This post is about how expats moving to the UK can make friends, even with social distancing rules and other behavioural restrictions.
Making friends can be the difference between settling smoothly into your new life in the UK, and feeling like a perpetual tourist. As discussed in a previous post, friendships (particularly those with locals) help to mitigate culture shock and homesickness. But, forming close ties as an adult is often harder than when we were kids. Unless you have a job lined up for as soon as you step off the plane, you’re no longer ‘forced’ to spend time with your peers, like at school. Now, add in coronavirus, lockdown, face masks and other behavioural restrictions imposed by government, and finding a circle of good friends may feel like an impossible task.
But, we’re here at Adaobi Reads… to tell you that it can be done! And, the rewards are worth the effort 🤗 😎
How many new friends should you make?
How long is a piece of string?! Some people are sociable extroverts who’ll feel the need to make as many friends as possible. While others may be introverts – or have social anxiety – preferring to form a much smaller, tighter, circle of friends. You’ll know what’s right for you. But, as a guide, it’s worth knowing that our number of close friendships tend to dwindle, the older we get. Kunal Bhattacharya et al. found that on average we tend to count around 20 people as close friends in our mid-twenties. But, that this number goes down to just eight close friends by the time we are 40 years old.
However many close friendships you choose to make, it’s extremely likely that YOU will need to be the one to do the heavy lifting in the initial stages. They may well already have a circle of close friends. So, the onus will likely be on you to do the inviting, the messaging, the calling, the organising.
“No one’s going to come knocking on your door saying: ‘Excuse me, but, I hear that there’s an interesting woman living here. We’d like to maybe be your friend’. It’s going to take you getting involved in a very dynamic way… reaching out. Overcoming your fears”.Margaret Manning, Sixty + Me
How true friendships are formed
So, you now know the importance of forming friendships once you arrive in the UK. Let’s take a brief look at HOW such friendships are created in the first place. Speaking to Well + Good, psychologist Dr Marisa G. Franco highlighted three key factors:
- Commonalities – the things you have in common with your potential new friend, even if they are only superficial similarities
- Proximity – the amount of contact you have with your potential new friend. A higher frequency tends to mean that you have a higher sense of familiarity with each other (which is a positive)
- Chemistry – This isn’t something that can be forced. It’s an instant, mutual connection. An enjoyment of each others company. You might know within minutes of meeting that you can tell them anything, for example.
How long it takes to form a friendship
If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know how long you’ll be on the road before reaching your destination. Or, perhaps you appreciate having clear guidelines for when to give up on a lost friendship cause? Most people will tell you to use your gut. You can’t be sure whether someone you meet tomorrow will want to be friends with you, let alone how many days it will take!
The research literature, though, says something slightly different. A close friendship, according to Professor Jeffrey A. Hall from the University of Kansas, on average, takes more than 200 hours of deliberate time investment.
|Type of Friendship||Investment time (hours)|
|Acquaintance||<10 – 29|
|Casual friend||30 – 94|
|Friend||50 – 164|
|Good friend||140 – 218|
|Best friend||219 – 300|
The good thing is, Professor Hall’s research suggests that the time you spend doing things together doesn’t have to include deep soul-searching conversations. You could be phoning them to catch up on their week. Or, going to the local park to walk your dogs together. Low-key contact still counts as time invested in the friendship. This ‘mere exposure’ helps to build familiarity, which we’ve already discussed as one of the key factors in friendship formation.
The rule of three
It’s worth noting that sometimes, through no one’s fault, two people just aren’t well-matched for friendship. I think it’s usually pretty obvious to both parties. But, there are situations where a British person (I include myself here) will politely agree to something, because we don’t want to be rude in the moment. But, we actually have no intention of following through with the agreement. For example, you might say: “we should hang out some time! Perhaps go for a coffee?”. And the British person might respond: “Yeah. That sounds great. Just let me know when”. Then each time you message them to suggest a time, it clashes with their schedule. Or, you just can’t seem to get hold of them. In such cases, it’s probably because your potential friend didn’t want to meet up in the first place. They just didn’t want to appear rude.
