Expat Friendships (musings, a question to other expats, and a poll)

Ciao Readers!

I have been spending quite a bit of time thinking and reading about being an “expat.”  Now, what differentiates an “expat” from an “immigrant” is an entire other discussion, so for our purposes I’m using “expat” to mean someone who changes countries more from desire than need.  In any case, the psychology of expats is very interesting – why do we do it?  what are are psyches like in our our new country?  should we be a diagnoses in the DSM-5?  (I’ve actually been toying with the idea of eventually writing a scholarly paper on the topic.)  But for now, one area in particular has me puzzled….friendships.

Soon after we arrived and I started attending events with other expats, I noticed people seemed to be fairly concerned with figuring out whether I was a short or long-termer.  Apparently, as I’ve discovered from talking to enough folks, this is a pretty common phenomenon.  In the world of expats people come and go and some folks are very weary of “wasting” time with someone who might be gone 6 months from now.  I find it really strange, though I have read about it on several people’s blogs I like/respect (some examples here and here).  Nothing I’ve read however really explains it in a way I can fully wrap my brain around – it’s usually about the pain of people leaving, but there’s got to be more to it than that (or not?)….

Personally, I have already had this experience happen twice – I have met two lovely women, each of whom was just here for a short period of time.  While they were here we had great fun – walks and talks and lunches and dinners and soakings in the rain.  Maybe you’re different, but I don’t have a zillion friends, so when I meet cool people I want to hang out with all I can think is “yay!”   They are both gone now (one home to CA, the other to continue her/her hubby’s adventure in Turkey, now Botswana).  Do I wish they were still here?  Of course!  Am I sad they are gone?  No doubt!  Would I ever turn back the clock and un-meet them?  Not in a million years!!!   How amazing to have made new friends, have more folks to commiserate with on Skype, get to learn about countries I know nothing about, get cool little gifts from California and Turkey, and so on.  So, here are my queries to expats and non expats:

Expats:  If you subscribe to the “I only make friends with people staying _____ long” philosophy, can you help me understand that point of view?  Or if you have any insight at all, would love to hear it!

Non-expats:  What do you think:

Leave a comment


  1. I have issues with your definition of expat 🙂 however, I believe that people have positive things to offer and can enrich your life no matter what the length of stay.

  2. Interesting post. I don’t negate hanging out with new people, short term or not….the only thing, and JMO of course, is the longer you stay the harder it becomes when others do not. It’s especially difficult if you have a year or two of GOOD friendship (not the type where yes, the person is fun but after 3 months they’re gone and really, who cares?) it’s hard to start all over looking for a good friend. I think that’s the point for me. Good friends are hard to find anywhere, and when it’s quick enough for them to pick up and leave (by their choice or outside circumstances) it’s a bit jarring at times. I like knowing a lot of people but I can understand why some wouldn’t bother going deeper into a friendship if you know after 6 months they’ll be gone and you’re here for another ….well, lifetime. Just a thought.

  3. I think a lot of it comes down to personality. I’m not very outgoing and have a hard time making friends, so I found the revolving-door aspect of expat friendships exhausting. That said, I wouldn’t turn my back on someone solely on the basis of how long they expect to stay. (My “one year” expat adventure ended up lasting five years, so you can’t trust those expectations anyway!)

  4. Ako

     /  February 6, 2013

    With technology today (as you pointed out Skype is a good example or FB) it is so much easier to keep in touch with people. So I don’t understand the reasoning why someone would not want to start a friendship that you can carry on electronically when they leave/move. I know some people would prefer to physically see you, but I find I keep in touch more with my friends who live in other states/countries than I do my friend that lives 20 minutes away. With our busy lives it is sometimes difficult to make time to “see” your friends. How sad to think that these people may be missing out on a truly great friendship! (This is my opinion so please don’t think too harshly of me if you do not agree).

  5. I voted “absolutely” but of course I’m the short-timer only staying in each country the length of a tourist visa and therefore grateful for those who take the time, whether it’s just to show me a local restaurant, or – in your case – dive into what I expect to be a lifetime friendship. And I do find that Skype, Facebook,email and even postcards have become much more important to me as a way to keep in touch with close friends, where ever they are.

    So I thought, “what if I were the one staying home and people were leaving ME?” Best example I can think of is that “home” is a small wine town where visiting winemakers arrive from all over the world and stay for 3-6 months for the grape harvest and barrelling. We always adopt them into our social lives and it’s actually quite a holiday-like period for not only the interns but those of us who take it upon ourselves to show them a fun time while they’re here. Not exactly analogous, but it gives me hope that I’m not a hypocrite for seeking to meet people will be open to me during my own short stay in their country!

    • Hi! Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts – I think the fact that you (unlike many expats) know when you’re leaving each country is about as honest as you can get – so it’s up to each person whether they want to take time to get to know you. I’m glad I did, and am looking forward to reading your latest on Istanbul.

  6. Nice blog post ;-). This is something I have thought about extensively (as you know) myself since I am six years in as an immigrant/expat in Italy. I really think it does vary for most people and even those who say they won’t befriend someone who is in a country for only a few months probably would if the personalities click, me included! I am a really social person and love to have lots of different type of people in my life in different ways but prefer a smaller really close group of friends for trips/girls nights/etc etc. The first three years in Italy, It was a little different but after the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, time really getting to know someone and spending a lot of time with them and then they leave forever, even with skype, fb etc, it can be hard to keep up and it does get emotionally tiring. Luckily some of those friendships are die-hard and we have met outside of Italy and all over the world but some less so. Sometimes I think about people I met and hung out with 4 years ago and it almost seems like a dream! Personally, I prefer at the moment to invest more of my personal free time with those who I (hope) will be around longer but don’t sweat about it too much since it being Florence, people come and people go and at the end of the day, I love meeting new people and do so all of the time, its just a little different on who I invite to my house for dinner 🙂

