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Q&A: An expat's guide to making friends in Belgium
In the last 12 years, Selma Franssen has bounced between the Netherlands, Denmark, Scotland and Belgium, and with every expatriate experience she’s had to build a new friend circle from scratch.
Friends made her feel at home in all those places, and they outlasted all her romantic partners. But Franssen, a Dutch journalist and Brussels-based expat, often felt that her friendships weren’t seen as the deep, legitimate relationships that they were by people around her.
Franssen’s new book, “Vriendschap in tijden van eenzaamheid” (Friendship in Time of Loneliness), is a six-chapter, carefully constructed argument to start taking friendships as seriously as we do romantic relationships. Pairing her own reflections with interviews with sociologists, fellow journalists and therapists, Franssen, 31, explores the value of friendship, what makes a true friend and the proverbial elephant in the room in conversations about friendship – loneliness.
Why did you want to write this book?
Friendships heavily shape the course of our lives, how we develop as people and when friendships end that can cause as much grief as when romantic relationships end. That’s what I wanted to get straight with this book. A lot of single people – and people who are coupled up – have really deep friendships with other people but those are not acknowledged as such by society. If we started to pay a bit more attention to that, we might be able to combat all this loneliness.
What do you mean?
It’s perfectly OK to state that you want to have a partner, but to say that you want to make new friends is seen as creepy almost, and like you must be lonely and we think loneliness is scary. That stigma has got to go. People should be able to say they’re looking to make new friends – whether because they’ve moved, because they don’t have kids but all their friends do, or because they’re looking for friends who fit in with the life phase they are currently in.
Did you find evidence that friendships are more important to millennials than to previous generations as TV shows like Girls seem to suggest?
Yes, because millennials are delaying big life decisions like getting married, buying a house, having kids – or not doing those things at all. And in that period before people settle down, friends play a pretty important role. At the same time, young people – so people aged 20 to 34 – appear to feel quite lonely, 54% of them to be exact according to a recent Belgian survey. Because there’s hardly been any research into this group in the past – loneliness has traditionally been seen as a problem mostly affecting elderly people – we don’t know whether this is a new phenomenon.
Do expats face extra challenges when it comes to making friends?
Absolutely, the biggest challenge for expats is that you have to start from scratch in a new place. Often, the people you become friends with are people from the same country as you or fellow expats. That means that when you finally make a new friend, they might up and leave after a while. And it’s often hard to become friends with locals because they aren’t necessarily looking for new friends. My experience was also that locals tend to look at you a bit warily, like ‘how long are you going to stay here?’
One of the studies I cite in my book found that it takes about 200 hours for an acquaintance to develop into a deep friendship. That’s about 100 two-hour coffee dates. So it takes a while to build something up if you’re someone who has a busy lifestyle – like most expats do.
Have you got some tips for expats looking to make friends?
OK, if you are someone with a lot of energy, I’d say: go to all the expat drinks, meet-ups and events and start talking to people. You might not meet people you want to be friends with forever, but you’ll often meet new people through them and become part of social circles.
If you don’t have a lot of energy, try a dating app for friends like Hey! VINA or the ‘BFF’ mode of the Bumble dating app. That way you can for instance meet up with someone for a coffee one on one, and that’s a little less intense than one of those large expat drinks. Unfortunately, both apps are for women only.