This probably seems like rather odd behaviour, if you’re a straight-talking Texan, for example. But, it’s a part of British culture that you’ll run into repeatedly. Much of our conversation takes place in the subtext. In the pause before we respond. In our body language etc. Until you get the hang of reading us Brits, I’d advise following what I call ‘the rule of three’: If you have tried three times to set up an activity with your potential friend to no avail, it’s time to walk away. If they really were just busy, they’ll reply to one of your messages, eventually. Otherwise you’re free to use your time making friends with someone you actually have friendship chemistry with.
Friendship-building activities to try in the UK
Time needed: 180 days.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Which is why I’m suggesting you allow at least six months of consistent effort when working on Operation Friendship.
Below I’ve listed lots of different things you can try in order to make friends in the UK. Let me know which ones worked best for you!
- Join a pen friend site
Getting a pen friend is something you can do TODAY, before you even leave your home country. There are services, apps and websites that will help to match you with a person from the UK, someone who has similar interests to you. So, you’ll already know someone before you cross the pond!
If you suffer from social anxiety, writing to a pen pal is also a low-stakes way of getting to know someone. After all, they are specifically already looking to make a new friend. Decide if you’d rather write physical letters to each other, use an app, or email.
British Penpals – for older pen pals
HelloTalk – great for talking with native British people
- Leverage your network
Can your current friends at home make introductions for you, so that you have a couple of people to reach out to when you arrive in the UK?
Contact your alma mater. Can your university put you in contact with any alumni now based in the UK?
Also, who do you already know in the UK? Who are UK acquaintances you could turn into friends? It doesn’t matter if you’ve only ever spoken to them by email, or work conference call. Write down a list of people you could make contact with and send them a message. Don’t be shy about contacting people you haven’t spoken to in a while. Frankly, I’ve never understood why people don’t do this more often. It’s almost always a pleasant experience catching up in this way.
Example message to an acquaintance:
Amanda here. I hope you remember me?
We took the same Accounting class at Michigan State. I remember you did this amazing presentation on whether Wirecard is the new Enron! Anyway, I heard that you moved back to the UK after graduating. I wanted to look you up because I just relocated to the UK myself! It would be lovely to meet for a socially-distanced coffee. Or, to have a chat via video call sometime soon. Let me know if you’d be up for that.
- People you live with/by
If you have chosen to live in a flatshare, then your new roommate could become your very first friend in the country. Certainly, sharing your living space will help to stave off loneliness by forcing you to interact with someone else each day. It’s a good idea to have a chat right at the beginning of your tenancy to agree any boundaries and house rules upfront. For example, you may both decide it’s best to self isolate for the first 14 days of living together, as a safety precaution against Covid-19. It’s straightforward to achieve this if you use apps like WhatsApp to message each other when the kitchen or living area is free.
Neighbours are another source of potential friends. In your first week, knock on doors and have a socially-distanced chat from the doorstep, or apartment hallway. I did this when I first moved into an apartment building in London. No one else had bothered to do so before, so all the neighbours were very welcoming once I introduced myself and explained what I was doing there. Take a piece of paper and a pen with you. After you say goodbye to them write down their name, house number and anything relevant from your chat that might be a conversation-starter. The next time you see them again, greet them by name and make reference to that conversation-starter.
Example introduction to neighbour
Hello, I’m Amanda, I just moved into number 109. I’m just going round introducing myself to my new neighbours – from a safe distance, of course! So, what’s your name?
[N.B. Another initial question to ask: how long have you lived here?]
- Join a faith community
When my parents first moved to the UK they didn’t know anyone and, with my dad being at university, money was tight. Joining their local church was a game-changer. Not only were they able to practice their faith, but they also made a new group of friends. And, the church community rallied round donating furniture and other things the newlyweds needed. With coronavirus, it’s a bit more difficult to physically attend a service – whatever your faith. But, contact a church / mosque / synagogue / temple etc anyway. And, ask what activities or groups they run. Even virtual groups can allow you to get to know other people and potentially make new friends.
N.B. You can get church suggestions by visiting the Find A Church website and entering your postcode.
- Join a club
What are your current interests? How do you spend your downtime? Reading/writing fiction? Listening to live music? Watching films? Playing a sport? Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a club for it. And, club organisers have been busy coming up with innovative ways for members to still get value from their memberships. For example, a film club I used to regularly go to the cinema with (and to the pub afterwards), is now using Netflix Party to watch movies and chat together. Virtual concerts have really taken off since coronavirus lockdown too. Try using Meetup to search for existing clubs. But, if you can’t find the perfect social media space to chat during a gig, why not start your own Facebook group for UK-based live music fans?
