How to Make Friends in a Foreign Land

So you’re moving to a foreign land. And of course you’ve googled the town and made a list of restaurants to try, trails to run, and shops to visit. But a month has come and gone and you’ve toured the fool out of said town and it’s just not quite remotely home yet, eh? Enter: The Mrs. Adventure Handbook to Making Friends in a Foreign Land.

Step 1: Speak the Language

Whether it’s German, Swahili, Spanish, or Southern American, chances are you’re experiencing a language barrier. The most important part of this process is learning that there is, in fact, a language difference. Many are under the false impression that their location is speaking the same American English as their last. An example to the contrary: ask an acquaintance in your location if they’d enjoy a nice visit to the local creamery this weekend. If you’re stationed on the West Coast, the acquaintance will likely check his or her schedule and get back to you with a straight forward “yes” or “no.” If you find yourself in a Southern state, the acquaintance will assure you he or she would love that, perhaps while touching your arm and making warm eye contact followed by a 35% chance that the acquaintance will show up come Saturday. Recent studies have shown that there are at least seven different meanings to the word “yes” depending on one’s location. (“Recent studies” consist of my move across the country a month and a half ago and “seven” might be a number I pulled out of thin air that has nothing to do with analyzing data and everything to do with the lovely two-syllable ring it has.)

On the topic of acquaintances: It is important to understand the social construct of the land in which you are stationed. This can most simply be understood by examining the cultural understanding of an acquaintance. On the West Coast, for example, one has many strangers, a lot of acquaintances, and a handful of friends. In the Northeast, one has mostly strangers and a handful of friends. In the Southern states, one has zero strangers (one may choose to make an exception for alternate ethnicities, though the other regions frown upon this behavior), an unbelievable amount of acquaintances, and many friends. It’s a good idea to figure out what you’ll be working with in this department.

Step 2: Make the Leap

Transitioning from one social standing to another (say, from a stranger to an acquaintance) can be a delicate and challenging process. When done incorrectly, it may have treacherous results including but not limited to a lack of friendship, an embarrassing misunderstanding, or a restraining order. When asking an acquaintance to lunch, doing so too aggressively may scare the potential friend. When attempting to start a conversation with a stranger, it is important to remember body language and nonverbal communication. Before approaching, be mindful of eye contact. Too much eyeballing prior (or following) to the conversation attempt may ensure that your stranger feels preyed upon. If said scenario unfolds, the stranger likely will treat you like you are indeed a predator and physically run away. In said scenario, do not follow the stranger. If you recognize that you have indulged in far too much eye contact before the attempt, abort the mission immediately. Finding an activity aid may benefit you if you find it difficult to find the appropriate momentum for making a social leap.

More on activity aids: An activity aid is an activity that one may acceptably engage in with a stranger without striking discomfort in either party. Common activity aids include but are not limited to: taking a class at the gym, examining a piece of artwork, and joining a pickup game of volleyball (only if you aren’t terrible at volleyball—aiding a team in losing will not make you any friends). The most important rule is to be nonthreatening. Strangers and acquaintances should never feel like: they cannot escape the conversation, they are being hit on, they are being literally stalked and should fear for their safety, etc. Poor activity aids include but are not limited to: using the restroom, being tried for a federal crime (misdemeanors are ok), and attending a funeral.

Step 3: Assume the Best

This step is applicable and important for all stages of friend-making in a foreign land. When you are new to your station and have zero friends and perhaps even zero acquaintances, consider the wonderful things you have to offer and find excitement in the friendships yet to be made. When you are afraid that you have broken a social rule or boundary in the social leap phase, assume that you’re reading too far into these things and that the stranger or acquaintance might actually be rather fond on the idea of being upgraded to a friend. When you have just spent intentional time with someone and feel unsure due to the awkward pauses and conversation hiccups, assume that he or she took no notice and had a great time. It’s quite likely that you are a lovely person to be friends with.

Step 4: Initiate

Once you have spent intentional time (“hanging out”) with someone, ask to do it again. If this step introduces too much mental or emotional difficulty to be achieved, refer to step 3.

Additional conversation aids: babies, witnessing a public spectacle (say, a runner being hit by an empty can thrown by a homeless person), shared suffering (reference the suggestion of taking a class at the gym), a question about directions (utilize the phrase, “I’m new here,” until its expiration date of 6 months), and when in doubt, talking about the weather really does work.