Our little daughter went through a shy phase awhile back. She would literally hide her face if a stranger even looked in her direction. She liked her friends, but if some nice grandmother on the bus looked up from the afghan she was knitting to give her a smile, my shrinking violet buried her head in my chest for the rest of the trip. It was a little embarrassing, but I really got where she was coming from. I’m introverted, and a shy introvert, at that, and though I’ve learned to fake it pretty expertly, sometimes new people make me feel like burying my head for the whole trip, too. I love being social and having great friends, but I like intimate groups, small talk stresses me out, and I hate being someplace loud where you can’t have a meaningful conversation.
Moving to a new country where I knew no one but my guy (who also knew almost no one, but has the distinct advantage of being the King of the Extroverts) was a particular challenge for a shy but social introvert. But, can I brag for a tiny moment? Right, thanks – so, I haven’t aced every aspect of expat life, but I feel I’ve done pretty OK on this whole making friends business, despite myself. I call some of the best and most loyal people friends today, and I love that about my life here. So, for all the introverted expats – I know I’m not the only one – these have been my best tactics:
When we first arrived, we hauled ourselves around to expat meetups and social events. I took classes and got out of the house every single day. That’s what “How to Make Friends” guides tell you to do it. Except, those things are written for extroverts.
Big groups just are not the way that introverts make friends. We hate small talk, and “meetups” are about 98% “Where are you from? How long have you been here? What brought you here? And you?” I wanted to kick a wall every time we left one. And, as for classes and just walking around the grocery store, I’m about as likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger as I am to learn to love Vegemite toast.
The beautiful thing about meeting people on the Internet first is that you can cut the small talk, and when you do decide to meet in person, it’s because there’s already some kind of friend-spark. I’ve met people through blogging, expat forums, and Facebook groups.
You do have to put yourself out there on the Internet. You can’t just be a “watcher.” It’s good to try to get the lay of the land when you first join an online group or forum, but once you’ve picked up the tone, jump in on conversations you find interesting, and be yourself. We introverts are often at our best in writing, where you can avoid, “I can’t believe I just said that,” “oh my god, I have no idea where this story is going…,” and “did I just snort when I laughed? Did she notice? Why? Whyyyyyyy?!?“.
Be the Cruise Director
Here’s the secret about making friendships. Almost everyone wants new friends. Very few people want to be the one organizing the get-togethers where you’ll meet new friends. It’s a pain to organize things. You have to stick your neck out and get everyone to agree. You have to pick a date. And get everyone to agree. You have to find a venue, which is ridiculously hard. And get everyone to agree. Then, people will want to change the time, find out if they can bring their sister, or just cancel at the last minute. This is why no one wants to do it.
Nonetheless, I like to be the Cruise Director sometimes. For 4th of July, we threw a little party for American families in our section of Sydney. That’s a pretty limited group, which is exactly how this introvert likes it. We picked a spot and time, told everyone to bring a dish, tossed up a few balloons, and I think everyone had a nice time. We had 5 families in total, which is the perfect number for me – enough to feel festive, but not so many that you get that crushed in a crowded room feeling. When you host, people will naturally talk to you, which is half of the shy person’s battle.
Sometimes it’s as simple as asking someone else to coffee. I think “we live in neighboring suburbs, we both have toddlers, and that thing you said online made me laugh” is more than enough reason to suggest meeting up. I can’t remember ever being turned down for a coffee date. Sometimes they go nowhere, but sometimes it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Identify a People Connector
There are people in this world who love nothing more than meeting new people and putting them together with other people. A Friend Emissary, if you will. If you’re an introverted expat trying to make friends, you should do your best to befriend at least one of these people. Luckily, I’ve met a couple, and I can trace almost my entire network of friends back to these people. The good news is that Friend Emissaries love making new friends, so if you’re open, there’s a good chance that you’ll get one in your corner.
