Today’s guest post is by our very own Vanessa Shaw, one of the stellar members of our Melibee hive. Vanessa recently relocated to Madrid, Spain and has some fabulous advice to share with travelers and expats alike who are planting roots abroad.
Since I graduated university I have moved to seven cities. I didn´t realize that post-college I would earn a Masters in Relocation Skills. With being in a new place so frequently, I have strengthened my get-out-there-and-build-my-community muscle quite a bit. I just moved to Madrid, and in 5 weeks since my arrival I dove right back into the kickstart-my-life routine. I’ve attended networking events, joined a gym, frequented a coffee shop, gone to a promotional party, helped out a local startup, and had several appointments with new contacts. Recently, the Melibee Blog received a comment on our post Study Abroad…maybe? The question posed was:
When not in a study abroad program and living abroad on your own, how does one go about making friends? It can be comforting to stick with friends within my group (not with the local community) or spend too much time on Skype or Facebook and thus not fully experiencing being abroad. It’s not been as easy as when I was in a program.
We totally understand. Moving someplace new is not easy, especially on your own. As the Melibee blog editor, I didn’t want to let this one slip by. To help address this issue here 11 Ways to Relocation Mastery:
Even if you are not looking for a job, networking is a task to always keep in mind. Most people find new jobs and new opportunities through their personal contacts… so always keep filling the holes in your schedule with networking events. Whether living outside your home country or not, my personal favorite is InterNations – a community of expats and internationally minded people. I started a chapter while living in México last year, which is also another option for you to consider if there is not already one where you are located. If entrepreneurship entices you, check out TEDx Events (they’re everywhere!) I personally like Founder Friday organized by Women2.org (not just for ladies!). Look into events relevant to your field and see if there are any mixers, networking events or conferences in your area.
2 Get fit
Being active and staying in shape will help your mental attitude and keep your spirits lifted during those more lonely moments of being in a new location. , It´s also one more way to meet people (especially if chatting over a beer is not your style). Join a gym and go regularly – people will start to recognize you. Be friendly, let the front desk staff know you are new in town. Maybe they can recommend a place to buy some new running shoes or a good place to eat. They might offer to join you.
Join a sports team – a great place to look for this is Meetup.com, often there are fitness related meetups, or opportunities to go for a hike.
Many organizations are using the “5k Fun Run” model to acquire donations for anything from cancer, animal shelters or food drives. Its a great way to have a side project. Plus if you raise funds, others might get interested to join you or meet you afterwards to celebrate. Try ActiveGlobal, an online directory of various events.
3 Be seen
Doing some facebooking with friends back home? Don’t stay home, go to a coffee shop with WiFi and post up there for a few hours. Perhaps someone will strike conversation with you, or you might run into other regulars who work there often. Grab a coffee together – you won’t have to go far.
Whatever it is you like, try to make a habit of it and be a repeat offender. Be in the same place on similar days or times to see if you can make a connection with others who enjoy the same environment. Even if its just “Hey, see you here tomorrow?” having some company will make the time more enjoyable. Even if the friendship never goes outside the parameters of that location – who wouldn’t want to have a buddy who notices when you haven’t been there in a while?
If you work remotely, try finding a shared workspace, like The HUB (locations globally). Usually a fee is involved to work there, but its an easy way to meet others and usually they offer free events to the public as well.
4 Get to know the culture
I know you’re thinking – “If i’m having a hard time making friends in a new place, how the <bleep> am I supposed to get to know the culture…???” Right, this one is confusing. But perhaps your style to make friends is not meshing well with the local culture. Not a problem, you can fix this. I believe that all problems in the world start because of miscommunication. It´s important to remember the huge impact that both verbal and nonverbal messages give. Perhaps you have a direct approach and the local culture is a more indirect communication style. Do you speak in a tone that in the current location is loud, harsh, strong or strange? Do a bit of reading – get to know your personal culture and how others may be receiving you. Just knowing this will allow you to be more mindful of your own actions and behaviors to adapt to the local surroundings. You might want to invest in a resource like Cultural Detective to help you better understand the values of the culture you are living in (and compare it to your own). There are a handful of assessment tools to help you identify your personal intercultural strengths or areas to work on. At the very minimum, do some reading about Edward T. Hall – one of the original thought leaders and brilliant writer on intercultural communication.
Also very important – observe. People-watching is a personal favorite pastime (be wary of creepy-too-long-staring). Do this discreetly in your everyday; the key is to be an active observer. How do people talk in groups? What kind of hand signals do they use? Is eye contact longer or shorter than you are used to, what kind of “common courtesy” do you see? Remember what is common is location and culture specific! You know that saying – “Common sense is not so common”? That´s because what might be obvious to you is directly determined by your personal culture. Common sense is contextual, not universal.
Whether you are in a hugely different environment (let’s say you’re a Japanese American, living in Cairo) or just slightly (perhaps a Chicago native living in Toronto) there are undoubtedly cultural differences that you can tune into and watch for. You can start to see how others interact. What do they prioritize? What trends or regular habits do you watch? Try not to notice just the obvious (i.e. they dress different, they like tea more than coffee) test yourself and really try to tune into the deeper innate cultural priorities and values (i.e. completing a task requires relationship building more than focusing on a specific task, or hierarchy is important to create order, meritocracy is not relevant). Strengthen your skills as an undercover interculturalist – it will bode you well in your travels and any new place you move.
