Confessions,  Expat Life in Spain,  How to,  Living Abroad

Confessions: After 8+ Years Living in Spain, It’s Still Hard to Make Friends!

Dear Chantal,

If you’ve been following the Sincerely, Spain blog for a while, you know I have more than eight years of experience when it comes to expat life in Spain. You know that Claudia and I can speak as authorities on the subject but let me tell you—it is still really hard to make new friends!

At the beginning of 2022, my husband and I moved away from Granada and into a beautiful new location. As much as I love it, finding myself in a Spanish town where I knew no one has really forced me out of my comfort zone. For the first time in a long time, I’ve needed to put a lot of the advice we share here on the blog into practice again.

Suddenly, I’m introducing myself to complete strangers on Instagram and in Whatsapp groups. I’m attending workout classes alone to meet new people. I’m frequenting local cafés and fruterías to try to form connections. I am, quite literally, “friend dating.”

We’ve written a lot of posts about making friends in Spain before, including topics like Creating Spanish Friendship by Staying True to YourselfCreating Spanish Friendship Through Food and DrinkBeing Friends with the Opposite Sex, How to: Find Community and Make Friends Online, and Being Vulnerable in Friendships. If you’ve read any of these before you likely imagined they were aimed at people who are new to Spain. However, the reality is that this is a process that will need to be repeated each and every time you find yourself somewhere new—and boy have I found that to be the case! It doesn’t necessarily get easier over time, either. In fact, I’m finding that it actually feels harder and is taking longer than it did for me in the past.

So, before we get into all the details, I’d like to explain a bit about my personal circumstances so you can understand exactly where I’m coming from. Then, we’ll get into specifics of how I’m “friend dating,” tips for how you can use this strategy, and what I think you should know if you are also finding it difficult to make friends.

I hope that by reading about my experience and thoughts you will feel less alone as well as gather some new ideas and insights into the “friend dating” process. Please be sure to share with me in the comments if you find this post useful and any feedback you have!

 

Who I Am: A 30-Something American Expat in a New Town in Spain

A former granadina

As you may know, I have called Granada, Spain my home for the past six years (read the details about my abroad journey here). Although one of the things I love about Granada is its “small town vibe” the truth of the matter is that it is a city. Granada is a popular destination for Spanish and international students as well as immigrants/expats.

As a result, living there afforded me many opportunities to meet new people through local events and language exchanges. The city abounded with these prospects. Just one quick search of “events near me” on Facebook or Couchsurfing would turn up at least one thing going on each day, sometimes half a dozen or more on weekends. Of course, I recognized that moving to a small town would be different, but I don’t think that I appreciated just how well I had it in Granada.  

 

Now a small-town girl

You may be wondering where exactly it is that I moved to, but since I’m now living in a much smaller location, I prefer not to share the name for privacy reasons. Generally speaking, my new home is a small, residential town on the coast, a short drive or bus journey to a major city.

This location adds a complexity I hadn’t quite considered before starting to “friend date.” Many of the people I have met who “live locally” live in much smaller, harder-to-reach towns and villages than I do, making it difficult to meet up without a car. Also, many of them consider our nearest city the place to meet.

This can be a blessing (more people who consider us having a city in common despite living in different towns = more potential new friends). However, I had definitely envisioned finding friends who lived within walking distance of me—and this is proving difficult.

 

A work-from-home introvert

Add to all that, the fact that I live in a stand-alone house and work from home. I’ve been working primarily from home since 2017 so this is not new to me. Still, when I first moved to Granada I was both working outside the home and sharing an apartment with Spaniards (both of which afforded me daily opportunities to meet new people and strengthen those relationships).

As an introvert, it’s natural for me to feel most at ease and happy in my own quiet environment. I can go quite a long time before I realize I haven’t gotten out to socialize, so it helped that I started my live abroad experience with built-in ways to form connections and feel a part of the community.

Back then, it was simply woven into the fabric of my daily routines. And, for years after, I had the friendships formed at the beginning to rely on while living (and working from home) in Granada. Now, the onus is truly on me to make connections and to cultivate a sense of community in my new location.

 

In the dreaded thirties

Although I don’t actually dread being in my thirties, now that I’ve hit a new age range, I find that it seems to be having an effect as well. I have seen so many articles about how these years can be some of the most isolating ones of your life, and the decade when it becomes hard to make friends. As such, I can’t describe my current circumstances without acknowledging age.

For most of my time in Granada, I was in my twenties, and it was easy to find other people in their twenties who were interested in making new friends and had time to dedicate to them. Now, I find myself in that age group where many people have partners and/or children and have very established routines they don’t like to (or can’t) stray from.

While I am also someone in both of those categories, I do sometimes miss the ease with which I used to be able to make plans with friends. Nowadays, it’s harder to gauge a person’s interest in pursuing a friendship, simply because we both need to take our families and professions into account and schedule things further out. The era of spontaneous get-togethers (at least in the circles I find myself in) seems to have passed.

