How to Beat Expat Loneliness? Don’t Try to Befriend Locals (for now)

At work the other day, my expat colleagues and I got to chatting about challenges of living abroad. The conversation shifted to loneliness and making new friends. What was common amongst us, was how hard we found making new friends – with locals.

I’ve shown you all around the island, but, it recently dawned on me, how little I’ve told you about life in Malta…

So, today’s THAT day….starting with expat loneliness and my unsolicited advice on why trying to befriend locals might not be the best thing you can do…

Where making friends with locals is concerned, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. After all, my partner is “The Malteaser”. So, by way of association, you could say I have a ready-made Maltese family and an all-Maltese friendship group.

Look, it’s not to say the Maltese are unfriendly because that’s not the case at all. But, being a relatively conservative, close-knit and small community, they are incredibly cliquey. You need a way in. Sure they’ll help if you ask. But they have their lifelong friends. Their family and…

 are just not trying to make new ones.

And certainly not with needy expats. Nope. That takes a while. They just have to warm up to you… and it can feel agonisingly slow.  Especially when you’re feeling lonely.  

I learnt this the hard way. 

When I first arrived, everything felt brand new. Similarly to a curious toddler or someone who had just landed from Mars. 

Hang on! Have I told you about the five stages of culture shock? You can read more about it here. To summarise, the first stage is a bit like being a lovesick teenager. You walk about in this weird high euphoric phase, noticing things like bougainvillaea and everyday things. 

Anyways, I remember I had just started a job and was super excited when one of my Maltese colleagues invited me along for lunch. 

After about five minutes of “how do you do’s”, “Hi, I’m Dionne”, and “oh, you’ve been to London?” my intro was over. I spent the rest of my lunch hour squirming uncomfortably in my seat and twiddling my thumbs as they talked to other people milling around me. In Maltese. Bah. 

So as I was saying, the other day, my expat colleagues and I were exchanging stories about making friends with locals – in English during our lunch hour. 😜

But I love playing devil’s advocate.

Wouldn’t we behave the same in our native countries? 

For instance, people say Londoners are unfriendly, but that’s not strictly true is it? Ok, maybe we are. But that’s just Monday to Friday during rush hours. And especially if you don’t keep to the correct lane of the tube stations. (Or on your side of the road). 

Catch us during happy hour in the girl’s toilets of a bar (a pub, too), and you’ll get fashion tips, therapy, hugs and, even though we’ve just met…our honest take on why you deserve better than the loser boyfriend you’ve spent the last ten minutes crying over.

And for all that, the closest I probably came to forming a friendship with anyone that lived beyond the M25 (let alone England) is my friend James. Although he has some odd words and phrases he’s from Newcastle. We didn’t meet in the girl’s toilets, but we did meet outside rush hour. On a night out!

You know how, clothes shopping can be considered therapy? You pop into a shop, try on a few items, have a friendly chat between trying on a few, “that looks great on you” and leave feeling like you can take on the world. Well, the shopping experience in Malta is a little more reserved.

I once excitedly walked into a flagship British chain. I say walked in, but I probably bounded in with my usual London D’N’B rhythm, completely out of time to their classical and laid-back rhythm. 

You see, as an expat, you become weirdly excited when you come across anything that reminds you of home. 

Maybe unconsciously, I was expecting an assistant named Beth or Natasha to walk out with a warm smile and ask: “What are you looking for today?”  

No such luck. Instead, I got scowls from I-didn’t-catch-either-of-their-names. 

I don’t know. Maybe it is a little bit weird (and perhaps a teeny bit entitled) walking into a clothing shop and announcing your arrival with an emphatic hellooooo. 

Over time it became a little project of mine: how many visits does it take to get a “hello he”. (Allo, mate!) and it does eventually happen.

Loneliness is both a symptom and cause of moving abroad and something that crops up for many expats and immigrants (I still need to figure out my preferred title). According to studies, you’re three times more likely to experience mental illness as a result.

So, you definitely need to buffer your support system. Whether that means regular check-ins at home, making new friends or embracing your one and one time and starting something new. Like a blog, perhaps 😛. 

You really have to be clear on your whys for moving abroad. Is it for love? A new experience, work, studying? Write it down, because some days will try you and make you forget. 

I realise I’m not exactly selling life abroad or making friends. With locals. But wouldn’t you prefer hearing the truth? 

Now I am over the hump; I’d liken making friends with locals to starting a new school. You know during those difficult teenage years? Not the crazy fashion fads or angsty behaviour, but the period where you’re trying to fit in. 

However, where forming friends with locals can feel like secondary school (to begin with), friendships with other expats can feel like making friends during infancy. Think: “will you be my friend.”

From workplaces to social media groups, there’s an ease in making friends with fellow expats. You clearly have waaay more in common from the get-go! 

That being said, anything worth it, relationships, making new friends, settling into a new country, navigating the bureaucracy and 1000% the language… 

Oh, and waiting for a bus. 

It just takes time. 

In the meantime, the best thing to do is: laugh.

It sounds so simple, but you really can’t take yourself too seriously.

Some days that’s laughing, mainly at myself. Being awkward and navigating life abroad or butchering the Maltese language. Or both.

On other days it’s sitting with both expats and Maltese colleagues friends and laughing at all our native country stereotypes. 

I won’t say which countries or what stereotypes, but I will say: most are true. 

2 thoughts on “How to Beat Expat Loneliness? Don’t Try to Befriend Locals (for now)

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  1. I appreciate the honesty of this post. This has been my fear of moving abroad– the traveler in me would love to, but the thought of starting over, making new friends + even battling cold weather if I move up north is nauseating. Hopefully I’ll take the plunge one day for better opportunities to grow

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    1. Thanks for reading Rochelle. Starting over can be hard, but like you say maybe the traveller in you would overcome all those hurdles. If it’s something you dream of, give it go. What’s the worse that could happen? You don’t like it and return home to a beautiful island 🇯🇲

      Liked by 1 person

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