Over the years I have learned that I am quite introverted, getting my energy from being alone or from a core group of people who are willing to talk, sometimes at least, about serious conversations. However, most people I meet don’t believe me when I say that it is really hard for me to go out and meet new people because I just seem so social. The reality is that, in my own little bubble, I take a long time to make new friends, and there are days where I would rather just be at home, alone, reading a book than out on an adventure. This might not seem like such a big deal, after all, we all have quiet, booky friends, but what do you do when you want to make new friends and you are living abroad?
This is where my particular skill set comes in handy as it seems that I am good (really good apparently) at faking it. It might be hard to believe but I personally feel as though I am always on one end of the spectrum between word-vomiting or just watching other people interact when I am with new people. Somehow, however, I do manage to convince people that I am a social butterfly and genuinely enjoy it.
I tend to say that I am naturally socially awkward*, especially around new people. That means that when I am more comfortable with people, I am happy to partake in crazy adventures or picnic lunches (in my living room), but when I am first meeting them, my palms are sweating and my mind is probably racing. If you are in a similar situation, you are probably wondering how I ended up living in three different countries (five different cities) in the last eight years. I cannot really tell how it happened, but considering the amount of ‘new friends making’ I have had to do, I have discovered a few tricks.
1.) Figure out YOUR own needs when it comes to friendships and social interactions
I know this might sound obvious, but there are people who want to be surrounded by a million people all of the time and other people who don’t. Society differentiates between introverts and extroverts, shy and gregarious, etc. You can take online surveys to see which way you lean, but my guess is that you already know what you really look for in terms of social interaction.
This can be hard though because society, in general, tends to push people to be gregarious introverts. However, we believe that, regardless of the type of person you are, be true to yourself. That means that if you want to focus on making one or two friends during your time abroad, that is great, and if you want to go out every night of the week meeting people, that is awesome too. Don’t let other people’s experiences and expectations define yours.
2.) Be patient with yourself
Before going to my first group intercambio I had to work up a lot [a lot!] of nerve. It took me thinking about what I wanted before I was able to convince myself that intercambios were a good way to meet people (specifically that Couchsurfing intercambios fit my desire to get to know people with similar interests in travel). I could have gone sooner, more often, less often, etc., but being patient with myself made me value the experiences more. To this day, if I don’t feel like an uncomfortable-to-me situation is worth it, I’ll pass.
At the same time, it is great when you get up the courage to go do something new because you might be lucky enough to spark with someone you meet. If not, no worries, you can probably find someone else who is also hanging around in the corner or who is not sure who else to talk to. If you are willing to take the first step towards an awkward conversation, you may find that you are able to have many small but serious conversations that are actually interesting to you.
3.) Don’t be afraid to be afraid but don’t let it stop you either
I honestly don’t know what I am afraid of, but I can be in situations where my hands sweat and I feel lightheaded (from giving presentations to talking to work colleagues). In the end, these interactions aren’t that big of a deal and when it is all over, I can’t remember what the problem was. And I have found that over the years, especially with practice being in uncomfortable situations, I have become less afraid of the situations that used to make me feel extra awkward.
At the same time, being afraid isn’t something you can just turn off with the flip of a switch and hope that things change. We can accept it as it is and know that it is not the end of the world either. With practice you may even find that you are pretty good at some of the things that scared you at one time. Trust me, most people I don’t really know think I am super outgoing and extroverted (true story, just ask Dani about the day we met).
4.) Get out there
Obviously do it in a way that works for you, but meeting people is one of the most beautiful experiences you have while abroad. Everyone has a unique story to tell and I have found that, if you are willing to listen, you will find that sometimes the quietest person in the room will blow your mind with his/her adventures. Maybe it is the fact that there is something so different about people that you meet from other cultures but there is something I have learned to love about this kind of interaction. It is funny because even if you find yourself in the corner, not sure who to talk to, someone will most likely be in a similar situation (another introvert) or some kind extrovert will come bring you slowly into their conversation.
Everyone says it and it probably sounds pretty cliche, but I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the influence of people who I had to ‘put myself out there’ to meet. If I am being totally honest, I might have never left the small town I grew up in to begin with. But it is not always hard work—sometimes you have to work really hard before you find someone you get along with, and sometimes a super cool person just seems to fall into your lap.
I won’t promise you that it will be easy, but it does get easier to fake it the more you practice (I don’t know if I ever will make it as a social butterfly, but let’s keep that between us seeing as though everyone else seems to think I am one already Somewhere along the line you will thank the person you were yesterday for getting you to where you are today.
*I have yet to find a good translation for socially awkward in Spanish, so I tend to say that I am socially clumsy or socialmente torpe.