Woman looking at birthday cake

Expats, why is it so hard to make close friends in Germany?

I was late and as I entered the bar I noticed the banner reading “happy birthday”.

I managed to track down the birthday boy. I didn’t know him well at the time but he would become an important friend in my life soon.

It was a small bar that we both frequented and to my surprise, it was absolutely packed.

As we said our “hello’s”, I commented on the large crowd.

“Yea, man I have no clue. I only arrived 3 months ago yet here are all these people to celebrate my birthday” he said with a grin and a big smile on his face.

It is what many of us expats dream of: a room full of friends having a good time together.

I later found a good time to ask him–“so, how’d you do it?”

He confessed that, like me, he felt shy growing up but as he got the opportunity to study abroad, he decided to change it: “I realized that people’s names are the sweetest sound to their own ear. So I began trying to remember everyone’s name.”

Why (the right) friends will make or break your experience abroad in Germany

Moving abroad is such an eye-opening experience that it tends to make us appreciate all the friendships we have at home and how close we’ve become with them over the years.

Expat friends serve a unique purpose compared to those we grew up with. Besides helping us feel somewhat at home in this new land, they also tend to help us find new jobs or offer advice on headache-inducing logistics like banking bureaucracy, insurance, and visa tasks. 

It is usually challenging to find accurate information about this stuff online and that’s where friend’s experiences can come in handy. For example, a few years ago, a message ticked in from one of my friends–”Hey, you do digital marketing, right?”

I did and he connected me with his colleague that sent me a job offer to relocate to another continent and work with them. As a fresh graduate, that was amazing because I thought that we had to earn the opportunity to work abroad through years within a large global organization before–maybe–getting the opportunity to transfer.

It was even more surprising that this job wasn’t even posted anywhere and I never sent my CV to apply in the traditional manner. It felt like some kind of secret insider track.

The same thing happened when a guy reached out to me through a friend asking for freelance services. After a few months of work, they offered me a dream job with terrific compensation and great responsibility. And just like last time, the position they wanted me for wasn’t published anywhere and I never had to send my CV to some dead-end “HR machine”.

At first, I was in disbelief. How could this be possible when growing up I was taught that to get a job we had to write a great cover letter and hand-deliver it in person, so we could leave a good first impression. 

My experience was the exact opposite.

I later discovered that most of my friends abroad had gotten their jobs the same way. One bought a festival ticket from someone and later got offered a job at the company he worked for. Another got was recommended for his new job by his old boss at a different company.

The more I explored this, the more of these stories I would hear. After a while, I finally connected the dots. It felt as if there was a secret expat club where people would help each other with the important things abroad. Like there was some deeper connection or understanding that didn’t show on the surface and wasn’t visible at home.

The expat trap: what happens if you learn German but don’t make any friends

Compare that to my first experience abroad where I offered to work long hours in extended internships of up to eight months compared to the standard three AND without the need to get paid. On paper that seems like an employer’s dream when hiring an intern.

I sent out exactly one hundred internship applications, yet I only landed two(!) interviews and one internship with luck. I later discovered that my friend got hooked up with great opportunities through his friends and that’s when the difference became crystal clear to me: the right friends will make or break our experience abroad.

But because I didn’t know any better I fell into a trap that has now become a predictable part of the expat experience…

I was so busy getting settled that the only way I made friends was through preorganized activities from the university. When the semester was over and most people had left, I had to start meeting new friends from scratch again.

I woke up one day realizing that I knew most of my friends through my significant other and when we broke up, they would be her friends more than mine. It made me feel stuck and I eventually left the city because I failed to realize that it wasn’t the city’s “vibe” that I didn’t like but that I didn’t do a good job of settling in. 

During my next stint abroad, I swore to change that, and since I’ve noticed so many expats giving up on their dream too early for that same reason. I hope that won’t be you.

Learning German is a great way to make new friends (more on that later) but it can happen even if you master German and don’t make any friends. The most common example I’ve seen is when someone learns only via 1on1 tutoring to avoid feeling stupid when practicing in public. Sure, you’ll get good at German but the experience of learning (and failing) together with friends creates a different bond. It’s one of those things that can help make a lifelong friendship out of a random acquaintance.

Why don’t we meet new people when we know we should?