Fear Not the Extroverts
Real life talk here: Extroverts often stress me out, and I can feel myself immediately trying to back slowly out of the room when I come across some of the particularly boisterous members of Tribe Extrovert. I always thought that I was just choosy about people until I read a quote that, to paraphrase, said that introverts are sometimes wary of extroverts because we feel that they “steal our energy.” That was a ding-ding-ding moment for me. The other thing about extroverts that, for me, is hard to understand, is that they are so social, have so many friends and obligations, that it’s hard to feel that you are an important part of their life. And so, consciously or unconsciously, I have tended to keep extroverts at bay, in terms of friendships (which is crazy because I married an extrovert!).
It is only recently that I’ve realized how unfair and limiting this bias has been. Yes, there are shallow “energy thieves” in this world – and we’d all do well to steer clear of them – but that’s not all extroverts. I’ve discovered that I need to manage my interactions with extroverts, where possible, and be together in smaller groups or one-on-one, rather than at large gatherings. This has the dual benefit of allowing me more introvert-energy to commit to the friendship, as well as allowing me to feel like we’re connecting on that deeper level that we introverts crave. I have some very close extrovert friends, and they all understand that I’m always good for a lunch date, but probably going to pass on the big party where I know no one else.
Oh, and don’t forget – the Friend Emissaries I mentioned above – pretty exclusively extroverts. Love the extroverts, and they will love you back.
Don’t Chicken Out!
I’m always enthusiastic when I make plans, but then the date comes closer, and it seems like a lot to put on the clothes, catch the bus, find the restaurant – every part of the event that isn’t me in yoga pants watching Nashville. Many of us introverts imagine our energy being sapped long before it’s even happened. And, if there are going to be new people there, even more so.
But, then I get there, and 98% of the time, it’s really fun. Is that your experience, too?
Repeat after me: Don’t cancel. It will be fun, and it will be worth it.
I’m not great at this, and should really heed my own advice. You found someone rad to friend-date because you made each other laugh in a Facebook group. You had coffee, and the conversation flowed nicely, and you were both like, “hey, we should try that new hot chocolate and brownies pop up cafe that’s opening next week!” (*If only*).
Then, maybe you go home, and you think, “well, I had a good time, but I did say that one awkward thing, and also I snort-laughed, so I wonder if I came across as kind of weird…?” She’s probably super busy, anyway. And, then you think you’ll text tomorrow … the next day … after the weekend … and it just gets away from you. Here’s the thing – there’s a very good chance, that she went home and thought some of the same things.
There’s a bit of a narcissistic tendency many of us introverts have to think that we are the only ones with self-doubt and insecurities, and I think we probably need to try to get over ourselves. Be the one to pick up the phone, write the text, be brave enough to say you had a fun time, and set up the next get-together.
Allow For One Flake Out (Way More If You’re Parents)
You’ve made the plans, and you’re psyched for the hot chocolate and brownie cafe on Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday at 10a.m. she cancels because she’s “not feeling 100%”. That’s a bummer (but also a tiny bit not because Nashville is not going to watch itself, am I right?). Reschedule. One flake out is allowed. Maybe she’s cancelling because she changed her mind, but maybe she’s about to come down with a raging flu, or maybe she’s going through some tough stuff at home that she’s not ready to talk about, yet. Let it slide. But, when the flake outs become regular, that’s not on. No adults need that in their lives. One flake out, totally fine. Multiple flake outs – probably time to move along.
UNLESS. Unless you’re both parents. Then, the flake out rule goes to, I don’t know, 7 in a row? 9? Because, let’s get real, you’re going to be pulling the, “sorry, Kenny has a runny nose, and it’s clear, but – I don’t know – he’s just not acting like himself” line out plenty of times in this friendship, too.
Keep At It
Unfortunately for us introverts – and, especially we introverted expats – this work of making new friends is never done. It’s like laundry. As long as you want
clean clothes people to spend quality time with, you have to keep at it. Friendships ebb and flow, and the reality of expat friendships is that someone is always moving on. But, the fortunate part of this cycle is that you never know what extraordinary person might walk into your life tomorrow. Keep at it. Be bold. Do the work. The really special people make it all worth it.