Our need to belong – to be loved, acknowledged and accepted – is a fundamental and inescapable part of who we are. For the expat, this need is often more pronounced, but the process of creating and maintaining a social circle can often feel complicated and awkward.
The stories of expats living in Singapore are all different, but the underlying emotions are identical. K struggles to balance her full-time job with socialising. D finds she needs to be more discerning. S feels that many people are judged as “not worth meeting” as they approach the end of their tenure. J is filling time until she goes back home to her trusted “real friends”. P is new and feels unwelcome and alone.
So, what makes a friendship? In the “normal world” of hometown residency and long-term settlement, making friends and finding a sense of belonging is relatively simple. In these non-transient communities, friendships are created and built on two basic principles: proximity and personality. The same goes for the relatively transient expat community.
All friendships are based on the concept of proximity. In order to meet someone and establish a rapport, you need to share an environment or an experience. Friendships may be initiated through school, work, hobbies, neighbourhood, family or online connections.
Many areas of the expat community are geared towards helping people congregate. Condos, clubs, interest groups, work places, school events, expat associations; the opportunities to connect with other people are wide and varied for the average expatriate. For those searching for companionship and social interaction, the factor of proximity poses no challenges.
The second factor that underpins every friendship is that of personality. Once we have had the opportunity to meet someone, we can then determine how compatible we are with them. Put simply, from the pool of people we know, we are able to identify the people we like. In non-transient communities, this is often regarded as self-evident; if you like someone, you start spending more time with them and friendship develops.
As an expat in Singapore – a vibrant city with 5.2 million inhabitants, including two million holders of Employment Passes, Dependants’ Passes and Permanent Residency – it is relatively easy to find people who are like-minded, culturally compatible and easy to get along with.
As well as these two basic elements (the ones you probably accept as a matter of course), it’s important to realise that expat friendships are affected by a third concept;, a factor that is unique to highly transient communities: purpose.
Purpose: The X(pat) Factor
When creating new friendships in an expat community, it’s wise to acknowledge that everyone you meet is at a different stage of emotional vulnerability and availability. The strains and scars of frequent greetings and goodbyes, temporary existences, familial isolation and culture shock create an environment where friendships are heavily influenced by an individual’s ability to cope with these factors. Expats tend to need something more (or less) from their friendships than they would in their home environment.
The purpose of expat friendships can be as varied as the personal circumstances behind them. Some individuals are looking for deep, long-term connections in lieu of distant family. Others are searching for undemanding companionship. Some like to fill empty days with regular gatherings and events. Others prefer to withdraw, or are unable to spare much time for socialising. Some yearn for old hometown connections. Others are healing from (yet another) sad goodbye.
All of these emotional needs complicate the process of creating new friendships. You may meet someone in your condo or at school (proximity) that you appear to get along with (personality), but the friendship doesn’t seem to develop. They may appear distant or not interested in getting to know you. It’s easy to take this personally, but the truth is that they may simply have different needs from their friendships. Their emotional needs may call for some other form of connection.
Understanding this may not help you find more friends in less time, but it can alleviate a lot of the emotional dilemmas attached to apparent rejection. Moreover, acknowledging that expat friendships come in different forms can help you be more honest with yourself about what you need from your social connections, and more compassionate toward others as they do the same.
What the experts say about friendship:
• A sense of belonging is a basic human need; it is rated third most important, after survival and safety.
• Studies show that most expats enjoy greater psychological wellbeing if they have a wide group of friends rather than a few intimate friendships.
• Emotional wellbeing increased when friendships are formed with both expat and local individuals.
This article was first featured in the November 2015 issue of the magazine.