Personally, it comes as a reminder when a good friend leaves the city and I think “not another one! I should meet more people”… and then life gets in the way.

Sure, we have conversations with colleagues at the office but how many of them are more than work-talk, badly translated jokes, or superficial niceties? When we look for ideas online, common advice tells us “go to meetups”, “learn the language” and “be open-minded” as if we didn’t already know that. If that’s all we needed, it would already be solved.

Even if we don’t know all the best events or meetups, most of us have a rough idea of where to go in our city. So why don’t we?

I’ve noticed that we often focus on things that are urgent in favor of what’s important. It’s not that we aren’t serious but it’s a lot easier to prioritize a deadline from our boss than some arbitrary deadline we set for ourselves (like meeting new people), with no reason as to why we can’t move it a day, a week or a month.

Since we have limited willpower and energy, there is only so much we can do until we get tired. Sometimes, after a long, intense, day at work, there is just no juice left.

The couch starts to look pretty good while going to an event can often feel like a time-waster since we don’t know who we’ll meet and what’s going to happen. Or we might feel shy and not ready to go out and make a killer first impression.

Not to mention that making new friends isn’t exactly something we are taught by our parents or in school. For a long time, I assumed the only way to meet new people is by getting drunk at a bar or machine-gunning business cards at networking events.

Learning German is a good idea and there are so many ways to learn it. The challenge is that many methods appear great on the surface but just don’t really work well in practice. 

Popular ways to learn German that are hidden time-wasters

Let’s dive into a few of those along with some alternatives I’ve found to be terrific for learning German while making new friends or bond with those you already know.

Language exchange

The first one is language exchange. I’ve found that we spend half of our learning time teaching someone about our own language in exchange for them helping us. On top of that, we are also learning from someone who isn’t an expert but only cares as much as it helps them learn the language they are interested in – that means we are likely to adopt habits that aren’t necessarily good for our learning. The combination makes this a surprisingly ineffective use of your time.

Michael explains it well here and it isn’t the worst thing in the world but with our limited time and energy, there’s usually always another solution that works better. The biggest challenge I’ve noticed is that it makes us feel like we are making progress because we spend a lot of time on it but that isn’t the same as making progress. It’s like being busy at work but without really doing anything meaningful.

Watching movies 

At one point, I went to the local cinema to watch a movie thinking that if I watched with local audio and English subtitles I’d be able to pick up some words and phrases. Guess how many words I learned and still remember after spending almost two hours of my life on a popular blockbuster movie.

Ten? A hundred? Try ONE word. One!

At that speed, I’d die before I would learn any language. But why do we like that idea of learning from movies so much?

My best guess is that it is because we like the idea of learning and with movies, we are entertained and it feels like we are working without doing all the hard work. It feels like we are actively studying, especially at the beginning of the movie, but then the story takes over and it’s easy to forget about memorizing phrases.

Gamification apps

The final approach to learning German that appears to work but just isn’t that effective is gamification and game apps. Many of the most popular language apps fall into this category and like movies, gamification is designed to make something fun and effortless no matter if that impacts the learning throughout.

It is addictive, fun and it feels like we are progressing because they have taken one of the most powerful elements from video games; the visual progress. We love the feeling of progressing and a big problem with learning German is that we often don’t feel the progress, and so we give up because why waste time on something that isn’t going anywhere?

From time to time we’ll have a real life experience that proves to us that we are indeed making progress like setting an appointment with the doctor over the phone or asking a local for directions. To accommodate this and make video games entertaining creators build in elements that make us feel like we are progressing, such as giving us experience points that we can spend as a form of currency to buy special abilities that help us tackle the upcoming, more difficult, levels.

Language app games use a similar technique to quantify learning German and make us feel like we are progressing with calculated shots of dopamine, where there would otherwise be none. The challenge is that getting a phrase right once, the feeling of completing it in the app and progressing, isn’t always the same as truly learning it.

Why they are deceptive

Before moving on to other options that are terrific for bonding with friends and learning German at the same time, let’s look at a few reasons as to why these methods feel deceptive.

