The Expat Phases of Friendship

The Expat Phases of Friendship

Written by Nicola Sutcliffe

One of the most exciting things about moving overseas is cultivating new connections. Yet it can also be one of the most challenging. This post looks at some of the challenges when creating an entirely new set of mates, particularly other expatriates.

Every night since our month long trip to England, right before she falls asleep, my daughter asks ‘tell me my story’. The story goes like this:

‘India crossed the ocean on a big aeroplane from Australia to England to see her family and friends. She saw nanna, grandad, aunty gem gem, nanna babs, grandad bert, uncle ben, aunty jen, cousin libby’…the list goes on.

My precious girl listens wide eyed while sucking her thumb, the corners of her mouth a touch upturned creasing the baby-faced cheeks of her beautiful face. If I forget someone, she reminds me. Her memory astounds me.

She’s only three but the connections she made and maintains, no matter the distance, already form a fundamental understanding of her place in life. This is her story. Because it’s the people we connect with and the experiences we share that create our narrative.

Expat connections are cultivated more quickly

But when we start a new life overseas, we leave our backstories behind. It’s exciting, yet it can also cause confusion.

As while bonds back home are developed over decent durations and solid foundations; from neighbourhoods, studies and work, expat connections are cultivated more quickly. And in the depths of social scarcity they carry undercurrents of expectation and uncertainty.

With two moves (Perth & Melbourne) in two consecutive years, I essentially experienced the exhilaration of emigrating twice. Still in my twenties, I formed friendships over drinks, dancing and adventures.  It was fabulous fun and I have fantastic memories.

But riding the waves of elation often lacks deliberation. And I’ve learned more about myself and others than perhaps I ever did prior. Here’s how my journey went;

1. In the same boat

For expats, quickly cultivating connections is crucial for survival. The easiest way to do this is by making fellow expat mates. Through networking groups, friends of friends or work, if we put ourselves out there we can find ourselves going on, slightly awkward, dates with other expatriates. These friendships form fast. As the need to connect can catapult us into a best friend state of mind in a very short space of time. But unfortunately, when made this fast many are not destined to last…

2. Choppy waters

When the honeymoon is over and in my case, through pregnancy and childbirth, the party too, life starts to settle and friends are sought on a less superficial level.  The expat association isn’t enough. Conflicting characteristics come into view. And, unfortunately, while we may now share social circles and experiences, many lack the essential elements required for a lasting friendship.

Mismatches may have been missed, too much disclosed or individuals ignorantly integrated into our crowd. When foundations are as wobbly as an Englishman perched on a paddleboard, fallouts and phase-outs begin. Group gripes can also give in. However….

3. Your crew

If we’re lucky we’re left with those that we love. And overseas, as our strongest sense of support, they become a substitute for family. These friendships flourish far faster than connections cultivated in our country of birth. Because when we’re stuck in the same sea of solitude, we keep each other afloat.  But then…

4. Ships in the night

Just when we’re acquiring social circle security, some of our besties say bye.  Because the downside of nurturing expatriate mates is, with a life elsewhere and a once done now more workable wanderlust, they’re more likely to make another move.

Watching them leave can trigger a tidal wave of emotion and homesickness leaving us wading without a life jacket. Because they take with them a sense of our security.  And I’ve found, if they go home, I’ve more deeply doubted my decision to be departed. However…

5. Smooth sailing

After habituating in my host country a while, I’ve also cultivated harder to break native mates. Formed over a slower duration on a foundation of everyday activities and familiarity, rather than one common-expat- characteristic, they have developed in a more traditional way.

These connections have helped me better integrate into my host community, culture and country. And while my British buddies are still my besties, a balance of both has given me an extra sense of stability.

It forever opens our minds to new people

There’s an irrefutable impermanence when creating a new life overseas. Friendships form, flourish or fail far faster than in our hometowns. And the transiency of life is also more frequent in a foreign land.

Yet while we may sail through many choppy waters, the more changeable and challenging they are, the more we learn how to spot capsizing risks, our anchors and sailing budddies from afar.

It can be an uncomfortable ride but forever opens our minds to new people, places and possibilities. We also better select and appreciate those we would like to stay for a long time.

And we all want an amazing plotline. So write it well and if it lacks love, laughter or a feel good factor, never be afraid to edit, re-write and repeat. After all, you never know which characters you have yet to meet.

The End.

(Nicola Sutcliffe is a British expatriate and lives in Australia. In her blog “Upside Down”, which she started six months ago, she writes about her experience as an expatriate, the ups and downs of living in a foreign country, as well as personal growth and finding balance in life.)

Tell us your story and get connected

If you want to share your experience as an expatriate in the UAE or any other place in the world, please write us. We would like to hear your story.

In addition, our website gives you the opportunity to find like-minded people across the UAE. Have a look at our ExpatConnect Interest Groups, Neighbourhood Communities, Profession Groups, or Nationality Groups and get connected!


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