How to make friends in Amsterdam is possibly the question I get asked the most. I have written about this subject before but felt reticent to tackle the “how-to.” Telling someone how to make friends is like trying to teach them the steps to “fall in love” (hate this expression, but you get the idea). We connect with people differently, and my ways to make friends work for me, not necessarily for everyone else. It’s a very personal matter, and there’s no one-size-fits-all. This being said, – and because the question keeps coming – here’s my take on the friendship thing. I hope it can be useful. Feel free to ask any questions or share your own impressions in the comments section! We zijn zover, which is to say, here we go.
The struggle with building a friendship circle from scratch is something akin to everyone who experiences moving countries. It is even more of an enormous task when people come in positions of ‘relative comfort’ such as a good job or with a partner, which is the situation of many expats. Why might comfort be a disadvantage? Empiric observation tells me that when we already have some support, we hold on to it. We view our job as essential, so when things get tough, we work harder; and we are happy to seek solace in our loved one if we have them around. These are, of course, sensible things to do. However, if you remain in your comfort zone… you know what tends to happen. Humans are not great at putting themselves in uncomfortable territory. It feels counter intuitive. If you find yourself in a semi-comfortable situation, you will have to make an extra effort to make friends. You see, the fact that I’ve arrived alone and jobless heightened my drive ‘to act’ on building my social life. I was aware that my emotional survival ‘depended on it.’ Seven years ago, I was very open to pretty much everyone I had the slightest click with. I regarded them as my life-belt.
Long story short: for me, it all started with F., a good friend from my teen years with whom I used to go out partying back in the wild days. When I decided to move to Amsterdam, I sent him an e-mail asking if he could help me find accommodation. He was the one to connect me to my first flatmate, Miss K. When I arrived, she was sort of my only friend. Then she introduced me to her friends and schoolmates. In the meanwhile, I had been networking like a freak. I reached out to bloggers that I followed and checked if they were open to meet. I maintained a personal blog, too, which enabled them to see that, if anything, I was a real person, not some crazy stalker. I also messaged acquaintances (the friends of friends) who lived here. This combination of efforts set me off to a good start. Then, there was a daily effort.
When I arrived in the city my priority was quantity. The more people I met, the better. It was a survival strategy that I have employed instinctively. Everyone I clicked with got invited for a coffee or another fun event with the friends I already had. Most people were happy to join. My wanting to avoid loneliness was a frailty that turned into a strength. Amsterdam being such an international city helps a lot. A lot of us are not from here so we’re all on the same boat. There was another thing that helped: Miss K. and I started organizing these parties at our place. We invited everyone we knew and told them to bring whoever they pleased. I remember having 50 people in the house, half of them I had never seen before, which got me pumped: so many potential friendships! Everyone was thrilled to get hosted by a complete stranger who treated them as a friend. People react very warmly to kind gestures.
If I had to generate some general rules of thumb for making friends, they would be:
# 1: Use the internet to your advantage: the power of the internet lies in the potential it has to bring people together and enable them to find their crowd. Reach out, reach out, reach out. Try to contact people in the same situation as yours. For instance, I only got responses from bloggers with a similar reach of mine. Everyone else was too busy. Meet-up or Instagram are excellent ways of meeting people with similar interests to yours. I have met a lot of cool people at public instameets. I have heard of some Facebook groups that work really well, too. Do your research!
# 2: Do not refrain from showing interest and taking the initiative: If this is something you struggle with, know that, with practice, you can get better at it. It does feel uncomfortable at first, but it will pay off if you push through. Observation helps. I tend to be an extrovert, but I have not always been this social: I learned to be spontaneous through the example of outgoing people who surrounded me throughout the years.
# 3: Hobbies: Your interest in things other than your field of work is a potential matchmaker. Go take group lessons in whatever hobby you have. I made good friends in theater class and met some of my best girlfriends at Dutch courses. Finding a crowd that I resonated with was a crucial step to my journey. I did not find it in just one particular group of people. I prefer to have different groups of friends from various walks of life, backgrounds, and nationalities. It was particularly nice to find a community of creative types with whom I could identify. They helped me feel understood.
# 4: Cultivate: Let us say you know a fair amount of people – you would just like to get closer to some of them. I would say invite them to dinner at your place. Instead of throwing vague ideas into the air (“what if we did this or that one day”), take the initiative, and make it official. Make a Facebook event or write an e-mail, and be specific about when and where. People tend to respond only to concrete plans.
# 5: Understand the power of community: Bring your friends together, introduce them to one another, be a bridge. Creating a community is especially important when living abroad. People need context to bond, and creating collective memories is a powerful reinforcement for people to stick together. Try not to be a separatist, like: on Monday I’ll meet up with Jan and on Tuesday with Tessa. Invite some friends to a concert you’re attending. It can also be something simple, like having drinks at the bar next door. Again, make clear and concrete plans; include who, when, where, and why. For instance: “Friday evening drinks to chill out after the workweek.” If there’s no clear why say that something like “I’d love to dance with you all tonight” or “I’d love us to get drunk together” or “Let us whine January away over massive amounts of cake.” If you’re not into big groups, you can do the same thing with just a couple of friends. Community is community regardless of the number of people in it.
The last tip is self-explanatory, but it needs to be stated: negativity won’t take you anywhere. I’m saying this because I meet many people who express the desire to make friends only to start bitching about the Dutch. Forget hear-say, forget what you read on that expat Facebook group, let go of that unpleasant experience you had once. Making friends starts with two basic things: curiosity and openness. When you come with a preconceived idea of how people will act, your worst suspicions will get confirmed. Drop everything you think you know about Dutch culture or whatever nationality for that matter. Start like a blank page, with genuine interest, and see where that leads you. You need to act on this one no matter how often you felt rejected or unsuccessful. I mean, sure, you will be able to connect through whining, but the people who will be receptive to it are the ones who are equally clueless and lonely, and most of them will end up leaving Amsterdam, sooner or later. And you will end up in the same situation again. Good folks are attracted to positive energy and good intentions. People make the place and, like it or not, you’re part of it now, so gather your energy, make an effort, and give it your best.
Now I look forward to hearing from you! What are your takes on making friends in a new country? Do you reckon with any of the above? What’s working for you? Feel free to share your experience as it might be of use to others!