What Does It Take to Make Friends?

10 Best Habits of Socially Adaptable Expats (2)

Whenever we transition to a new place I find myself continually amazed at how adaptable to new social situations the typical expat is. I’m certain that not everyone is an extrovert or 100% comfortable in large groups or even small coffees, but I do see people, repeatedly, stretching the limits of their comfort zones in an effort to make new friends.

I think most people, especially those for whom this extroversion doesn’t come naturally, have to practice at it. Most of us probably start out completely overwhelmed, but little by little we learn what works for us and we find ways to meet and greet and form friendships in ways that we wouldn’t have done if we’d never left the comforts of our home countries.

But what is it that makes someone easy to get to know? Why is it that some people seem to move so seamlessly into conversations with others? What skills do the most adaptable expats employ in conversations with new people that solidify their chances of turning a casual conversation into a lasting relationship?

In my experience, the most adaptable expats approach new relationships with a combination of the following 10 skills. Which ones do you use? Which ones do you think you’re ready to add to your personal tool kit?

  1. Make a habit of being curious about other people. There’s nothing quite like knowing that other people are interested in what makes you tick. When you ask people about themselves, it’s a compliment. So while you’ll have plenty of opportunities to tell your story, make sure to take time to get the scoop on someone else’s journey as well.
  1. Be self-deprecating. Moving is hard. Transitioning from place to place can leave us feeling overwhelmed, scattered, lost and alone. Even the most skilled expats struggle from time to time. Being able to admit your faults, failures and discomforts shows your potential friends that you’re human and that makes you more approachable.
  1. Be honest, but tactful. When you’re meeting new people, they are trying to feel you out, get to know you and understand what you’re all about. And, of course, you’re doing the same to them. It’s normal that you will have some interests that overlap and others that differ. There’s no need to pretend you like or are interested in something that you’re not. So, be honest…but remember, be mindful of making your differing perspective seem like a criticism of your new friend’s preferences.
  1. Think of the other person’s feelings. It comes quite naturally to most of us to ask people about the practical aspects of their lives – When did you arrive? What type of work do you do? Do you have children? However, many of us struggle with the more personal questions we need to ask in order to build relationships. How are you hanging in? Are you missing home? Are you feeling stressed? People who develop the skills necessary to comfortably ask more personal questions are laying the groundwork for stronger and deeper friendships.
  1. Say something complimentary. You are going to meet people with whom you have very little in common, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be nice. When you meet someone, be on the look out for the things that impress you about that person. Make sure to share your impressions with the people you’re getting to know. Everyone likes to know they’ve been noticed and sharing your positive impressions helps people recognize that they’ve truly been seen.
  1. Follow-up. This can be one of the most challenging aspects of the transition process. We meet so many people in the first few weeks we’re in a new place. Countless times we say things like, “We should get together,” or “Let’s grab coffee sometime.” Expats don’t have the luxury of letting these invitations go. So, if someone strikes you as being an ideal new friend – take a couple of minutes to email, call or text him or her. Don’t let the opportunity to deepen your relationship pass you by.
  1. Say “yes,” to invitations or offer alternatives. Try to say yes to as much as you can – especially in the first few weeks. Of course, it’s incredibly important to make sure you allow plenty of alone time to adjust at your own pace, but saying yes to outings or activities once or twice a week can be a great chance to strengthen new relationships. If you’re genuinely not interested in the activity (like, say, scuba diving), suggest an alternative (“Hey! I’ll happily sit on the boat and drink beer while you dive in that shark infested water!”).
  1. Branch out from “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” Challenge yourself to come up with new and creative questions that will stand out and make your interaction memorable. Jot them down somewhere, commit them to memory and be prepared to practice them in new social settings.
  1. Use social media to find like-minded individuals. I think one of the most exciting changes to living as an expat, has been social media. When I studied abroad for the first time in 1997, there was no Internet, no Facebook and no Twitter. Now you can get to know people even before you arrive in a new country! It’s a great way to start to put a face to your name and begin the process of seeing whom you might connect with once you get where you’re going.
  1. Know yourself and be confident in what you have to offer in a friendship. I saved the best for last! This is the most important one. People who really know themselves and who are confident about who they are, are easier to trust, easier to get to know and usually easier to be around. Make a habit of personal reflection. If this is a struggle for you – seek the support of a coach, read self-help books that can help you learn the skills you need, practice journaling or talk with friends and family who know you best and who can help you in learning more about yourself.

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The Upside of Detours

Don't forget the detours.

