I started a conversation with a guest host for the Newcomers Network Welcome to Perth event being hosted this Friday about the challenges of making new friends in Australia.
As an Australian who welcomes people here in a variety of ways with events and information, I find it very disappointing to realize that so many people find it difficult to connect with people who were born and raised in Australia.
My own perception is that many Australians are friendly and helpful when asked questions. They like to be of service to other people at that moment, but they are not always willing to ‘go the extra mile.’
Let me explain. Australia has a democratic, secular and Westernised culture that focuses on individual achievement and success. A great deal of our advertising messages contain sexual references, the notion that we ‘deserve’ something better than what we already have and that whatever is being promoted will make us feel happy and loved.
Contrast that with someone who comes from a remote island location where the unique language may only be spoken by the people living within a 100 kilometre radius and the culture is more collectivist - where the group’s success is much more important than the individual’s success. Where a local supermarket may still not have bar codes and scanner machines and provide access to a product range of 1,000 items not 20,000 items.
This is why I believe that many newcomers to Australia feel so isolated and alone. Many Australians have created busy lives full of time spent with their existing friends (that they have sometimes known since their childhood through school) families and communities – so when someone new comes along, they have the time to provide easy answers or suggestions but they are much more reluctant to make more of their time available to you because of their own over-commitment.
Simply translated, this means that it is much quicker and easier to form new friendships with other people who are newcomers or the elderly as they do not have as many time commitments.
Alternatively, some people are open to new friendships from people who share the same passion or interest.
For instance, if I am a mad keen Collingwood Football Club supporter, I may be prepared to spend more time with someone who also shares the same interest than someone who hates football.
If I have lived overseas and returned to Australia, I would know how hard it is to make new friends and be more willing to share my time with a new arrival. If I have gone through a traumatic health crisis, I may be more willing to connect with people who have shared the same difficulty.
If I am a new mother, I am likely to find the friendship of another new mother very comforting as we can spend adult time together with our children present and not feel as though we have to apologise for the behaviour of
our young children.
I believe it is biologically programmed into human beings for us to spend time with one another. This can be in the form of friendships, families (whatever combination this may be – not necessarily a married male and female adult with their own biological children) and communities.
As you are reading this article on the internet, I can assume that you are somewhere with internet access. There are many communities that can be found on the internet. You are also part of many other communities. You could be in any of the following or even more – your local residential neighbourhood, your work group, your sport or hobby, your profession, your extended family, your past locations, your faith group, etc.
But what you may not have realized is that if you have recently moved (within the last three years), even if you still remain in contact with some of these communities from your past location, to really feel welcome and at home in your new location, you will need to recreate these networks so that you have the same sense of community, friendship, support and relationship.
In Australia, to start this process, I would encourage you to start with the easiest communities first – the places where you naturally have an opportunity to introduce yourself and speak to the same people on a regular basis (after all, there is a theory that you need to have at least seven communication exchanges at different times for you to be able to begin a relationship with someone).
Over the last 10 years, it seems as though there has been an explosion in purchased food and beverage venues. Coffee shops, dine in cake and chocolate shops, cheaper restaurants with foods from virtually every world nation and other venues with special themes (fast food, seafood, bread, wood fired pizzas etc).
The owners of these venues often work in the shop and are a wonderful resource of local information. They often get to know their clientele very well and welcome the opportunity to serve you and others on a regular basis. They may not necessarily become a part of your circle of friends but seeing their familiar faces on a regular basis will make you feel more welcome in your new location. They may be able to make good recommendations to you for local doctors, dentists, hairdressers etc.
When you move into a new house, unit or apartment in Australia, it is up to you to introduce yourself to your neighbours. Do this as soon as you can and if you feel comfortable, you can provide them with your name, telephone number and/or email address. It can be a good idea to invite them to come and speak to you at anytime and contact you if they need some assistance. I have found that people very rarely do request assistance (apart from simple tasks like collecting their mail or putting the rubbish bins out for collection whilst they are away) but the offer is always appreciated. If you are asked for too much assistance, you can always decline in the future. There is no obligation to provide help.
Some years ago I was told about an Australian Cricketer’s wife who had two small children and moved into a very wealthy Sydney suburb. She went with her children to several houses in her local street to introduce herself to her new neighbours. These people looked after her home whilst she was overseas or away and she was also able to secure occasional babysitting. She also had the sense of belonging to her new neighbourhood as her husband travelled for long periods of time and her neighbours knew this and would sometimes pop in for a quick visit to check everything was okay or spend time with her young family.
Another story relates to a Scottish woman who arrived with her husband and I met her at a local community house. In Scotland, the place to meet local residents was at the local pub on any day of the week, in particular during the evening. She could not find anyone in Australia to join her at a pub on a weeknight and she felt completely isolated – I do not think I will ever forget the look of loneliness I saw on her face that night as I understood so clearly how the Australian way of life was so different to the Scottish way of life.
I have recently met a lot of Brazilian people. They are by nature very social people who enjoy catching up with friends in group settings. However, they do not always arrive at the start of an event or leave when it is considered to be finished – Australians in capital cities are very conscious about time and planning ahead – even scheduling times when they will next meet their friends. Many Brazilians are much more comfortable with flexible arrangements and for the meticulous person preparing a gourmet dinner party with carefully selected guests scheduled to arrive 20 minutes before the entrée is served, this can be infuriating!
On the other hand, if you have moved to regional Australia or to a warmer city like Darwin, arriving for a business meeting in work related clothing (not necessarily a suit and tie) can be acceptable. There is an expression called ‘Gold Coast Casual’ – because the weather is so warm, a shirt with a collar is considered to be more dressy than a plain t-shirt but a tie is not usually necessary. These subtle nuances can make you appear very different to local people and it can make finding new friends a little bit more challenging until you understand the local cultural norms.
Speaking clear English is an essential skill to have in Australia. My personal preference for securing Australian Citizenship would be a requirement for people to improve their English to an even higher standard as this will provide them with many more advantages in life here than knowing about some of our cultural history.
Australians hear a lot of very clear English on radio, the television, in music and with the people that they meet – and it can be so much harder for them to understand someone who has an accent that is different to their own. If you are concerned about your English I would encourage to use it more (not less) and simply speak more slowly than you might normally and pronounce each word as clearly as you can (don’t run words together and mumble).
My final point is related to determination. Just like a sales person who faces many rejections before a final sale, you need to make an effort to meet people in whatever context you feel comfortable (this could include online communities if you are shy and want to get to know people before meeting them). I met a woman originally from the Philippines who also lived in Korea who suggests that in your first 12 months, meet as many people as you can and make friends with as many of them as possible (regardless of age, background etc) and then in your second 12 months, decide who you would like to keep seeing and stop communicating with the rest.
It might sound cold and calculated, but it actually works very well as the people that you relate to well will remain in your friendship circle but those who don't will gradually disappear. There is a well known saying - you form friends for a reason, a season or for life. Do not be too anxious about which category they are in, enjoy their company for however long you have it and remember that there are always people somewhere in the world that love you and have you in their thoughts.
If you have any other suggestions, please contact us!
Written by Sue Ellson, Founder and Director, Newcomers Network, 7th April 2010
Keywords for Finding Friends in Australia - friends, friendship, family, community, communities, activities, events, Australia, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Canberra, Brisbane, meet, online, reason, season, life, fun, meet, making, introduce, local, neighbourhood, information, location, people