How to make friends wherever the hell you are

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My friend’s text read, “they didn’t have any flights available — I’ll have to catch another flight tomorrow, if I can.”

Shit! I thought to myself.

And so, I would now be stuck in a foreign country — the Netherlands — in an unfamiliar city — Amsterdam — spending time in a hostel completely by myself and without any friends to accompany me in this insane journey.

I couldn’t sleep that first night — I felt so completely out of my element that I thought I might die.

My assumption was that nobody would want to talk to me because they already had friends; that it would be difficult to meet new people; and that my next few days, and possibly the rest of the trip, would be extremely lonely.

The first day, I trudged around Amsterdam fending off a panic attack — can I survive in a foreign country completely by myself for a week?

Or, even a few days?

It wasn’t until 2 AM my second night there that I’d met my first friend — he stumbled into our shared hostel room, hammered, after a raucous night out on the town, and since I hadn’t been able to sleep, we had the usual small-talk.

He told me he was from Sweden, that he’d been traveling for work, and that tomorrow, he wanted to smoke a lot of pot at one of Amsterdam’s infamous “coffee shops” (I don’t know why they’re called that but you can smoke pot there).

And so, we did — that next day, from around noon until he had to depart the city for a flight back home, I followed him from coffee shop to coffee shop as he smoked more hash than I’d ever seen anyone humanly smoke.

It was insane and cathartic and interesting and it was one of the most memorable experiences of one of my first days in a new country.

The day after, at a different hostel, I went bar-hopping with a bunch of Brits and Aussies and pretended to be an Aussie myself.

The day after that the same thing, but with a group of Aussies who loved Jagermeister more than Americans love guns.

Finally, four or five days into my trip, my friend texted me to inform me — “I got a flight to London! Then I’m going to take a train over to Amsterdam.”

(Or something like that.)

By that point, I’d already made a half-dozen different friends, had explored almost the entirety of Amsterdam, and was having quite a memorable trip — the anxiety and panic that had completely overwhelmed me the first few days had all but dissipated.

Moments before my friend had arrived, I’d been walking around Amsterdam with a cute girl who I met at one of my hostels and had to frantically run over to the train station to meet up with him by the time his train got to the station.

The soul-crushing fears that I would forever be lonely had been quelled just days into my travels.

How to make friends while traveling.

For the last 4+ months, I’ve been living in Japan and to say that my life has been an absolute dream would be underselling it — I’m in my favorite country in the world, I routinely get to hang out and connect with friends from all over the planet, and I routinely experience moments in my day-to-day when I literally have to pinch myself.

We’re not talking crazy sex parties or wild, dangerous adventures through the Arctic because Japan isn’t about that, but I wouldn’t say any of that is too far off.

For all intents and purposes, I am living my dream life, and a big part of that is the amazing relationships that I’ve had the opportunity to create.

Over the years, I’ve gotten quite good at making friends and building relationships, and a big part of that is that I f**king try.

I put a lot of effort into cultivating great relationships with interesting people.

I reach out, I call people, I send postcards, I give them thoughtful presents — I am always trying.

So, I thought I’d break my process down into a few simple, easy to replicate steps — so that, wherever you are, wherever you go, you can easily cultivate and create amazing relationships, too.

Step 1. Go to where the people you want to meet are.

My parents love to stay in hotels when they travel — they’re clean, conveniently located, and full of amenities.

Hostels, international houses, and other ‘share’ houses and communities are often the opposite — they’re usually quite dirty, located far from the center of any city you visit, and if the place you’re staying at has a functional kitchen then I would say that it is effectively luxury living.

And yet, they’re often the best places to stay if you want to have a truly memorable and rewarding travel experience — people from all over the world stay in these communities, and it’s easy to meet people when you’re surrounded by other people who also want to meet people.

Within the first 30 days of moving to Japan, after traveling all around the country, skiing in Niseko and exploring parts of cities like Tokyo and Sapporo that I’d never been to, I knew that I wanted to find a place to stay in long-term.

(Long-term being more than a month at a time.)

