Immersing yourself in a foreign culture where no one speaks your native language, as I’ve said before, isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve had plenty of days during the course of three weeks where I’ve felt like packing it all in and hotfooting it back to Blighty at less than a moment’s notice.
This week, for example, hasn’t been any different. I woke up on Monday only to spend the whole day questioning my course of action, berating myself for feeling cold, naked and alone. The nakedness, I might add, probably didn’t help with the cold.
Yet later in the day something changed. I was waiting at the bus stop for the line to work, when someone began talking to me. It was a guy I’d got chatting to the week before. He was asking me about my weekend.
The result? My mood lifted. Someone out there suddenly cared about my existence. All that hard work I’d put in place, those hours spent wandering and introducing myself to strangers, is now, finally, after hours of agonising, starting to pay off. I can only imagine how many more people I’ll know in this little city before the next month is out.
Getting to this point has been more white-knuckle than those of a Nazi Supremacist. I’ve dragged my weary body from street to street, opened Spanish conversations with groups, old people, young people, drunks, vagrants and librarians. I often looked at myself like the social pariah, wandering around with no friends, chattering away to himself like the patient on day release from psycho-ward, twiddling and shuffling around with the daily paper.
But you know what? I’m fucking proud. I’ve looked within myself, a naturally quite shy person, found the courage to speak, no matter how horrific my errors are and have carried what must be over fifty different conversations.
The cherry on the cake? Last weekend I was literally swamped with different invitations to do this, that and the other with people. I had a choice. Not simply just to retire to my apartment, walk the streets alone or fire up the Internet, but to meet with living, breathing, local people.
I want to show you that YOU CAN DO THE SAME. No matter how intimidating it seems, how shy, uninteresting or unattractive you think you are, you can make it happen. People are people and, generally, they are a pretty friendly bunch too.
Five Steps to Friendship
In fact finding friends in a new town or city, where your roots are yet to be laid down, is a fairly simple process. My experience can be credited to simply following five rules.
1. Set a Time and a Target
As you’ve been reading in my Spanish language progress reports, I’ve been setting a time and target for conversation practice each week. What I haven’t mentioned, however, is that each conversation I count, I try to make with a new person. That means, in effect, I speak to around three new people per day.
The long-term results of this are fantastic. I’ve bumped into the same people, had further practice and become better known amongst their friends and acquaintances that are also more likely to say hi.
If you set yourself the target of speaking to a new person each day it puts pressure on you to form relationships and networks. You might not expect this new person to be a friend after one, single, 5-minute conversation, yet they are more likely to speak to you again the next time, thus allowing a friendship to blossom.
Remain open minded, start by picking one person a day and commit to it.
2. Start Out Easy
I appreciate that talking to strangers, especially given our, at times, closed-culture, can be bloody intimidating. I still get that same nervousness each time I try to introduce myself.
Start out easy and don’t rush things. Approach middle-aged or older, friendlier, looking people (it’s discriminating to judge on appearance yes but you may find it comfortable at first) over teenagers, or large groups of young adults.
Go to a quiet place where you can often find people alone. Parks are great for this and you can often introduce yourself to someone sitting on a bench with few worries.
Build up your confidence over time before moving on to busier social areas, larger groups and younger people.
Saying that, I’ve had just as great experiences with these people just as I have others. Sometimes old retirees can be grumpy (and rude) buggers too!
3. Present Yourself the Right Way
The way you introduce yourself to new people in the hope of making friends is absolutely crucial. Always maintain a smile, eye contact and a friendly greeting. Imagine that stranger as a familiar acquaintance, a future friend that you haven’t had the chance to get to know yet.
Presenting, when done right, can lead to all sorts of opportunities. On-the-spot invitations, securing a new job or new business, even a short trip to another part of the country.
How to do it in the target language? Get the basics down, be honest and speak openly. I tell people that it’s my dream to learn Spanish and learn more about the history and culture of their country. Flattery, maybe, but, more innocently, it’s simply just the truth.
4. Have a Thick Skin
So what if a person refuses to speak to you, doesn’t have the time, or is just plain out rude? They’ve closed themselves off from society. That’s their loss.
In my experience you need to prepare for this happening. The majority of people will be more than happy to talk to you, yet others will be a little suspicious, and others still, will shrug you off or just say no.
The great thing is that the one person that does give you their time, and that one conversation you do share, by far outweighs the highly unlikely prospect of ten rejections in a row.
Just remember to give your time back. I’m not sure about karma, but I think there’s some sort of force at work here.
I can only say that I’ve had about 4 real rejections since the time I’ve been here. I’ve never been offended by any of those.
5. Follow Everything Through
Probably the most important of my five rules is the act following through. Without doing it you can’t take a one-off casual meeting to that next stage of friendship.
What do I mean by this? I mean trying to get a phone number, email address or some kind of exchange which means you can contact that person at another time after your meeting.
Sometimes they’ll even invite you to something on the spot or something happening later on. Make sure you go, these are the opportunities in which friendships are formed. I even offer to buy coffee for people I meet in the street, just to increase the likelihood of meeting them again. Great tip!
Making sure you get out and take action is the only sure fire way to make a new friend.
While making friends, to an outsider, who knows no one, may seem like impossibility, it’s mainly just a matter of time. The first few weeks will, more often than not, be a test of will and character as you conquer all the loneliness, fear and trepidation.
Here in Cáceres I haven’t had the luxury of knowing anyone beforehand (except, rather indirectly, David), nor working in a big office or a place with more than two other colleagues.
I’ve had to go out and do all this for myself.
And I can tell you, from my experience: it’s not as hard as it might look. In fact give it a try no matter where you live!
Got any more advice for making friends in a new place? I’d love to hear from you if so…