When you are a child in the playground it is pretty simple, but ‘‘Do you want to be my friend?’’ isn’t a line you hear from adults. Teenage years are filled with friendships easily made (and some easily forgotten), when you are feeling keen, sociable and energetic. Then there are engagements, marriage, relocation, career changes, families: life comes calling with its multiple demands, and friendships evolve as a result. I have been happy to see my friends move through these huge life moments, but as much as I value my friendships, I have found myself lonely at times. Some friends are physically far away, while others are time-poor and, with the best will in the world, it isn’t simple to see each other as often as we would like.
More so when you are an expat living in the UAE, grappling with new surroundings, a multicultural environment and striking out on a new life without the familiar comfort and emotional succor of friends and family.
According to a recent study by the Red Cross in partnership with Co-op, more than nine million adults in the UK are often or always lonely. We are facing a loneliness epidemic, with British Prime Minister Theresa May taking the step earlier this year of appointing Tracey Crouch as what some have dubbed the ‘minister for loneliness’ to try to tackle the issue. Across the pond, in the US, the shadow of loneliness hangs heavy too with a study by health insurance company Cigna arriving at the conclusion that half of all Americans feel lonely.
Loneliness is something we all feel at times and to varying degrees, but it can also be something that we feel uneasy about admitting to.
Another study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, found that investing in close relationships was associated with better health, happiness and well-being in adulthood.
Still, making friends as an adult can be hard, and takes time – a recent study from the University of Kansas found that two people need to spend 90 hours together to become friends, or 200 hours to qualify as close friends.
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair agrees that this can be difficult to achieve: ‘Usually the basis of making a friend is a shared experience.’ These are often in abundance in our earlier years, but once those easy opportunities are gone, you can forget that the initial basis for a friendship is to have a similar passion or interest. ‘As we get older, it is harder to have exposure to repetitive unplanned interaction, close proximity and an environment that encourages deep and meaningful interaction where we can be relaxed and open. This is all crucial in making close, impactful relationships,’ agrees Tanya Dharamshi, Counselling Psychologist at Dubai’s The Priory Wellbeing Centre.
Although it can be tricky and nerve-racking, making new friends as an adult can also be rewarding: a message Jacqueline Thomas, 52, is keen to share. Moving to the Warwickshire village of Bulkington in 2015 with her partner David, who is soon to retire, she relished the opportunity to start anew.
‘We had to start from scratch because we didn’t know anybody here. Our kids have grown up, so we were looking at a slightly quieter life, but it’s actually turned out to be busier than before,’ she says.
Jacqueline started by introducing herself to her neighbours. She credits signing up to a variety of classes and groups at the village hall as the catalyst for her new friendships. She joined the WI hesitantly, worried it would be ‘I’d be the youngest person there’. But she now says it was one of the best decisions of her life.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, she stresses. A lifelong wheelchair user, Jacqueline was intrigued by a poster in the village hall advertising an adapted martial arts class. Having gone along with some doubts, she was surprised to find how much she enjoyed it. Encouraged by her teacher, Carl Hodgetts, who in 2006 became the first wheelchair-using kickboxing instructor in the UK, she now proudly holds a white belt in Shiying Do adapted martial art. ‘It just takes one leap of faith. Even if you’re absolutely terrified, do it,’ she says, adding: ‘Even I’m a bit shocked about the martial arts, though.’
Over the past couple of years, and nearing 30, I made a conscious effort to make friends. Not to replace old ones, but to make new connections. Friendships, says Blair, are ‘‘like an onion. There’s all these layers of friends and the inner layer are your best friends – you probably only have two or three in your whole life.’’ You might not gain a new best friend, but finding friends for different interests in your life, at different stages, can be a positive.
It’s an opinion Tanya Dharamshi shares: ‘Our old friendships have a history with us and an understanding of what makes us the people that we are. Our new friendships, as in the case of expats moving to a new place, forge friendships based on our new experiences and creating a new ‘family’.
Dubai resident Maria Makri, 37, is a living example. Since she moved from the UK to Dubai two years ago with her husband and daughter, Maria has developed a significant social network consisting of colleagues from work, neighbours and parents from her daughter’s school that she struck a friendship with during school runs but do they count as bosom friends she shares a deep connection with? Not exactly.
‘It’s like Aristotle’s philosophy of the three types of friends, the Greek national points out: there are the friends you hang out with because you want to gain some experience, there are those you share common interests with like you enjoy the opera together, then there are the soul friends who you have a very deep understanding with and this I would say is harder to achieve when you’re an expat because it requires time and commitment that most people don’t necessarily have.’
But it doesn’t mean you don’t make the effort to find friends, she reminds; her own attempts involved talking to neighbours she’d bump into at the community park or swimming pool and joining Arabic language classes where she met other expats who shared her interest in languages.
Joining a group or class based on something you really love, or volunteering for something you care about, can be a great first step for finding friendships, Linda Blair advises.