5. Make plans
Sometimes its hard to get out there and do stuff on your own, especially if you are feeling lonely or frustrated from not having a partner in crime. Make plans anyway. When others ask you what you did on the weekend, you’ll have a good answer! And what’s your plan for tomorrow night? Doing something interesting, of course! Others will see your fun life and probably want to join in. If not, hey – at least you’re having fun! The key is not to just talk it up, actually go do it! If you’re a beginner at this solo-excursion thing, start with taking yourself to the movies (You sit in silence, anyway! Once the film starts you will forget that there is nobody in the seat next to you – promise). Best part is, this is a great conversation starter- “Have you seen the new —- film? It was…”
On this note, film festivals are quite common around the world, so do a bit of googling and see if there are any in your area. Sometimes they have package prices, so you can see a handful of films for a reasonable price. You’re likely to run into others who are attending multiple films.
6. Learn a new skill
Have you always wanted to learn to knit? Rock climb? Surf? Perhaps how to be a wine snob? Ever thought about joining Toastmasters? Maybe you want some inspiration for your international life, Melibee can help! Rev up your language skills – perhaps Italian? Look for a class and sign up. You will meet others with the similar interests and develop a new skill you can add to your “I’m Awesome” resume. Not to mention you can share this new talent of yours with others! How? If you learned to knit – tell others and invite them over for a “learn-to-knit” class. Did you take a Moroccan cooking class? Send out the invites for a dinner party with a homemade meal. People like to eat. If you cook for them, they will come.
7. Don’t judge
If you’ve moved abroad, clearly you like variety. Well, try it with your friends and contacts. This probably seems like a silly suggestion for an international traveler. You probably have friends from many cultures, nationalities, and with languages, political perspectives and religions different from your own. But these are not the only types of diversity. Many young people make plans primarily with others in their own age group. If you’re in your 20’s, likely so are most everyone whom you hang out with. Be open! Perhaps your co-worker is married, in her 50s and has kids in high school. You, on the other hand, are just starting your career. She might love to grab a drink after work and share with you the early days of her career, or offer some good contacts and references. Personally my friends are hugely different, and each of them brings something unique to my life, inspires or supports me in different ways.
8. Give your time
Volunteering* is a great way to meet people and also make friends. I personally have really enjoyed serving meals in soup kitchens (the staff are always hard-working very loving people with big hearts – always great to be around that!), spending time with the elderly (gives lots of perspective on worrying about the little things in life…) and of course there is a long list of other ways to volunteer your time. Look for something that you would enjoy. If you are a shy person, then perhaps a task oriented project is best. If you are social – be a greeter for a charity event.
*For internationals and expats, be sure to know the limitations of your visa status. In some cases volunteering is not permitted or can jeopardize your visa. For more information consult your local embassy.
9. Be a Friend
A lot of people like to have company, sometimes for even mundane tasks. If your co-worker or classmate has to go buy a phone – offer to join them and help with the task. Perhaps someone needs to move their apartment, let them know you’ll show up with your tool belt! Offer yourself up as a friend and if you meet the right people, they will surely be returning the favor.
10. Build a pool
If you have a car, try to find others who work in your office, building, or campus. It could even be at a different company across the street, but just put out the word that you want to start a rideshare.
If you don’t drive, you can create another kind of pool. Talent shows (American Idol, XFactor, Britain´s Got Talent) are a big thing these days all over the world. Even if they can be a bit silly, it´s fun and simple to create a pool of money to vote on who you think will win. Weekly updates will bring up conversation and create community. This also works with sporting events, tournaments, the Oscars, reality TV shows (who will get voted off next), pending baby-arrivals (guess the due date of a co-worker or TV character). This was very popular in an office I worked in. Even if it was for something I was not interested in (at all!), I still liked participating (and the chance for winning some extra cash).
11. Chill out
If you’ve tried a bunch of these and things still aren’t panning out, take a break and step back for a bit. It might feel difficult, but try to appreciate this chapter in your life where you are on your own. Read a good book, do some writing or journaling, and a little meditation never hurt anyone. With how life goes, sometimes we don’t get the things right when we want them. By not focusing on it too much, you can detach from it and feel more relaxed in general. In the end, you’ll learn something about yourself, and be in a better state of mind when life changes course again and you’ll be more ready for the new friendships that come your way.
I hope this helps inspire some new friendships – best of luck! Keep us updated on your own endeavors of Relocation Mastery. Anyone else out there got a great suggestion? Please comment and share with us… you never know, you might just inspire some buzz and another blog post on Melibee.
About the Author: Vanessa Shaw has been in the intercultural field for ten years. In the past she has worked with international volunteer organizations and study abroad programming in higher education. Currently she is the Community Manager for the Intercultural Communication Institute, the Melibee Global blog editor and an English teacher based out of Madrid, Spain. Follow her updates on Facebook, Twitter and her personal blog.