While making friends as a foreigner is more difficult in some countries it’s even harder as a local.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic- My friend Andy Graham’s take on Europe is simple: it’s hard to make friends there. We met up in Prague and I listened to him talk about how people are not really into meeting new people there and his sometimes comical attempts to make friends. Andy doesn’t drink, and I would tell him that people there need the social aphrodisiac beer and the framework of a bar before they tend to open up. It’s just how the social signaling works there … but he had a very good point:
Go to Africa, Latin America, the backwoods of China, SE Asia … it’s easy to make friends: all you need to do is walk down the street with your head up. These are “in the streets” cultures. Europe, on the other hand, is a “closed door” culture. That doesn’t mean that people are not nice. It’s just that they don’t have the social avenues that allow for on the fly engagements with people they don’t know. Talk with someone there and they ask the question, “What does this guy want? Why is he talking to me?” Start talking with someone you don’t know in Haiti and it’s just something normal and ordinary — everybody is talking with everybody anyway.
I’ve never really have difficulty making friends pretty much anywhere in the world. If I’m in a beer drinking social culture, I drink beer. If I’m in a vodka culture, I drink vodka. I never run out of things to talk about as I can always ask questions about the people around me and the place that I’m in. I’m truly interested — this is why I travel — and I also have the vested interest that I write and make films, so understanding the place that I’m in and cultivating contacts is essential for my work. As a foreigner, you can talk engage people over differences, bring new things to the discussion table, ask stupid questions. Locals can’t do this — they’re supposed to be the authority already.
I didn’t realize how lonely of a place Europe can be for locals too until I met a the dad of a girl that my daughter befriended on the playground. He told me that a while back he started a social network for socially awkward / lonely people in the Czech Republic. He had spent a good amount of years living in the USA and when he moved back home he found that his social network had disintegrated. He became lonely and didn’t know how to go out and meet people. Wait, so locals have a hard time making friends here too?
Apparently, they do. Throw smartphones into a closed-door-culture and it becomes a very, very lonely place. However, people in these more socially restricted climes are responding to this phenomenon with intentional action: meet-up clubs for the friendless. Groups are forming based on nothing more than the natural human drive to interact with other humans. It’s artificial, purposefully structured, overtly not natural … but it’s the best thing we’ve got.
I’m becoming jaded. I don’t like where the world is going. I don’t like how formalized interaction is becoming, how natural non-verbal communication is being co-opted by movements which demand people to verbalize all intentions and as permission before engaging another person for whatever reason:
“Can I have permission to shake your hand?”
“May I please look at you?”
I asked a woman who was in a long-term relationship if she was thinking about having kids the other day, and my wife informed my that my question was offensive. Apparently, mentioning something that has to do with woman-ness to a women in the USA is a faux-pax.
Nobody knows what to say to each other anymore, so we just look at our phones instead. Human social life has become overtly unnatural, and many people are finding it easier to just stay inside by themselves — in Europe and elsewhere.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
April 23, 2019, 12:58 am
Most Europeans too are brought up believing that all Americans are ignorant clownish clods, so they resist conversing with us strangers when we go abroad. As a whole, I find Europeans to be an arrogant, standoffish lot (broad generalization, I know). I have a European son-in-law however, and we do have respectful and cordial relations.
April 23, 2019, 6:59 am
I can only imagine some of these oddly enforced cultural norms are much worse in the USA. My friend and I went for a coffee, food, etc. and the cafe had no MALE toilets…because of decades of oppression? I really don’t know.
My buddy laughed when told there was no MALE toilets and the waitress replied “It’s not funny” and my friend said….’actually it’s really funny..’ and then the waitress just got huffy.
I will go back outside and tell the clouds to get off my lawn.
April 23, 2019, 3:41 pm
Yes, it is getting really scary all over the world. When societies get “enlightened” and the traditional social / identity structures break down we start getting tribes of people associating themselves with zealot-like exuberance to ideas. History tells us that’s very, very dangerous. Fascism — or fascist-like movements — tend to follow periods when traditional social structures break down. We have a need to separate the us from the them — if it’s not granted to us by birth we will obtain it intentionally and then smear it all over everybody else … as what’s the use of it otherwise?
