships revealed that adults who believe that making friends is all about luck are more likely to experience loneliness. It also found that those who think that building a friendship requires active effort are more likely to have a larger social circle and less loneliness going on.

So take the initiative to nurture friendships with people you instantly click with. There isn’t a universally “right” way to go about this. It’s the small gestures like checking on them regularly and inviting them to any fun activities you may have coming up that count. 

Just don’t go overboard with “being intentional.” You still need to give people you’re trying to nurture friendships with their space, which brings us to the next tip.

Keep a Healthy Distance

Desperation is an ugly color on anyone. When you’re overly eager to make friends, you might come across as needy, clingy, or even a little bit pushy. It may come from a good place, but trying too hard too hard to get close to someone will almost always be counterproductive because:

  • It screams insecurity. Confidence is an attractive trait, and desperation often stems from insecurity. You’ll naturally draw people toward you when you’re confident in yourself and your ability to make friends. Desperation signals that you don’t believe you’re worth being friends with, which is far from the truth.
  • It puts unwanted pressure on the other party. Imagine someone constantly pestering you to hang out, reply to texts immediately, or be their new bestie. It can be suffocating, right? Acting desperate might push potential friends away because they feel overwhelmed by the pressure to meet your expectations.

So don’t force things when you’re trying to make friends. Show interest, not obsession. 

Understand that not everyone will be willing to be friends with you off the jump. Some people may take longer to come around, and others may simply not be interested in being friends with you. In either case, you should respect their boundaries.

Be Yourself

Don’t try to be someone you’re not or pretend to have interests you don’t actually share. Faking a persona or trying to be someone you’re not can have you living in constant fear of being “found out.” This can translate to social anxiety, which can be detrimental to your ability to make friends. 

Being authentic fosters a sense of honesty and transparency in your interactions, which is crucial for building trust in any relationship, including friendships. It also allows you to naturally attract people who share similar interests, values, and personalities. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, these commonalities form the foundation for strong and lasting friendships because you have shared experiences and a genuine connection.

Cyrus Kioko
Cyrus is a seasoned blog post writer with over five years of experience in crafting and editing articles spanning technology, lifestyle, and finance niches. Fueled by an authentic passion to contribute valuable insights, he has invested thousands of Netflix-less hours in research for this site. Each piece he writes is aimed at empowering readers to make well-informed, real-life decisions. Holding a degree in commerce and armed with ample copywriting courses, he brings both expertise and a touch of nerdy flair to the table.
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