You’ve spent the first half of your life learning acceptable social behaviour, the last ten years telling your kids not to care what people think, and then wham! Relocation. Suddenly you’re stuck right back where you were on the first day of high school, having to walk into places you really would rather run screaming from, and make nice with a sea of people who have no idea who you are. Welcome to our world.
If your cultural orientation training was anything like mine, it revolves around the country currency, demographics and religious practices. What it might not tell you is how to find the people with whom you can laugh, cry, and everything in between with. So here’s my best advice, based on years of social gaffes, awkward situations and offending people.
It does get easier. Just as the first day of school was the worst for most of us (apart from the boy who had diarrhea in assembly in 9th grade – that’s a tricky one to beat), the first few weeks of any move are the hardest. The quicker you get out there and start circulating, the quicker you will find your first friend.
It’s a numbers game. You didn’t expect to like everyone in high school, and nor will you like everyone you meet, but you have to go through the numbers to get to one who will become lifelong friends. Go to as many gatherings as possible, safe in the knowledge that somewhere out there is someone who is doing the same thing and hating it every bit as much as you do..
Talk to a cherished friend beforehand, so that you are
- more confident about yourself and will present yourself in a more relaxed way
- have vented all your relocation angst so that your new acquaintances don’t think you are a moany old whingebag and hereafter avoid you and,
- so you have someone impartial waiting to hear all the gory details. Knowing that you have someone far, far away who relish all the post party gossip and can never tell makes putting up with the fifteenth “what does your husband do?” far more palatable.
Go to where people gather to be social. This issue cropped up the other day – in Europe there are higher numbers of dual income families, so there are fewer opportunities to meet socially through school, and so a friend with school age children is struggling to meet new people. Instead, take a class, or do something that people go to alone. And no, I don’t mean bars.
Be prepared to watch, learn and smile. There will be new social rules (cute does not have the same implicit meaning in the UK and the US), a new dress codes, language differences. You may be an avid taxidermist, but that’s probably not going to be your best icebreaker at the school social. And if you are anything like me, try to avoid sarcastic, flippant or hilarious remarks, such as “Will there be alcohol served?” at the new parent breakfast. My strategy is to seek out the person that sparks the most antipathy, and watch for who else in the crowd is wincing. Instant friend, right there.
Don’t undervalue yourself. Most relocation advice suggests voluntary work as a great way to develop a social network, and while this may be true, I have seen more people than I care to count take on the first volunteer opportunity that comes their way, only to end up in glorious isolation doing the photocopying for the PTA. (Actually, I met one of my favorite people doing exactly that, but I just got very lucky..). Find something that both gives you a sense of fulfillment and attracts like-minded people, and feel free to test drive opportunities before you commit. Tell them I said so.
Talk to anyone. My mother does this, and it drives me nuts, but she can find a friend faster than anyone I know. Her favorite targets are anyone with a British accent, anyone in a book store, anyone wearing Marks and Spencer clothing, and anyone with grey hair. And if you happen to have a baby, your chances of escaping uninterrupted are nil.
At all costs, avoid asking “What does your husband do?”. A little piece of my soul dies every time that question is asked in social circles, as if the person being spoken to is unworthy of interest. Add in the fact that you are assuming that they are a) married, and b) they don’t instead have a wife. My personal answer when asked is “Put a gun to my head and I still couldn’t tell you”; it conveys accurately both my knowledge of what he does, and my interest in finding out. As yet, no-one has taken me up on it, but feel free to find your own, less dramatic response.
Now it’s your turn – any suggestions?