I’ve worked with a number of experts in the language learning industry and one of the things I’ve noticed about the learners they help, is that many are confused about which level they are truly at when they start. Often they have been studying for years and because of the timeframe feel like they must be at a certain level.. but when they try in real life, they don’t feel as confident and rather confused as to where all that practice has gone.

I also noticed is that some language businesses are claiming that learning isn’t just fun but as fun as playing a video game. Learning German is challenging and that’s a part of what makes it fun but it is easy to mistake the fun for not needing to do any real work, which is how we end up in the situation of ”learning” but not feeling like we are making any progress.

That leads us to feel like we are doing work by telling us we’ve completed steps. We get addicted to the gamification and feeling of learning German rather than the real world progress that is harder, but truly fun when we get it right. 

There is even a term for this in the gaming community called a “completionist”, which is someone who enjoys completing all the levels and unlocking all the extras for the sake of unlocking them – even after the main story has been completed.

Terrific activities for making friends and learning German

Finally, let’s look at some tried and tested activities to make new friends and practice your German in real life.

Cooking with friends

My perhaps favorite activity for this is cooking a German meal with friends. From finding a recipe, going to the supermarket and asking for help finding the right groceries to following the recipe in German and practicing together. 

I particularly like it because it is tangible and I’ve found it much easier to remember the words because we are using them in real life compared to memorizing a list of cooking phrases from a piece of paper.

It’s a great way to get to know friends better without getting stuck practicing a deeper conversation in German which is a lot more challenging and can feel discouraging to some. And, the words we learn from this exercise are relevant in daily life especially if we want to cook the same meal again on a weekly basis. It also teaches us more about German culture in the process.

In practice, I’ve found that it becomes easy to switch to English and give up after a little while so I encourage you to set a specific timeframe to practice German within and then allow yourselves to switch to English after without feeling guilty.

I’ve found four meal examples that are easy to cook and show the German culture well.

1. German-Style Mustard Pork Chops

2. Milchreis (German Rice Pudding)

3. German Pancakes (‘Pfannkuchen’)

4. Jaegerschnitzel with Mushroom Sauce

Learn hobby slang

This example not only works with sports but with any hobby you have. I will be using football to explain the example.

I’ve found that slang works well to connect deeper with locals since many slang phrases show that we know the culture a little better than any random tourist, display that we’ve been here for a while, and taken interest in integrating.

In football that might be the slang you use on the field to say “shoot” (at the goal) or “pass the ball” as these phrases tend to be adapted to the game rather than how we might typically express that in other situations.

It helps us get closer to our team members and when we meet new people that are also interested in the topic, we’ll be better able to speak with them about it since one word often leads to a new phrase, which snowballs into multiple new phrases and on and on.

COVID-19 related idea: Play multiplayer video games

The other ideas might not be possible all the time because of social distancing, so I wanted to offer a more pandemic-friendly alternative: playing multiplayer video games online.

It helped me tremendously when I was learning English because many games have the ability to chat with other players in real-time and discuss game strategy. If you live in Germany, you should be able to connect with German players no matter which game you play as long as it is moderately popular.

Compared to things like language exchange where you have to invent topics and common interests to talk about, you’ll have a built-in topic with the game itself. I’ve found that while you might start by using simple phrases at first, it tends to extend into other topics over time.

What if you are shy?

Being shy presents its own challenge altogether as it can feel more challenging to jump into these social activities even if we want to.

A great technique is to help organize events as it will help you meet people while you have practical tasks to do. You’ll have an excuse to say hi to the guests you don’t know without having to brainstorm topics to talk about and people get if you can only talk for a short while since you have tasks to do there. 

The simplest way to get started is by reaching out to those organizing an event you are interested in and tell them you are new and would love to contribute somehow. I’ve found that both contacting them in person or via email works well.

If you liked this article, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the gift I’ve prepared for you: the shy expat’s guide to making friends abroad and feeling more adventurous.

Takeaways

  • The right friends can make or break your experience abroad and change your life
  • Going abroad is the perfect opportunity to make the friends your dream of
  • Learning German is way more fun when you do it with friends and you might actually learn a lot faster

BIO

Hi, I’m Aske and I help shy expats make friends and become more adventurous over at ExpatVault.com. If you liked this article, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the gift I’ve prepared for you: a shy expat’s guide to making friends abroad and feeling more adventurous.

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