When we moved to Panama, one of the things we absolutely loved was the social life overseas.
It was also the first thing we missed when we returned to the US.
We’re not alone in this — it’s a common theme among expats. The fact is, in most places it’s a whole lot easier to make friends than it is in the US.
I don’t know why that is, but I have some ideas. . .
Stranger doesn’t equal enemy
In the US, we’re taught to regard anyone we don’t know with suspicion. We teach our kids about “stranger danger,” and if someone we don’t know says hello to us on the street, we tuck our heads down and pull ourselves tightly into our shells.
Sorry, but that’s not normal.
In many parts of the world, a stranger is simply someone you haven’t met. You don’t automatically assume they pose a threat, and you interact with them in a friendly fashion unless/until they give you a reason not to.
In Panama, the first local friend I made was a woman who was ahead of me in a grocery store line. I heard her speaking English with her companion, so I said hello. We chatted for a moment, and she left the store.
After I paid for my purchases and walked out, she met me at the corner with a slip of paper in her hand. It was her phone number. “Call me if there’s anything I can do to help you,” she told me.
We also developed a wonderful friendship with a Panamanian family in the next block. He drove a cab part-time, and I met him when he drove me home one night. His daughter speaks fluent English, and now that she’s a flight attendant we try to get together whenever she flies into Orlando.
Expats like to hang out together
It became a habit to speak up and say hello any time we were out and about and heard someone speaking English.
Sometimes they would be tourists just passing through, and sometimes people who were staying for weeks, months, or years. It was easy to strike up a conversation, and easy to socialize.
The first morning after I moved into my rental house in Las Tablas, water stopped flowing into my kitchen tap around noon. I didn’t know if the water supply had been cut for some reason, or if it was just my house.
So I walked across to the neighbors. I’d been told an American couple was renting the house, but I hadn’t met them. I knocked on the door, found Julie at home, and introduced myself.
We talked about the water — “oh, it’s pretty normal,” she told me. It slowed to a trickle for a few hours around noon every day, then came back again.
Next thing I knew I’d been invited to dinner where they introduced me to a group of US and Canadian expats, and they ended up taking me with them on their next shopping trip into Chitre where they showed me around to most of the places I’d need to know about.
That’s just the way things happen among expats.
Socializing can be very inexpensive
This isn’t true everywhere, of course, but in many places it’s more easy to be social because the cost of living is so much less.
It wasn’t at all unusual for us to grab dinner on the spur of the moment with friends. We’d call, or they’d call, and say, “we don’t feel like cooking tonight, want to meet us at XYZ restaurant?”
Face it, when you know your meal tab is going to be $15 for two of you, including a couple of beers, it’s not a hard choice to make.
To jump start your social life before you arrive. . .
I had lots of contacts in Las Tablas before we ever got on a plane. Here are some places to get started:
- Facebook. Look for Facebook groups or pages about your destination, then join or follow.
- Forums. ExpatExchange is a good place to start. Yahoo used to have some excellent country- and city-specific forums, although I haven’t checked there recently. Once you start participating in one of those forums, keep an eye out for references to additional forums or groups that might be helpful.
- Other social media. Twitter can be a good place to search for links to forums appropriate for your destination.
Once you join a forum or group, read and watch for a bit before you jump in with questions. Keep in mind that many of your questions have probably been asked already, so if there’s a search feature, use it to see previous discussions.
The groups will usually be a mix of people already living there, people who’ve visited, and people who want to visit or live there. Get to know some of the residents, then reach out via a private message to the ones you feel most comfortable with.
You’ll find a few friends this way.
Find out if there are any regular expat get-togethers. It’s not uncommon for a group of expats to meet a local restaurant or watering hole at a set time every month, or even every week.
Once your travel dates are set, let them know when you’ll be arriving, and set up a meetup in a restaurant or bar to meet IRL (in real life). Ask them to invite other expats along as well.
I arranged a meetup before we arrived in Las Tablas for our first visit. We met about a dozen North American expats currently living there, and discovered that my contact person actually grew up in the same teeny tiny town where my husband and I met!!! Not only that, but my husband knew his parents! How’s that for a small world scenario?
Some places are still harder than others
Even though it’s easier in most places to have a satisfying social life, there are some locations where it will be tougher. Big cities are almost always harder than small towns, for example, so if you’re heading for a big city it’s even more important to lay the groundwork before you go.
These strategies work whether you’re moving within the US or to a new country. With a little preparation and an open attitude, you’ll be able to develop a thriving social life.
Do you have a tip for making friends before you go? Share it in the comments below!