 

“Friend Dating” in Spain

With all that in mind, I’ve found that the most effective way for me to meet new friends has been what I would call “friend dating.” This method is not for the faint of heart as it definitely requires you to put yourself out there and essentially ask people you would like to be friends with out on a date.

“Friend dating” can be scary but, at the end of the day, I believe it’s the only way to create real friendships (as opposed to remaining in that uncertain acquaintanceship grey area). It starts out broader (a group or an event) but requires you to make a one-on-one connection. I believe it can specifically lead to more profound friendships—the kind where you share values, not just interests. In this way, I think of “friend dating” more like the dating you do when you’re looking for a serious relationship, not just a passing fling.

When I started my live abroad experience back in 2013 I was way less choosey about who I asked out on a “friend date.” Pretty much anyone I had something in common—or anyone who asked me—made the list. Now, for the record, this does not mean that I haven’t made amazing friends in Spain in the past, because I’ve really lucked out! However, my method back then was more about throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what stuck.

Today, I am being far more intentional about my approach. I have a much clearer idea of who I am and so I also know the kind of person I’m looking to make friends with and the kinds of values I want to share with them. In the long run, I believe this approach will lead to more fulfilling relationships—even if, right now, it feels like it’s taking much longer.

So far, there are two approaches I’ve used. The first is a bit more immediate, connecting with someone online and asking them directly out on a “friend date.” The second involves attending an event in person first. Here’s what each looks like for me:

Directly set up a one-on-one hang-out

For both approaches, the first thing I’ve done is find a group to join. I’ve heard of others using groups like Meetup and I’ve used Couchsurfing in the past. Currently, though, I’ve been using a Whatsapp group formed through the Girl Gone International group for my local area.

Even before I joined the group, I drafted up an introductory message to send right away. I think it’s a good idea to be proactive and personal from the start. I wanted people to have a clear idea of who I am, what I’m interested in, and what I wanted to achieve by joining the group. If you would like to use my message as a template for yourself, here’s what I said:

Hola a todas! 🤗

My name is Dani, I’m new to the area so my friend xxx passed this group along to me. I hope it’s okay that I’ve joined.

My husband and I just recently moved to xxx and I would love to meet some others living locally. I’ve lived in Granada for 8 years so I also speak Spanish and am familiar with the culture, just not so much this particular area. I’d love to meet up for a coffee, drink, walk, cultural event, or whatever! I’m not sure how the group tends to work, if you set up big group events or smaller one-on-one things too but I’d be open to either.

Oh, and I guess I should introduce myself a little bit better. 😅 I’m 30 years old, originally from the US (Chicago) and I used to teach English. Nowadays, I’m an author and blogger so my schedule is pretty flexible. I also love dogs, but don’t have one myself at the moment so if you want company when you take your four-legged friend out, I would be more than happy to join you!

After sending my message and receiving some welcoming responses, it became clear to me that the girls in the group were located at varying degrees from my new town and had never succeeded in planning a group outing. Judging by this reality, I decided to be even more proactive and reached out directly to three of the girls who responded saying they lived in my town or my neighboring town. Of the three, I was able to set up a coffee date with one of them that very same day!

 

I’ll be honest, it felt terrifying to send those first messages. I was just as nervous about being rejected as I would be asking someone out on a date. However, each time I do this I simply remind myself that the worst-case scenario is that they say no. Of course, that would feel awful in the moment, but the long-term result is not very significant (I’d go from not knowing them to not knowing them). In the best-case scenario, though, I might go from not knowing them to making a lifelong friend. For me, the risk is worth taking.

Oh, and if you’d like to know what I put in those individual messages, this is what I said:

Hi xxx, I hope this isn’t too weird or forward, but I wrote in the xxx group last week to introduce myself and you mentioned that you live in xxx, so I was wondering if you’d be available to meet up for a coffee or a drink tomorrow or Thursday.

I’ve got a few errands I’d like to run there, but my schedule is flexible so I could do the late morning (like 11 onward) or the afternoon/early evening. Let me know if that’s something you’d be available for and/or interested in. ☺️

Groups > Local events > One-on-one

Alternatively, I’ve used the same group to find out about local workout classes and events. In one case, a girl shared that her friend was teaching a yoga class in a neighboring town. Instead of waiting to organize a day when a number of us could attend (which got talked about for a few days, then never happened), I decided to just go by myself. In another case, one of the girls from the group shared on social media about a “beauty day” event and I signed up alone as well. 

I highlight this fact because it’s important to note that although there are fifteen people in this WhatsApp group, I have only ever met four of them in person (three through one-on-ones, one at the yoga class). Depending on the group, it can be really hard to get people organized so if you are interested in something, it’s best to just join in! Don’t wait around for a personal invitation or for a plan to get set.

Whether I tell the group that I’m going to something (and plan to meet someone there) or not, I’ve found that showing up to an event alone can be both scary and liberating. The first few minutes can feel awkward but arriving alone generally makes you seem more approachable to others who are also looking to make friends, and this doesn’t last for long. Depending on the nature of the event, there will be time to mingle before or after the main experience.