The first thing my daughter said when she woke up this morning was, “Momma, will you take me to school on your bike this morning?” I so wanted to…but I also didn’t. I could see all of these excuses in front of me – I don’t really know the bike route to her school, the bike is new and I don’t yet have a patch kit and supplies, I don’t have a good place to store a water bottle, I had a client session scheduled for 10:00 AM.

I told her I would think about it. That’s all it took. She was so enthusiastic – looking at the bike, telling me it looked sturdy and ready to go, getting dressed and following all of my instructions to make sure she was ready on time. “Please Mommy,” she kept saying.

Between dishes and lunches and beds and backpacks, I was able to sneak a peak at the trail map. It looked pretty doable. I figured at any rate, if I got lost I’d just get up on the road. It wouldn’t be that big of a deal if she were late to preschool. We probably weren’t going to have a flat or an accident. The ride’s only an hour round trip, I couldn’t get that thirsty. I’d definitely be back by 10:00.

I found myself saying yes.

Normally, I’m a big believer in saying no to the things that you’re not super enthusiastic about doing. But, this is one of those cases where I had the exact opposite feeling. In my heart, I wanted to take her, to spend time with her, to get in a great workout, to be out in nature, to try something new…. it was just different than what I had planned on for the morning. As I went through my mental list of excuses, I realized that all of them were really excuses based on the fact that I’d already planned my morning and a bike ride wasn’t initially part of that plan.

While I was getting dressed, I took myself through my mental list of excuses and realized that none of them really prevented me from taking her to school on my bike. The only thing stopping me from having a pleasant morning with my daughter was me and my silly plan.

To be honest, changing the plan made me a little anxious. We’re at that place where we’re starting to transition. I don’t feel over-scheduled, but I do feel fully scheduled…if not logistically, at least mentally. It’s that time where you feel like any small shift in the plan could set the whole thing tumbling on the floor like an unstable pyramid of oranges in the produce section.

And yet, we took the bike. And it was awesome. We got a little lost at one point – that’s what maps are for. It was hot and steamy, but it didn’t rain – it was a good workout. After dropping her off, I skidded on a rocky incline, fell and scraped up my knee – it actually feels kinda’ nice… like being a kid again.

I needed this reminder today. I love our life, but the packing and moving never get easier. I’ve gotten better at managing the moves, at knowing where the ups and downs will be and at staying true to myself in the midst of transition – but it remains challenging. Today was the day that I was reminded that one fool-proof way to live through it is to say yes here and there to the detours and when you find yourself on one, you might as well go ahead and have fun.

What Happened When We Answered the 36 Questions

Just ask...

I love the New York Times Modern Love column. If you’re also a fan, you may have seen Mandy Len Catron’s piece – To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This. In the essay, she talks about a study in which strangers ask each other 36 questions. The New York Times reports that the study, by psychologist Arthur Aron, is designed to see if feelings of love can be accelerated.

The original piece was so popular that the New York Times published the list of questions and now is offering a free app to help people answer the questions with a partner.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows how much I love lists of questions. So, you can imagine, when I first saw the article I thought, “How fun! Maybe we should do that.” Despite the fact that I’m already in love with my husband (going on 17 years!) I thought it could be kind of cool to go through the questions together. But then I forgot about it.

However, last weekend, after wrapping up the dinner portion of our date night and deciding to head over to our favorite coffee house for a little dessert and decaf, I remembered the questions. We decided to give it a go.

We started off rather casually. We already know each other so well. But as we got deeper and deeper into the list, something happened. We started to answer the questions in a whole new way. Often we started off saying, “Well, you already know this but…” Then we found ourselves adding layers of thought and emotion to the stories that maybe we hadn’t previously considered.

Having each other’s undivided attention, we began to tease out the hidden feelings behind some of our responses. Our respective “worst memory ever” and “most embarrassing moment ever” became almost like new stories. More than just facts now, they were filled with new insight and new reflections.

It really was an incredible experience. We feel like we share everything and yet I know we both completed the questions feeling like we expressed thoughts, ideas and emotions that we hadn’t previously voiced. More than once we teared up. More than once we told each other something we hadn’t said before.

What we did most of all was listen, reflect, respond and reach out to each other. We don’t technically need a list of 36 questions to do that, but somehow the questions provided an additional layer of focused task and permission. Our life is full – with work and 3 kids and moving all over the world. The questions removed us a bit from the day to day. They were about us and they enabled us to focus completely on each other.