April 23, 2019, 3:46 pm
Yes, reverse sexism, racism, classism seems to be trendy. You should write an article about that cafe — that’s gold. I know your a lefty but, to be honest, the left scares me more than the right, as they seem more interested in socially engineering the behavior and beliefs of those around them and have the hideous and frightening smugness about being “the good guys.” Anytime a group of people feel they have a historic score to settle, watch out — all humanity vanishes. Many modern massacres have been the result of this.
April 23, 2019, 11:10 pm
I am a lefty in the sense I support Medicare for all and a high minimum wage, which Australia has and seems to work just fine. I think the whole notions of left and right have been obliterated since 2016. It really has been fascinating, Trump is some sort of inverse Buddha, like the closer you get to him your true intentions are shown. And as you know, while people obsess over his Twitter, other parts of the world just keep building.
I actually completely agree with you that the left is very dangerous right now. I feel like the right will destroy our natural environment while the left will destroy our societal fabric. They are pitting one group against another and saying have at it, without any context or view of another person’s humanity and all the while being completely delusional.
All the while being the ‘smug good guys’ as well. Time to start applying for university jobs in the PNG.
April 24, 2019, 3:35 pm
“I feel like the right will destroy our natural environment while the left will destroy our societal fabric.”
Perfect. I will probably steal that quote from you at some point haha.
While I have a healthy abhorrence of politicians on all sides of the fence, I’ll put it this way on Trump: I’d much rather have a president Tweeting than bombing people.
- Wade Shepard April 24, 2019, 3:35 pm
- Lawrence April 23, 2019, 11:10 pm
- Wade Shepard April 23, 2019, 3:41 pm
April 23, 2019, 7:32 pm
I think a lot of it has to do with climate. In warmer places, people are accustomed to sitting outside and it’s hard not to talk to people when you’re doing that. Montreal has been far friendlier in the summer than the winter, by the way, for just that reason, although with more air conditioning that may be changing with people hiding inside during very hot dats .
Where you are in your life cycle also has its effects. I’m not surprised that the man you mention was the father of a child your daughter had made friends with because the playground/skating rink/schoolyard: kids as well as dogs are great for introducing people who might not otherwise say a word. As for bars, as a woman traveling alone, I’ve never spent much time there. But going out first thing in the morning works: I’ve found it easy everywhere to strike up conversations, even in Paris.
April 24, 2019, 5:02 pm
That’s interesting: how air conditioning is changing cultures. As it can be directly connected to the shopping mall explosion — in large part this is why malls are such popular hangouts in the tropics.
I believe it also has to do with class: give people money and they lock themselves up inside and stop talking to their neighbors.
Our world is changing fast.
It’s also interesting how feeble and temporary our social networks are now in a world where cultures are far more geographically scattershot than they’ve perhaps ever been and jobs are becoming more and more remote and isolating. They guy that I mentioned used to work at an in-office job in the USA but then got moved to Prague to work from home.
The bonds which tie us to each other are growing more feeble, and people seem to be gathering based on ideology, interests, hobbies, etc rather than work, family, neighborhood. We’re not coming into contact with people who are different than us as often and someone who doesn’t abide / isn’t aware of “our” morality comes as a shock the social system rather than something normal that happens every day. I’m starting to miss the 1990s. Never thought I’d say something like this.
- Wade Shepard April 24, 2019, 5:02 pm
April 24, 2019, 6:27 pm
Everywhere is a lonely place.
April 26, 2019, 12:25 am
Completely true. I migrated from capital city to a smaller city just because people grew cold. The social interaction is something that people pay less and less attention and this goes double for big cities. I know that EU countries aren’t as oriented to capital as America is but that’s changing gradually. Maybe its accessability of social platforms that’s at fault but right now I would recommend that you visit smaller cities if you are planing to visit any EU country. People are more friendly, more approachable and warmer.
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