One British woman who moved to Australia did something similar. Her Facebook group, Be.Her.Friend now has more than 10 thousand members who are all interested in making new friends.
Clubs are also an opportunity to start a new hobby. So, don’t limit yourself to only the activities you have experience with. If you’re a bit overwhelmed with all the choice, try using a site like InterNations. It’s good for finding fellow expats. So, you’ll be able to find some friends in a similar situation to you. And, then you can start your own club. UK cities supported by InterNations include: Manchester, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Birmingham and Belfast.
- Don’t let the language barrier hold you back
One of the best ways to integrate into UK society is to learn the language. By that, I do mean British English. So, for my American readers you’ll need to say things like: trousers, instead of pants; lift instead of elevator; and wardrobe instead of closet.
But, even if you’re not fluent in English, there’s no need to worry. We still appreciate it when you make the effort to learn our language and culture. So, put on a smile, learn a few key phrases, speak slowly. If all else fails, be prepared to mime, if you have to in those early days of your UK life!
Consider using apps like HelloTalk, to work on your English. I’m not sponsored by them, I’m just impressed by the service. Or, see if you can find a remote language class online somewhere.
- Social and online communities
I’ve mentioned the value that Facebook groups and pages can offer. But, have you considered other social networks and online communities? Instagram and Reddit are two powerful tools for making online friendships that can progress to friendships IRL.
Remember the friendship factors we discussed earlier? Proximity is an important part of friendship formation. So, commenting online over a period of time can help to build familiarity. This could be public replies in a discussion thread, or private DMs.
I had a work colleague several years ago who had a spare ticket to see a theatre play. He offered it for free on Twitter and ended up making a new friend with the woman who turned up to claim it. Obviously, you should always take precautions to be safe, and meet in a public place, when agreeing to see someone you barely know. But, my wider point is, you can use all sorts of digital tools to get talking to people online.
For those who can’t afford to take chances with the virus, you can even use social network’s like Instagram to ‘assess’ whether potential friends have a different risk-tolerance to you. Are they masked up? Are they hugging lots of people outside their ‘bubble’? Going to parties?
Together Friends is an online community that is specifically designed to help you make new friends. You can put in the type of friend you are looking for in the UK. Then TF will match you up with someone you can go on to meet. Whilst COVID-19 is still affecting many parts of the UK, the subscription fee has been cut in half to £9.99 for the year.
- Friendship apps
Rather than appropriating a social app like Instagram, there are a number of apps specifically designed for building new friendships. Apps such as:
FriendMatch – as seen on Dragon’s Den. Around 6 million members. Arrange to meet online, or in-person.
Couchsurfing – Forget the hotel, stay on someone’s couch – or in their spare room – for free. See the UK through the eyes of a local resident. A little bit more risky during coronavirus times, though. But, a good opportunity to make life-long friendships.
Hey Vina! – Tinder for (girl) friends.
Peanut. Connecting mothers, expectant mothers, and those trying to conceive.
BarkHappy – meet other dog owners
Friender – mutual interests are used to match you to other millenials.
Moocher – a Liverpool-created app that’s free to download. But chatting to potential friends will cost extra.
- Dating apps
Instead of looking for a romantic partner, there are numerous people turning to dating apps for platonic relationships. Apps like Hinge, Tinder and the original Bumble – rather than Bumble BFF – can help match you to an appropriate person. Then it’s up to you to chat, meet up and see if friendship develops. This is another approach that you can start before moving to the UK.
This can be a great way to make a difference in your new community, get to know your local area, and to make new friends with your fellow volunteers. The best way is to google volunteering opportunities near you that align with your interests, skills and/or experience. But, here are a few suggestions to get you started:
You could volunteer to be a phone buddy to an elderly person, like Age UK’s ‘Call in Time’ project. Or, similarly, become a Call Champion for Reengage. They need people to speak regularly with 75 year olds+ to prevent them becoming socially isolated.
You can apply to volunteer at the British Heart Foundation. There are a range of roles from working in (good will) charity shops, to fundraising or even restoring donated furniture. Not only will you meet more people, but you could also use the opportunity to improve your English skills or learn about British culture from your colleagues.