Most of the time it feels impossible to give our undivided attention to our friends and loved ones. Even those of us who truly try to, still fall short. But what a nice reminder these questions were. When we ask and then wait for a response, we have the power to deepen our relationships tremendously.

I highly recommend checking out the article and spending some time with the questions and someone you want to know better…or someone you already love. You may find you learn something you never knew about him or her…or even about yourself.

Making Memories All Your Own

childhood memories blog post

Today I hosted a play date for my two oldest children. In addition to my boys, there were three other TCKs. For much of the afternoon they played a game that was one part good guys/bad guys, one part chase and one part hide-and-seek. They laughed and screamed and beat a path from bedroom to bedroom in our tiny apartment.

This got me thinking about the fact that sometimes, despite all of the amazing things my children have seen and are seeing because of our international life, I really wish they could do some of the things I did as a kid.

Things like:

  • Lying in the driveway looking at stars and counting the falling ones.
  • Building forts in the cedar trees and collecting juniper berries and leaves and twigs and making magic potions out of them.
  • Walking late at night through ranch land to a friend’s house only fearing coyotes and snakes and stray barbed wire.
  • Reading in a hammock, listening to wind chimes.
  • Passing notes and staying up late with the same friends since kindergarten.

I’ve shared this feeling with my husband off and on over the years. He laughs because his childhood was nothing like mine. He, of course, has completely different memories that fuel his understanding of what childhood should be like.

He’s good at reminding me that what I really want them to have is good memories – memories of laughter and security and adventure.

Today I had this moment in the kitchen, making popcorn and listening to the laughter of this silly bunch of kids who’ve lived all over the world, that they have exactly what I had and exactly what my husband had. They have now and are creating every day memories that are tailored exactly for and by their own experiences.

And that’s what makes childhood memories so special. It’s not the place or the time or the exact activity, it’s the fact that you were there. You were fully engaged. You lived in that moment. In all your perfect kid-ness you just lived…without comparison or envy or the feeling that the grass was greener on the other side.

Come to think of it, that’s not too shabby of a lesson for each and every one of us…no matter how old.

 

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

The Power of Trust – Expat Style

These past couple of weeks, in the midst of another major transition, I’ve been reflecting a lot on trust. Does living the expat life cause you to trust people more, or less? Does the constant fluctuation of friends and community enable you to reach out a bit more for help with a challenging technical issue, extra support with childcare or the everyday request for a spare egg or cup of flour?

In my own experience, expats do tend to take a big, deep breath and go for it when it comes to trusting their neighbors – particularly neighbors that are part of the same professional, religious or cultural community. Simply put, we don’t quite have time to be hesitant. When you’re new somewhere you have to begin building relationships quickly…precisely because you never know whose help you’ll need and when.

It also seems to me that there’s more to this extra-developed sense of trust than just the practical. I think there are other deeper, more personal and more happiness-inducing positives than just finding solutions for everyday problems.

Like what? Well, here are 4 (unscientific and anecdotally researched) benefits of trusting others:

  • Stronger Relationships – When you trust others you’re saying to them, “I believe in you. I know you can do this.” This is an exceptional basis for building deeper and longer lasting relationships because it starts from a place of mutual respect and acceptance. Instead of someone having to “earn” your trust, you begin there and for the recipient of your trust this is a great confidence booster. I mean, who doesn’t want to feel that their friends trust them?
  • Confidence in Your Own Abilities – Trusting others also enables you to build confidence in your own strengths, abilities and intuition. In today’s world, we’re constantly faced with the reality that many people and situations are not trust-worthy. But, when we trust others as our default we build in ourselves the capacity to go with our gut and see the positive outcomes when we do. And we strengthen our ability to know when and how to ask for help. In short – we tell ourselves, “I know you can do this. I believe in you. I trust your ability to ask for what you need.”
  • Getting Burned – Along those same lines, sometimes we do get burned when we trust someone. Occasionally, we reach out only to find no one is listening or available. Or worse, the person we trusted turns out to be untrustworthy. It sounds awful…and it is awful. But it’s not all bad. Here’s why – we learn from the times that don’t work out just as much as we learn from the times that do. We heighten our awareness of when to trust and when to listen to that feeling in our gut that says, “Not so fast.” With time we become more efficient and proficient trusters.
  • A Wider Network of Connections – In this great big world, it never ceases to amaze me how very small it can seem. It’s like living in a tiny village, spread out all over the world. You may not know your neighbor, but your neighbor probably knows your previous neighbor from three countries ago…or has at least heard of her…or once read a blog post she wrote. The point is this – when you trust someone to come into your life, to laugh (and cry) with you, to support you and to become your friend, you foster connections that not only strengthen your relationships, but that strengthen the relationships of your larger community. And that’s good for all of us.

