Making Friends in America

“Americans are outgoing, friendly and family-oriented. They are helpful to their neighbours and volunteer to help out others in a fix.”
Ok, that’s the Hollywood version. And for some people (i.e. other Americans) that can seem to be the case. But making friends with Americans as an expat is considered by many to be very, very difficult if not outright impossible.

Is it Americans? Is it Brits? Or is it just people in general?

Before slagging off a country that is 40 times the geographic size and 6 times the population of the United Kingdom simply because the 20 odd people you’ve met seem cold or aloof, you might want to consider a few general observations about friendship and expats:

Age Matters–a great deal.

One thing that needs to be realised, before coming to America even, is how many close, strong personal friendships have you made in the last 6 months amongst your neighbours and colleagues in the UK? Is the number low? How many in the last 12 months, or 24 months?

There is an anecdotal observation that bears repeating–making friends gets harder as you get older.

Of course, if you are in your 20s, just out of university and hanging out with other people in a new city, then you are likely to find others who are just out of Uni, hanging out and not really knowing anyone as well. There is an openness and a commonality that you can share with others which helps in developing the friendship.

But when you get into your 30s and 40s, and you start to add kids and work and family commitments, there is a growing retrenchment amongst most anyone. Although few would actually say “I have enough friends I don’t need any more” the fact remains that there are fewer and fewer hours people can devote to making more friends when they already have a current schedule full of activities. There is only so much time in the day, and whereas you used to have 3 hours to goof off with friends you now have a 20 minute commute each way to work and an hour for the kids baseball game and a 30 minute post-game milkshake and poof–there is no more time left.

The Unwritten Rules of Making Friends

In the UK, you know if someone is full of it. You know if someone seems a bit off, or a bit full of bluster, or even a bit crazy. You know something about where they are from, who their friends are, where they work, where they live, what football team they support. There are subtle, almost invisible clues you pick up on: the way they talk–the speed and vocabulary; the way they stand in a group; their body language; their attire; their education (or lack thereof); in essence, a dictionary full of non-verbal clues that you have learned over the years as part of socialising.

Throw that book out the window and start anew.

Americans have different mannerisms, different vocabulary, different interaction norms. If someone came up to an American and said ‘this guy went to Cal-Berkeley’ many Americans already have a picture in their head of what he might look like or believe. “He’s got Midwest values” tells a person a slew of information about a person before they even meet them.

The verbal and social interaction skills you’ve honed over the years in the UK need a readjustment. Americans talk different, they don’t ‘take a piss’, they don’t appreciate or like satire, they don’t go to the pub for anything but drinking. The meaning of words is different, the body language is different, in essence, the subtle small talk that goes into becoming friends is different from what you experienced for the last 20 or 30 years.

Better? No. Worse? No. Different.

What do you have in Common?

Chances are the person you’ve met has not been to the UK. They don’t know much about England or Scotland other than a sort of shallow media created view they get from television and films. No idea what the hell what Tottenham Hotspur is, who Jordan is or why she is famous, or know the name of any British politician. Of course, chances are you haven’t seen Mount Rushmore, or taken a cross-country roadtrip through a half dozen states, or been to a county fair in the Midwest either, or taken a cruise to the Caribbean or gone off on a late night run ‘over the border’ to Tijuana. You haven’t a clue what the Bozo show was and no idea how to throw a good tailgate party with Brauts.

So with that canyon between you and a Yank, you’ll have to start looking for things you do have in common. Kids are a great entree into a social world. Go to the school functions, extracurricular sporting events, meet other parents who you’ll share many of the same concerns as you. Go out with the people at work one night, or join a lunch group one Friday and chat with your colleagues in a non-serious environment. Find some groups, be it a supporters club for a local football side (or even an English side–many of which have US supporters clubs) or a benefactors group for the local art museum. Many of them have parties and get togethers that are great ice breakers to get conversations started and a way to find people with similar interests.

There is also an organisation called ‘Welcome Wagon’ that you may consider joining. It is composed of new arrivals to a city and generally the membership is limited to people who have moved to that town within the last 2 years. Check your phonebook to see if your town has such a group, and join them for a picnic or other get together.

Also consider meetup.com, which is very popular in the US as a way of getting like-minded people together. They have groups for 1,000s of different interests, from owners of Pug dogs to supporters of Al Gore to fans of techno music. They throw a monthly get together where you can meet others with your same interests.

In short, you have to get out there. No one is going to come to you.

Are Americans cold? Are they shallow, or close-minded?

No more than people you know back home. Seriously.

It is worth noting that many Americans in the UK report *exactly the same problems* making friends in the UK. Brits are cold when you try to get closer, they are sort of fake and plastic, they are the kind of people you can’t rely on, and are more than happy to talk behind your back.

UK-Yankee

Of course there are Brits who are not cold, or fake or plastic, or whatever, but hopefully you’ll start to understand that an expat ANYWHERE can have problems in making friends.
Get out of the house
One of the most common traits we hear from expats with ‘no friends and homesickness’ is the fact they are basically ‘locked’ to their house. They sit in front of the computer moaning and complaining but do very little to actually go outside and meet people. They don’t go to a bookstore or a coffee shop or to church or any other social gathering, and when they do they take with them this incredibly negative vibe that ‘everyone I’m going to meet is going to be an idiot’. It creates a giant catch-22.
The US is not a particularly pedestrian friendly environment. Walking to a social event is not easy in some parts. Having a car for your use (i.e. not the one the spouse takes to work) is recommended. Learning to drive should be something you start from day 1 of your visit. Once you have mobility, you’re going to have to take the plunge and connect with some people face-to-face. Try the social scene where you live, or the volunteering angle. Find someway to get out and meet someone. Even if the person you meet turns out to be ‘not my sort’ the chances are they might know someone or introduce you to someone who might be ‘you just have to meet my friend XYZ, you have the same sense of humor’, etc.
So get out the door and take a chance.

It Takes Time

You cannot jump into a serious deep emotionally connected friendship overnight. You may be missing your close personal friends back home, but you are not going to just flip on a switch and have a new friend instantly in the United States. You have to remember those friends back home were the friends you grew up with saw you get drunk and snog someone you shouldn’t have at school, fall and love and have your heart broken in Uni, get your first job and try to make ends meet when you were doing the same. Of course you aren’t going to have friends like that, as close and as tight, in a matter of months, or even years, or even ever.

My only advice is to keep trying. To stay friends with someone until you have that moment when things get closer. When you are surprised that the person you thought you only casually knew drove out in the middle of a blizzard to pull your car out of the snow, or a guy down the street was kind enough to send you flowers when a family member passed.

In short, give it time….
Good luck.

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