How to make (and keep) friends as a digital nomad

Jorge Alexandre
Written by Jorge Alexandre
on October 27, 2021

When people envision the life of a digital nomad, they think about freedom. The flexibility of working from anywhere in the world while exploring different cultures, cuisines, places, sounds — who in their right mind wouldn't say "Where do I sign up?" 

But the reality is that loneliness is one of the main reasons why digital nomads quit this always-on-the-move lifestyle. It's hard to keep in touch with old friends back home when you're 7 time zones ahead of them. And it's even harder to form lasting friendships when you know you're only here for a month or so before it's on to the next location. 

Humans are a sociable species by nature. Social connections and the need to belong to a community are contributing factors for our development, and survival, as a species.  

Even introverted people who prefer their screens to human contact can experience deteriorating mental health when isolating themselves for too long. 

My experience as a digital nomad has helped me to realize that the only way to overcome loneliness is by taking action and doing something about it! In this article, I will share my personal experience in addition to some learnings I picked up from various social media debates. 

Keep in mind that my learnings might not be universal as we are all different and have to find our own ways through life. But I believe that the only way to combat loneliness is to take some initiative (easier said than done, of course!). Keep reading and we'll figure this out together.

Start small: try to speak with one stranger per day

As someone who prefers talking to people online rather than face to face, I'll be the first to admit it's hard for me to make friends when I arrive somewhere new. 

Many travel blogs claim that co-working hubs or trendy coffee shops are the best places to chat up fellow digital nomads or people you're likely to share common interests with. I don't know about you, but the idea of initiating a conversation with someone at another table — who 90% of the time is wearing noise-canceling headphones — is absolutely terrifying to me! 

In my experience, the real reason these locations are great for socializing is that they organize themed events. And it's true that if you manage to strike up a conversation while waiting for your 3rd americano of the day — you'll likely have something in common (overcaffeination, for starters).

The key takeaway is that if you want to meet locals or fellow travellers, try out different environments where natural opportunities for conversation are likely to occur.  

After months spent in lockdown, we all have some form of social anxiety. So don't overthink it, and try to speak with one stranger per day. Chances are that the person who you're talking to will welcome this social interaction. What's the worst thing that can happen? Are they gonna spit in your face? Not likely.

Level up your small talk game

If asking a person about their day feels weird and intrusive, you can always start a more utilitarian conversation by asking, "Where's the best place to eat around here?" I've found that asking for advice or help solving a problem is by far the best way to make a friend. If you're still feeling shy, remember that people genuinely enjoy helping others and sharing their opinions.

Another helpful point to remember is that your neighbors at the next table have made a conscious choice to come to a co-working space instead of staying isolated at home. And you made that choice too. There, you have something in common. Embrace it!

Whatever you end up talking about, this interaction will force you out of your comfort zone and re-energize your brain. It's also okay if you only manage awkward small talk at first. Most people will sincerely appreciate the effort you're making and help dissolve the awkwardness by meeting your efforts halfway. 

And if you're like me and cannot handle the painful monotony of, "the weather is nice today, isn't it?" then use social media to reach out to people who are in your next location. Another tactic would be to join a local online community (Facebook has digital nomad groups for thousands of cities) and ask for tips, ideas, etc. When you reach this new location, post a friendly message that you're in town with an open invitation to hang out and grab coffee, lunch, beers, etc.

This has literally been my primary strategy for initiating social contact for me and my girlfriend over the past 6 months. And I'm happy to report that not only have we made some great friends but minimal awkwardness was experienced in the process!

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Make the effort to maintain existing relationships

The recurring idea of this piece is that it can be challenging to have authentic social interactions as a digital nomad. And while I've found this to be true, so many people forget about how important it is to maintain their existing network of friends and acquaintances — and mine these connections when you're feeling those pangs of loneliness set in. 

While making new friends is important for satisfying short-term needs for social contact, long-term relationships are crucial for maintaining a high quality of life. We all need someone to reminisce with, to feel a sense of kinship with, and most importantly, to share inside jokes with. We need to feel like we belong. And that doesn't happen without real effort. 

It's easy to focus only on what's around you, and only maintain strong ties with your immediate family and closest friends back home.  Connections are temporarily lost, and only revived next time you're in town. But even if it feels easy to rekindle those friendships, I've found these long stretches without communication weaken even the strongest relationships. 

So next time you feel like you can leave your friend on "read" or hope they won't notice that you forgot to wish them a happy birthday (while vowing to remember next year) —  remember that each relationship is an investment, and you need to allocate your attention and time to nurture these connections even across long distances. 

Schedule catch-up time in your calendar (seriously!)

Here's a go-to tip that I've found to be very effective. I schedule a "30 minutes for friends" block in my calendar and this small but meaningful step has been one of my most successful strategies for combatting loneliness as a digital nomad.  

Let me break it down a bit more. Once every few days, I actively take 30 minutes to message a friend from back home, have a call with someone that I met on a previous trip, send a picture of something that reminded me of a buddy — you get the gist, right? It's kinda similar to taking the initiative point previously made, but instead of starting something new, you are reinforcing an already-existing connection. 

As a real-world example, I recently found a funny postcard in Koh Samui of 2 elephants doing... something (you know what I mean). So I bought it, wrote something quickly on it as a joke, and sent it to a friend. Now the waiting game is on and I can't wait to get his reaction! 

More strategies for maintaining long-distance connections

  • Don't fall into the "I'll catch them next time" mental trap. Make the effort to schedule meet-ups with friends when you're in town.

  • Play multiplayer video games with friends back home

  • Have a virtual happy hour for catchup

  • Random 5 min calls (important to have time zone differences in mind and I use this free website)

Not all connections need to last forever

As with everything, relations with people and communities come and go. Sometimes you might feel that it's not even worth it to even try to make new friends, especially with digital nomads due to our always-on-the-move lifestyle. 

But it’s important to realize that even if the connections disappear, the moments, conversations, and memories together won’t. You can learn so much by having a chat with a fellow stranger. In my personal experience talking to strangers, you learn about them... but you learn a lot about yourself, too. And it would be a shame if you didn't embrace the opportunity.

 

About Jorge

Jorge is a digital nomad from Portugal with experience in the startup world, remote working, and Chinese technology. He worked previously at Wise and Deel and is currently a remote graduate student at SOAS University of London.

In his free time, you can find him learning new languages or planning his next destination, be it a restaurant or a new city in a different corner of the world. Jorge uses Xolo Leap so his business can travel the world along with him. 

Want to read more from Jorge? Check out his latest:

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