So, if you’re finding yourself feeling the urge to reach out – I say go for it. Living the best life for you, where you are right now, means going out on a limb sometimes – trusting others as well as yourself.

Working Through the Hard Days

Today was one of those days. You know, the days in your expat life when you think, “Why are we doing this? Again.” I find these days always hit me completely out of the blue. We’re going along, no big deal, feeling on top of the world and (honestly) quite proud of ourselves and our children. We feel like transition rock stars. And then – Bam!

Yesterday we were looking at some family photos from our last home in Madagascar. Because of his Type I Diabetes diagnosis my middle son was never able to say goodbye. He got sick. He went to the doctor. He got on a plane. He’s never been back. He found the photos upsetting. He got teary-eyed seeing his toys and his room and his friends reflected in the pages as we recalled our favorite memories. His siblings had closure. He never really did. At bedtime he was saying, “I want to go home.” But, of course, it’s not home…anymore.

Last night I had a dream that he and I were in a foreign country and we got distracted by something that was happening in the street and laid our bags down, then a civil war broke out, then our bags were stolen, then a small, starving child latched on to us and wouldn’t let us go. That’s my psyche working out the conflicts that always come up living this lifestyle. We wouldn’t give this up. We’re happy. It’s a way of life and the benefits, for now, far out-weigh the downsides. But man, that dream really hit me.

And then I remember:

  • Expat or not, I’d probably still worry sometimes (or…always?) that I’m screwing up my kids.
  • Sad days happen no matter where you are.
  • This lifestyle can be hard, but not always. Today is just one of the hard days.
  • There’s a lot to be said for love…and hugs.
  • I’m not alone.
  • Some things are portable – like fun, and silliness, and getting outside, and (more) love.

The funny thing is, by today he was completely back to his usual self. That makes me think that that list up there, all those things I say to give myself some perspective aren’t just things I say, they’re habits that my husband and I live out…and the kids know that. They’ve learned to tell themselves those things too. They’ve come to believe them to be true. So…now I’m back to thinking – wow, we’re kind of transition rock stars…most of the time.

Out with the Old – Rewriting the Expat Stereotype

I recently finished the novel You Are One of Them by Elliot Holt. There’s a lot in the plot that will sound familiar to expats – travel, intercultural relationships, cross-cultural adjustment.

It also talks a lot about diplomats and expats. The book takes place between Washington DC and a largely expat community in Moscow. Here’s the sentiment that runs strong throughout the book – diplomats hide behind walls, diplomats and expats drink too much, diplomats and expats aren’t able to form relationships because, in anticipation of a departure, they never fully commit themselves to those around them. We’ve heard this all before. I’m not going to be the one to say this is never true, but for me, these aren’t the norm of the definition of what it’s like to be a member of a diplomatic or expatriate family – these are the exceptions.

When I look around my community here’s what I see…

Expats are people who connect to and bond with individuals from a very wide array of political and religious beliefs. We do this because we realize that these things have very little to do with friendship.

We’re individuals who can strike up conversations with anyone, anywhere and at anytime. We seem to inherently recognize the transience of the world around us so we take advantage of the little bits of time we have. We’re not all extroverted, but we do know how to start and maintain a conversation. In my experience, we’re also pretty good at seeing the value in even small moments.

When we experience something that takes us back to another time and place it connects us with friends across the globe. We send a quick message via Facebook or text or email that says, “I saw this and thought of you friend. I miss you.” Our brains are wired with a fascinating map of experience and those experiences don’t exist in a vacuum – they’re connected to our friends and family and they’re enriched by the experience of having shared them with someone who matters.

Expats give new meaning to the terms adaptability, flexibility, curiosity and acceptance. We live these values and they become the scaffolding that supports our constant movement.

And above all else, I see tremendous amounts of love and commitment and community.

So, why do the stereotypes persist? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters why as much as it matters that, as a community, we know that we’re not glitzy people, sitting behind gold-plated walls, drinking champagne and backstabbing our neighbors. And perhaps in the end that reality is self-perpetuating – the more we live authentically, the more we represent the new diplomat or the new expat community, the more power we have to alter the stereotype. It will be from that place, I feel, that the depth of our experiences and complexity of our choices will reveal not the old image, but the new one. If I look around at my friends I think they’re doing a pretty good job of breaking the stereotypes and I can’t imagine a more wonderful group of people to love.

Expat Life with a Double Buggy