And for me, it was important that I have super cool roommates who were part Japanese so that I could at least try and learn the language, and part international so that I could have interesting people to communicate with.

And so, within a few weeks I was touring a series of shared houses called Borderless House, eventually picking one that was so far outside of Kyoto I wondered if it was still in Japan.

(This is a gross over-dramatization of what was effectively a 20-minute bike ride into downtown.)

Little did I realize that the relationships and friendships I would build there would be the starting point of me finally getting comfortable with a country that I was becoming so wildly uncomfortable with.

After a few weeks of uncomfortable, new roommate awkwardness — everyone, especially me, was so, so tense since the Covid-19 mass-hysteria had just started around that time — we eventually settled into generally liking and getting along with each other.

We’d often have dinners together, go out on adventures to interesting, scenic parts of Kyoto, and generally enjoy each other’s company.

Step 2. Be proactive in building relationships.

The most challenging part of building any relationship is being bold enough to make the first step — to say to someone, you seem cool, we should get together sometime.

But understanding that people who already had a comfortable friend circle likely wouldn’t make the first step, I started to become a lot more proactive in my outreach.

I would invite people out to lunch, or dinner, or to an event that some of my housemates were hosting, or otherwise.

Before long, my friend circle was quickly expanding and I started to have more social opportunities than I knew what to do within.

I started hosting weekly Steaknight(s) again — I would buy a bunch of steaks, text our shared Line text group that I was hosting Steaknight(!!!) and before you know it, within a few weeks we’d made this:

Now, anytime I meet someone interesting, I’ll often suggest to them, “you seem cool — we should get together sometime” and I’ll invite them to a Steaknight or a weekly dinner or another event that I’m planning on intending.

I’ve also gotten quite good at just showing up to thing by myself — whether those be Meetup groups or salsa dance nights or exploring museums or AirBnB experiences, it’s always much easier to meet people when you actually force yourself into situations in which you have to meet people.

Step 3. Keep track of your relationships, and maintain the ones you want to keep.

Dunbar’s number posits that you can only reasonably keep track of and maintain 150 relationships at a given time.

If that number were solely in my brain, it would be closer to 15.

Instead of forcing my brain to keep track of everything like the overwhelmed, smelly sponge that it absolutely is, I’ve instead decided to develop what I so lovingly labeled years ago as a ‘Friend RM’ — something that helps me manually keep track of how often I’m checking in with friends and loved ones.

In it, I keep personal information like address, emails, and phone numbers, but most importantly the last time I’ve contacted somebody, any important notes that we discussed, and other important information.

Is it strange?

No, not at all. Facebook does all of this for you automatically except that it also sells your data to whoever the fuck it likes and then manipulates you into continuing to use their platform.

Maintaining a database in this way helps remind me who I haven’t spoken to in a while, and serves as a tool to help me check-in with people.

I absolutely love it — now, I often spend hours every week calling friends who I haven’t spoken to in a while, writing some postcards, or sending them long, detailed emails or videos on what’s happening in my life.

This way, I can continue to maintain those relationships in a thoughtful way, instead of just using the oft-repeated excuse, well, if they really wanted to be friends they would reach out.

Thought I’ve had plenty of people reach out to me since I’ve left Denver and New York, in order to really maintain those relationships from previous cities that you’ve moved on from you should proactively be the one to reach out.

If you’re expecting other people to do it, it’ll never happen — they probably have 50-billion other friends and relationships that are more important because those people didn’t abandon them to create a life elsewhere.

Here’s a scary thought: Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. (Study.)

These rules just as easily apply to places you’ve lived for decades, new cities that you might be moving to in a not-so-foreign country, or a new job.

Research continues to provide evidence to support that people who have strong, healthy relationships are happier, more productive, and often live longer.

So, wherever you are — whether you’ve recently relocated to the other side of the freakin’ world, or one city over in an unfamiliar place — invest in your relationships.

It will pay immense dividends in the form of new experiences, incredible opportunities, and your overall happiness in the long-term.

Trust me — I am living proof of this.

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