Homes Around the World

How to Break the Ice with Your Neighbors If You’re Moving to a Foreign Country

published Aug 20, 2022
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Credit: Erin Little

The world is full of unique places to live, and with the rise in remote work and nomadic lifestyles, you may find yourself with the ability — or an insatiable desire — to move somewhere new that piques your interest. Whether you’re drawn by the artsy communities and colorful streets of Mexico or prefer to reside in a quaint Italian village and sip Tuscan wines, you can find an area that suits your needs. 

As with any move, even if you’re familiar with a destination, getting immersed in your neighborhood and making friends can prove challenging. And depending on the country, you may have to make the first move. But how? From doing your homework to rehearsing local lingo, here’s how to break the ice and hopefully make friends quickly when you move to a foreign country.

Learn some of the language.

If you’re moving to a largely English-speaking country like Iceland or South Africa, you’re ahead of the game by knowing how to speak the language. However, if you’re moving to a country with an unfamiliar tongue, you should learn how to communicate. Even when starting from scratch, learning to say hello, mastering a few basic phrases, and rehearsing a greeting can go a long way. “Prepare a speech in the local language introducing yourself, where you are from, and that you are their new neighbor,” advises food and travel blogger Isabelle Cheng

Karen Rosenblum lives in Spain, and although there are several communities filled with American expats, she chose to live in a Spanish neighborhood where learning some of the language was a must. It would have been impossible for her to break the ice and build trust in her community without intermediate-level Spanish knowledge. “Not only is speaking the language a sign of respect,” she says, “but without it, I’d be extremely isolated in my building and neighborhood.”

Give a gift from your home country.

Most people love receiving presents, especially if you choose something specific to your hometown or country. Matt Vickery has moved to several places, including Ukraine, Iraq, and Mauritius, and he feels that a gift can easily break the ice. “It opens up lots of opportunities to talk about each other’s background and often results in them wanting to share something about their culture and get you involved,” he says. In addition, giving a gift has led to his neighbors inviting him to explore their culture more. When choosing a present, be sure it’s just a tiny token instead of a lavish gift, so the recipient doesn’t feel awkward.

Respect cultural differences.

Not every destination is like the United States, so take the time to familiarize yourself with a new country’s culture to avoid unintentionally committing a faux pas. For example, while living in eight different countries, Samantha North has experienced the need to be culturally sensitive. As a result, she has adjusted to everything from wearing modest clothing and a headscarf in Qatar to experiencing Turkish hospitality firsthand by accepting invitations to tea. 

Before you enter the country, research the culture and be familiar with any customs and practices you should follow. Rosenblum stresses the necessity of having a proper mindset. “First and foremost, it is important to remember that you are the weird foreigner with strange habits, not them,” she advises. Instead of imposing American protocols on them, be sure to adapt to their habits. “It’s how you gain respect and even begin to make friends,” she adds. 

Teach them something about your country.

American traditions intrigue other countries, so be willing to help your neighbors learn about the U.S. if they show interest. For example, Patricia Palacios lived in Germany and had a neighbor express a desire to learn how to make hamburgers, so she seized the moment. “We decided to set up a grill in our apartment building’s courtyard and had the opportunity to meet all of our neighbors,” she reminisces. “It was a huge hit.” 

While you’re working on your foreign language skills, another option is to help your new friends practice English. When North was in China, her neighbors appreciated the opportunity to hone their English speaking skills, which allowed them to bond further.

Credit: Getty Images | 10'000 Hours

Go where the locals are.

When trying to get to know those in your neighborhood, you may still struggle to find folks with similar interests or who are in the same life phase. Candice Criscione has lived in various countries like Italy and New Zealand and has tried to get to know other parents during her stays. “Nearby parks and playgrounds provide meeting grounds for kids and the adults keeping track of them,” she tells Apartment Therapy, while stressing that she was also able to find out information that would help her as a parent. “You can ask your neighbors questions about schools, where to get school supplies, or what the local kids do for extracurricular activities,” she adds.

Social media groups can also help make quick connections. “When I first arrived in Bali, I joined a ‘travelers in Ubud’ Facebook group, and through them, I found a club that hosts dinners for expats and locals every Thursday,” says Katie Caf, who has also spent extensive time in Mexico and Peru. Additionally, Caf suggests using Bumble BFF to get to know neighbors you may not meet otherwise. “It’s a really helpful tool for when you’re just starting out in a new location,” she says. You can search by area and also narrow down your search to pinpoint a specific radius from your home.