    • Thanks for the kudos and for taking the time to share your thoughts. I can imagine it gets tiring after awhile (so, why do expats leave so much? – yet another topic for further exploration), but I think whether expat or not, to quote Kermit the Frog “life is made up of meetings and partings.” It’s part of everyone’s life and it’s okay not to keep in touch with everyone who ever crossed your path. Since I don’t have a fb account I may not know what I’m talking about, but it seems like that might artificially prolong relationships that wouldn’t survive on e-mail and skype alone…

      • I think it is sort of natural curiousity more than anything when someone asks you “how long have you been here and how long are you planning to stay” – at least that’s what it means from my own standpoint. As for why so many people leave, I can tell you not finding a job or a way to stay in Italy long-term (financially for the most part) is probably reason number one! Plus many people can’t handle all of the red-tape here. I happen to be slightly masochistic so.. ;-). kidding! Good for you with no FB, honestly there are some close family members that I don’t think would email or skype (can’t seem to figure it out) me so I am very very grateful for facebook and all of the messages I get, plus I like having the blog fan page for another way to chat with my readership :-).

      • GGnItaly84 makes a good point about expats leaving….mostly everyone I’ve known who have left did so because 1. their visas ran out and tough–very tough–luck finding a way for a new one, lack of a job after a while, their post-bac program ended, or simply they grew tired of Italy and its red tape. If I can expand on the Facebook/Skype thing….I keep in touch with most of my friends and family that way. I randomly keep in touch with the people I met here who have since left. It seems a lot more superficial, my life goes on and theirs goes on back in the US. I think for a lot of expats who stay for the long term, most arrive not knowing anyone, not as part of a couple or with friends. When you find the few select friends you enjoy face-to-face, “contact” (shopping afternoons, movie nights, aperitivos on the roof, museum outings, weekend trips etc) it is very hard when these people leave and you are back pretty much to being alone. If I didn’t have my boyfriend for the past years, there would have been times in which I would have been feeling quite lonely or bored until I met new friends. Also, some stability is nice in place in which you will always be foreign. I’d like to think the friends I have now will be here for a future wedding–if it happens–, a baby, etc etc. And so the cycle continues. I also agree with the idea that “how long are you planning on staying?” is more of a general question in chit chat and am sorry if there are people who actually take the response as a cue to turn away and carry on to the next person, lol.

      • I’m glad to have gotten this dialogue started – I really appreciate hearing others’ viewpoints. The thing that actually stood out most to me in your comment is the idea of always being foreign – to my mind I think that’s the hardest part – never feeling quite at home or comfortable – it’s exciting and and a great experience short-term, but…. And, just fyi, yes, people have pointedly asked about length of stay (and not just to me) in order to decide whether to continue a conversation, invite you to an event, ask you to join an organization, etc

  7. I like this post.

    The first question I get asked in Singapore is “how long are you here for?” I answer “Until we move,” which confuses the hell out of people. But honestly, it could be forever, it could be two years. Who knows? Who cares? I am here now.

    But then again, I am the kind of person who has made life long friends while on holiday. Look, you never know where you or them will end up in the future. Or when you will be traveling in the same area of the world and can meet up. And of course as we all know, social media.

    I do get sad sometimes thinking about all of the people I love and miss spread out all over the world. But the dull pain is accompanied by intense joy from their friendships, so I’ll take the good and the bad.

    • Thanks for the kudos! And I like your comment – thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Your response to the question about “how long” is exactly the kind of smart alek-y thing I would say.

  8. Madeline

     /  February 7, 2013

    When I was in grade school I had a pen-pal in France. We Loved getting letters from
    each other & learning things about each others country, that we may have never
    gotten to know. We each day dreamed about getting to visit each others country.
    Well, that never did materialize, as we were only young girls. Now-a-days, it’s
    pretty simple to communicate & travel to far-way & exotic places. So, of course
    it’s great to make new friendships. Think of all the possibilities!

  9. I totally understand this reflex, though I hope I’ll never completely adopt it! My first year in France I had lots of friends, other expat friends, and at the end of that year they all left! We’ve kept in touch, of course, and they were/are great friends, but it’s been hard since then to find people to see in the day to day—to go see a movie with, to help me find a birthday gift for my boyfriend. I’m so intent on finding those day to day friends now, someone that will be around for a while, that I tend to let the short-timers come and go without reaching out too much—unless, of course, we really hit it off.

  10. I guess I am the lone “no” reply. I have just become a short-timer myself, arriving in Germany a week ago for a 6 month stay. But I previously lived in Belgium for 1.5 year (still fairly short, I know) and I did keep some distance from people I met who were there for just a few months. I felt like their concerns were slightly different than mine: they were often packing in a lot of travel, for instance, so they were often off on a trip or planning their next one. In this current stint in Germany, I have already met a fellow American family staying here for at least a year or two, maybe permanently, and while they are really nice, I assume they feel a bit of distance from me. I think they are understandably be concerned about their children relying too much on other English-speaking children for friendships when what their children need to do is keep learning German and making permanent friends here. The family is also concerned about the foundations for long-term living, like saving for a car and getting a long-term employment contract, issues we don’t share. Even outside the expat world, I live in a college town in the US with a lot of people passing through for a few years of medical, law, business, and other specialized education. Initially, I met everyone and felt like a newcomer like them. But the longer I stayed and the more of them left, the more I got tired of starting again, and the more my concerns changed: we were buying a house, not renting for a year or two; we were concerned about the schools at each level since we knew our kids would be there for them, we got interested in local politics and issues and back stories. So, for me, I am more likely to be casual friends with someone who is staying a different length of time than I am.


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