As uncomfortable as you may feel, smile at someone else who’s standing alone. Ask them their name and how they heard about the event. Your first question doesn’t need to be ground-breaking; it just has to get you talking. Finally, and most importantly, if you feel like you would like to see the person again, be sure to get some contact information from them!

Feel free to use your own discretion with this. My experience is that people looking to make friends at these kinds of events don’t mind giving out their phone number. If you feel more comfortable, though, social media handles work well too. From there, you will still need to follow through, though!

You may luck out and meet someone just as eager to set up a “friend date” as you are, meaning that you already talk about seeing each other again before you leave and/or they message you. If not, be proactive. Text them later that day or the next day and try to get something in the works.

Again, I know it’s scary, but you just need to muster your courage and ask them out on a “friend date.” As I did in my individual messages, be sure to give a specific activity and an idea of a day/time that could work for you. Of course, attending classes and events that are of specific interest to you can help you find someone you may match well with (and help you suggest an activity that they are likely to be interested, too).

 

What I’ve Learned and Could Help You Too

Being intentional

Each time I meet up with a potential new friend, I give it my all and try to show up as my most authentic self. I believe the small things matter. If I’m trying to form friendships with people who won’t “flake out” on plans last minute, it’s important that I convey that by setting a plan and sticking to it myself.

Once I arrive at the “friend date” I make an effort to really get to know the person, what her life is like, and what kinds of things she values (through what she talks about and how she talks about Spain, her friends, and family).

Much like the “ideal reader avatar” I’ve developed when marketing my books, I’ll admit I have an “ideal friend avatar” in mind. Of course, there will be wonderful, unique things that I can’t anticipate about each person I meet. Still, I find it helpful to have a general idea of what I’m looking for, that way I can ask questions that matter.

I’m someone who prefers a few deep relationships over a lot of surface-level ones, and I would rather a quiet wine night with one friend than going out clubbing in a group. Thus, if all a potential new friend talks about is how drunk she got last weekend and how catty her friends are, I can make a rather educated guess that we are not the best fit for each other.

I will still be kind and receptive to what she has to say, but if by the end of the “friend date” I feel ambivalent for any reason, I won’t be the one to set up a second friend date. Honestly, we are all adults here. I don’t see the point in wasting anyone’s time or energy investing in a friendship I can’t see going anywhere.

It’s important to remember that that goes both ways, though! Although it may be disappointing if you think you’ve hit it off with someone you’ve “friend dated” but you find out they don’t feel the same, it’s better to know sooner rather than later. Besides, is trying to convince someone to be friends with you really the way you want to start a new friendship?

Each of us brings something different to the table and that may or may not be what the other person is currently looking for. That’s okay. Be kind and considerate, but also don’t be afraid to be honest. As with romantic dating, it can be hard, but it’s ultimately more considerate to let someone down easy than to string them along. Try your best to graciously accept any let downs that come your way as well.

 

Taking Action

I cannot stress enough how important it is to actually act as if you’re hoping to make new friends. You may think it’s enough to simply join a local workout class or return to the same café each week. And, sure, you could wait for something to build more organically in those ways if you prefer. But, the key word there would be “wait.”

I’ve tried it both ways, and I’ve definitely seen far more results from “friend dating” than from the things I think I’m cultivating “organically.” For example, I’ve been attending the same yoga class for about three months, and I have reached the point of friendly conversation with the teacher and, once, chitchatted with a couple of attendees afterwards. However, since I have not asked any of them to do something outside of the yoga space, it has never happened.

That’s not to say that none of these people would be interested in being my friend, it’s simply to say that I have no idea because I have not taken enough action. As nice as it would be if one of these people were to invite me to do something, the truth is that they are more established in their routines and already have their own friend groups. Since it is me who is looking for new friends, I have to be the one actively pursuing them.

Again, it can be scary and intimidating, but that’s just how these things go. Remember, you’ve already moved to a new place without knowing anyone. You have it in you to continue pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone in this way too. If you’re actively looking for friends, sooner or later, you will make them.

Having Patience

All that said, the truth is that this thing is going to take time. It’s hard. I’ve gone from living in a city where I had numerous people I could call up whenever I needed something or wanted to go out to living in a small town where I have a few contacts, but no one I feel a strong friendship with yet. It’s weird to be in my thirties and feeling a bit like a toddler in the uncertainty of my relationships.

However, this is all par for the course. I want deep relationships and those kinds of relationships take time to foster. Of course, there are more things that I could and will be doing in the future, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, I simply hope it helps that I’ve peeled back the curtain a bit and spoken freely about just how hard it is to make friends—no matter how long you’ve been an expat.

Both Claudia and I feel it’s important to break the silence that sometimes exists around topics like this, so if you enjoyed my perspective on “friend dating,” be sure to check out Claudia’s take on making new friends later this month. If you have any questions or thoughts in the meantime, be sure to share them below.

Sincerely,
Dani

 

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