GoodGym – this is an interesting charity. Runners who like to combine keeping fit with voluntary work in their local communities, such as delivering food to vulnerable people unable to leave their homes.
- Schedule friendship actitivies
It’s easy to feel a overwhelmed when trying to keep in contact with multiple new people and arrange meetups. So, set yourself up for success from the beginning by ring-fencing time in your calendar/diary for friendship activities. See if you can reenforce budding friendships by seeing each other three times in quick succession.
At the start of the week, take time to decide when you will do key activities like: writing to your pen pal, phoning new friends, meeting up for a socially-distance activity.
Additional Examples of activities that could be scheduled:
Going to a dog park, and talking to a fellow dog owner. Set up a regular schedule so that you meet the same walkers. After a few meetings suggest a doggy play date.
Try out some new cafes. Look at each one through a friendship lens: “Would this be a good place to invite a potential friend to?”.
Ask locals for tips about their favourite spots to visit. This is a good conversation starter.
Outside sports/exercise like: yoga, tennis, golf, or frisbee (for those American college alumni), rounders (for those wanting to try something traditionally English).
Search for a British English language partner – check ads on sites like Gumtree and Craigslist. Or, use an app like HelloTalk.
Calendar a Netflix Party with some of your new friends. Or, look for an outdoor movie to attend.
Attend a virtual choir like: The Sofa Singers. There’s a tea break where you can get to know other people.
Join a virtual book club at your local library, like ones organised in Suffolk.
- Video games
85% of British people under 35 say they play video games. While 75% of 35 – 44 year olds also partake. It’s not just men picking up console controllers, or downloading Fortnite to their smartphones. A growing number have been women (46% in the US). Social gaming, in particular, offers expats in the UK a way to make enduring friendships online.
A study into massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes demonstrated that friendships built on such platforms frequently lead to lifelong friendships – as well as some romantic relationships:
“Approximately three quarters of both males (76.2%) and females (74.7%) said they had made good friends within the game. The mean number of “good friends” made within a MMORPG for participants was seven”. (p.581)
The study’s authors wrote that MMO players would actually meet up in real-life too. Mostly meeting 1 or 2 players at a time, or going to a Guild meetup. You can see then the opportunity that social gaming offers for creating potential in-person friendships. Take a look online to see if there are any gaming conventions, events or meetups happening in your part of the UK, or remotely. This could be a good opportunity to meet like-minded people who you can game with and meet IRL.
Beyond MMOs, gaming discussion platforms like Twitch and Discord can be used in a similar way to make new friends – as another academic study found. One of the study participants is quoted as saying:
“ So you have this mental image of a complete person, but you don’t really complete the image until you actually see them… You could talk to somebody every single day through Discord, or Twitch, or whatever it is and have these conversations, every single day or once a week or whatever, and you really, you feel like you really know this person. And so when you meet them, it’s like meeting your best friend for the first time”. Brandi talking about her Twitch friend (2020).
- Say ‘Yes’
Pancake party? Yes.
After-work burger? Heck, yes.
When I first moved from London to the north of England, I made a conscious effort to say ‘yes’ whenever anyone invited me to do something. It may sound like a very basic, or obvious, strategy. But, after a long day at work, or a long day unpacking boxes or painting, you don’t always feel like socialising. In fact, going curling might be the very last thing you want to do. Btw, that curling invitation was real and ended up being lots of fun. And, that’s the point, even the lamest-sounding things can lead to friendships and fun. Besides, that invite you turn down, could be the first and last from that person. So, take advantage of the opportunities that come your way.
Making new friends is a time-consuming business and can be anxiety-inducing for some. After all, when you put yourself out there, you risk rejection. But, it’s important not to take any ‘NOs’ personally. By definition, that person you were attempting to befriend doesn’t know you yet. Or, how awesome you are! When you do find your tribe of friends it’ll be worth the wait. And, in the meantime, keep in touch with your friends and family back home, and be kind to yourself.
After a while you will make a number of close friends. It’ll be exciting and rewarding when you start being invited to activities you never would have discovered on your own. Then it’ll be time to maintain your new relationships. I like to drop friends a message when I happen to think of them. But, for your new British friendships try to keep in contact at least once a fortnight. So, take the time to reach out. Make that FaceTime call. Send that WhatsApp message suggesting a socially-distanced meetup. Don’t stand on ceremony. And, most importantly, let me know how it goes! 😉