How to meet people and make friends in a new city

Debra in her new city

Debra in her new city

Making friends is one of the challenges of relocating and is a common cause of stress among expats. Some expats are reluctant to make the effort to make friends because of the emotional upheaval of having to say goodbye. Others find it intimidating to meet new people.

When you’re younger making friends happens more naturally, but research shows that as we get older, people find it a lot harder to meet others and make friends.

Before relocating to Montreal in 2015, Debra (a retired nurse in her fifties) believed that adults didn’t make new friends. She had lived in a small community in Wales with her husband for 50 years. She had her network. She had her friends.

But what if you wake up one morning, in a different country, your husband heads to work, you have no children to get to school and you realise you really are on your own? How do you overcome your fears and go about meeting new people and making new friends?

In this interview, Debra shares how she did it!

How did you come to be an expat?

My son moved to Montreal and it was him who persuaded us. There was a job here for my husband. I’d retired, I’d just lost both my parents and my other sons were all married with their own families and living their own lives. I thought, why not? I saw it as an opportunity.

When did you realise that you were going to need to confront your fears and meet new people?

I came here knowing that I was going to need to force myself to get out of the house and meet people. For companionship, to keep busy and to feel like I was part of something.

The thought of putting myself out there really scared me. The alternative, sitting at home all day on my own, lonely and isolated scared me even more! I knew to survive and to be happy my mindset had to shift.

At work as a District Nurse, I was confident to liaise with patients, doctors and my nursing staff, but personally I lacked confidence. I told myself I had to apply the skills I had learnt at work to my personal life. I made a plan. I was going to throw my net wide, ask people how they met other people and would make the effort to go to anything I was invited to.

Where and how did you make initial contact with people?

Be open to trying new activities and mixing with different people

Be open to trying new activities and mixing with different people

There were 4 things I did to make initial contact with people:

  1. My husband’s company had set up a Facebook group for the partners. I joined this. I would message people and invite them for coffee. If someone invited me to something, or there was an event being organised through this group.

  2. I always said “yes” Someone told me about Meet Up. I looked them up on the internet and registered for 7 groups I was interested in. A hiking group for example that enabled me to explore places out of the city, with likeminded people. Through one of these groups I got connected in to an off-shoot group: a group of ladies who met once week in a different restaurant in Montreal. I could combine by love of food with meeting new people.

  3. I joined activities in my local area. I connected with my neighbours and joined a group at my local church. I also became a member at my local gym where I took regular classes.

  4. I became a volunteer supporting a local charity with fundraising.

What helped you develop those friendships in to more meaningful relationships?

Initially I threw my net wide, but I knew I couldn’t keep all those links going and expect to get close to people, so I started to prioritise where and with whom I spent my time with. By committing to meet the same people regularly we got beyond the social chit chat and were able to get to know each other better.

I committed to regular routines. I go to the same gym classes every week. After a while I recognised people and they recognised me and we would strike up conversations.

The size of the group had an impact on how well I got to know people. I sought out groups that were small enough so we could all talk to each other, but large enough that I wouldn’t feel centre of attention.

I was proactive. I would invite others to join in activities that I was already doing. I’d take the initiative and ask people out.

What have you gained by making new friends?

It can be easier to make friends in smaller groups

It can be easier to make friends in smaller groups

Before I became an expat, I didn’t feel I was missing out by just having a couple of very close friends. I’d turn down invitations because I would worry about not knowing anyone, or feel too intimidated to join an already established group.

Now I realise I did miss out. The last two years have been so enriched by meeting so many new people and hearing about the lives they lead.

As an expat, I have learnt how to mix with a whole range of people, from different cultures and different ages. People I would never have met at home. People, who on the surface I may have nothing in common with, have become good friends.

Inwardly I feel more confident and more comfortable with who I am.

I’ve have as many friends now as I had as a teenager!

How do you feel about saying goodbye to the friends you have met?

I feel sad, but as an expat your life is transient. I know I’m going to be moving on and I’m going to have to say goodbye to the amazing people I’ve met.  I’ve really invested in these people and yet I probably won’t ever see them again. Their legacy however is the long lasting impact they have had on me. I’m not the same person that left the UK two years ago!

What would be your top tips to others fearful of meeting new people and making friends?

  1. Go the extra mile and make an effort 

    Try and meet people beyond those that are linked to your partner’s work. The thing you have in common with those people is work and that tends to dominate the conversation. If I’d only made friends with ‘work’ people, expat life wouldn’t have been so rewarding.

  2. Get past the awkwardness of talking to new people 

    This was a big thing for me. It was a long time since I had met a group of strangers and felt comfortable going to an event where I didn’t really know anyone. You need to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

  3. Take a risk …

    Don’t be afraid to initiate things. Invite people to join you to do things. They can only say ‘no’.

  4. Think about what you’re interested in and follow that 

    You can be more yourself when you are doing something you enjoy, so I would urge people to join groups where you are pursuing a hobby

  5. Say yes to everything 

    (at the start at least!)