Joining local running and cycling groups has also been a positive step. It is an excellent way to meet people in the area. Pete McLeod, 25, a fellow athletics fan and member of my track and field club, Hercules Wimbledon, agrees. After finishing his master’s at Loughborough University, he moved to Wimbledon for his first job and joined the club to keep fit. Making new friends has been a bonus: ‘It’s really rewarding. You get to practise something you enjoy but also have the opportunity to meet new people.’
Pete made a New Year resolution in 2015 to push himself out of his comfort zone and speak to people more: ‘The club was a good opportunity to put that into practice ... when people aren’t out of breath.’’ He counts some members of the sprinting group as very good friends now, with the japes and conversations flowing over into tennis matches or walks and coffee at the weekend.
It is important to be proactive, says Juliana Nabinger, 42, who moved from Brazil to Chile with her husband and two young children three years ago.
‘Don’t sit and wait – it won’t happen. You have to actively search for new friends.’ Now fluent in Spanish, she says that when she first moved she would use the few words she knew to ask questions while waiting for her children to finish at school, even when she knew the answers: ‘At first it was difficult because I really started to miss my friends and adult conversation, but the kids kept me busy and, through them, I made friends.’
Now, via a Facebook group of English-speaking mums and her Spanish conversations at the school gates, she has a solid group of local and expat friends. ‘The best thing is, you’re older and you don’t judge people,’ she says. The worst? ‘Sometimes people don’t understand your feelings or choices because they don’t know everything. They only have parts of a puzzle.’
For Maria, friendships formed in adulthood within the expat setting has helped her develop a different perspective: ‘in a foreign country you meet people with different convictions and interests and your knowledge of the world expands and you become much more culturally sensitive.’
Friendships can also come from the most unexpected places. Moving from Eday, a small island in Orkney, with a community of about 140 people, to mainland Orkney, Stephen Walters, 43, and his family went from knowing almost everyone to not knowing anyone socially. His wife, Ronie, started the UK’s most northerly roller derby league, the Orkney ViQueens. Initially, Stephen joined to train as a referee and was the only man there, but he went on to become a coach despite having little previous experience on skates. Within a year he had an abundance of friends of all ages, he says.
Roller derby’s ethos of inclusion and equality has been a big attraction for him: ‘I have bipolar disorder and there are a couple of others with similar issues. You can tell when somebody is not quite their usual self and people generally look out for each other, which is really nice.’
Not having been involved much in a sport before, he admits he was concerned it would be difficult at his age, but now urges others to give it a try: ‘Go out and try some activities you’re interested in and talk to people. If it doesn’t work, try another one.’
For Raja Kumar, a Dubai-based restaurateur who has lived in the US and the Canada, customers who’d swing by the convenience store he was managing in the US turned out to be lifelong friends he’s still in touch with today. ‘Because I was a manager in the store, I used to interact with a lot of people daily and it’s very simple – smile at people, if they smile back say hi to them and be the first person to extend a hand.
Embarking on friendships as an adult can be terrifying, exciting, rewarding and challenging. Nothing can replace the special connections you have with those who have known you over the years, but taking that leap of faith Jacqueline mentioned can reinvigorate and get the ball rolling.
Being open to new people and not withholding yourself from opportunities to interact with new people, says Maria, is integral to making friends. If you’ve moved to a new a country without the shelter of a family or spouse that protects you from extreme pangs of loneliness, she says.
‘I felt disconnected from my previous life and a little isolated but not lonely.’
Being comfortable in your own skin is another factor to finding the friends you’ll be able to build long-term relationships with, Maria suggests: ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself and try to change who you are or the things that are important to you. Just stay true to yourself, do the things you love – whether that’s art, fitness or even work – and you’ll find people who are similar to you and will connect with you as friends.’
Build your self-confidence
Liking yourself before going off in search of friends is an important step to building healthy relationships. ‘Think about what you like about yourself. When you’re comfortable with yourself, it shines out of you,’ says Linda Blair
Find something you feel passionate about
Join a language class if you love languages or volunteer outdoors if you love nature. ‘You’ll be more likely to develop friendships with people that you have a shared interest with,’ adds Tanya Dharmashari.
Put yourself out there
Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained. ‘It isn’t that you lose if you meet someone and it doesn’t fit for a friendship. That’s not losing, that’s having tried,’ comforts Linda. That involves saying yes to invitations and events reminds Tanya. ‘The more you interact with people and make new connections, the more you will create new experiences.’
Meet in a neutral place
Once you have taken the first step and are moving on to meeting outside the initial environment where you made a connection, chose a neutral public space. This can lessen the pressures that, say, hosting at home can bring, and give you time to focus on each other.
‘If you want to be popular, ask people about themselves and listen sincerely when they answer. A good listener is rare these days. It is the best passport you could possibly have to friendship,’ says Linda. But also be willing and open to share your experiences, advises Tanya. ‘While this can be a scary thought, it is one of the first steps in developing a sharing and interactive relationship.’
Don’t expect too much
A common mistake is expecting too much from one person. It is more realistic and healthier to have a variety of friends for different reasons.
Try social media meet-up groups
There are many groups that are created for expats or are based on shared interests, recommends Tanya. ‘Join in and attend the groups - you may meet people that are experiencing the same desire to make friends as you!’