Friendship in the context of migration

Friendship in the context of migration

Harriet Westcott

We often take our friends for granted, until we experience life shifts that remind us how important they are as a source of sociability and emotional support.  Migrating has impacts on friendship because migrants leave old friends behind, and need to make new friends in another country.  Migration is increasing as a social trend, so it is important to understanding the personal and emotional impacts on friendship.

But who are friends?  One of the first things to consider in any discussion of friendship is that different people define their friends in different ways.  Some people make clear distinctions between friends and family: friends are separate and discrete from sisters, brothers, and other extended family members.  For others, friends can blur into, or even be chosen as family, meaning that friends and family can be interchangeable.  Sometimes people who migrate without their family can choose people that they feel an emotional bond with to form family-like relationships, as a stand-in for these roles.  This can be particularly important when family are in another country.  Other ambiguities when defining and enacting friendship include: whether current or previous romantic partners are friends; how many friends you can have at any one time; and, if it is reasonable to make friends with your friend’s friends, or not.  Various additional factors can also have an impact, such as each person’s social preferences and personal levels of sociability, and their past friendship experiences.

Bearing in mind the diversity about how friends can be understood, it becomes apparent that making friends in a new country might not be as easy as you’d think.  Aside from other potential friends not necessarily understanding friendship in the same way, there are often language barriers and cultural variations to consider too.  The initial period immediately following migration can be socially empty and lonely.  Friendship is reciprocal, so, wanting to be friends isn’t enough to have a friendship, because the other person has to be interested in pursuing that too.  Often the stage after migration can be marked by transient friendships, whereby people are drawn upon for help such as finding a new job or somewhere to live.  These supports are invaluable to migrants, and do serve a purpose, however they are not necessarily emotionally close, or long-lasting.  Instead, making meaningful friendships takes a long time, a lot of effort and a thick skin.  Migrants must be prepared for false leads, and latent and overt rejection to their overtures for friendship.

Despite these difficulties, migrants can make friends in a range of places.  Work, religious organisations, study, playing sport and volunteering can all be sites to find and make friends.  This process is smoother when there is a common interest of some kind, and a reason to meet and easily spend time with the potential friend(s) on a regular basis.  Over time these bonds can grow, and friendships develop.  Successfully making friends also depends on who the migrant is making friends with.  In my research with skilled migrants to Australia, migrants found that other migrants were more open to friendship, perhaps because they’d shared the experience of moving to a new country, had space in their friendship repertoire for new friends, or wanted to be friends with people from the same place as them.

However, many of the migrants who I interviewed wanted to be friends with locals, not other migrants. Because these friendships were not always forthcoming they looked to other migrants instead.  Sometimes migrants will also change who they will be friends with, choosing friendship with types of people that they would not consider back home, so that they can have a friend at all.  Key here is that migrants are in an unequal position to locals who already have an established social life, so their need for friendship is usually less pressing.  In contrast, migrants need friends to fill the social void ensuing from migration.

Along with spending time and doing activities together, humour is a great way to feel connected to others and to build the trust that cements an authentic relationship.  I am going to focus on humour in more detail here because like friendship, humour is often taken for granted.  However, migrants can struggle with humour, particularly if the host country language isn’t their first language, even though they may speak it well.  This is because humour is culturally specific, can involve slang, and sometimes uses stereotypes of minority groups as the focus of jokes.  Timing can be crucial to joking, so explaining the punchline to a non-native speaker who missed it the first time introduces an obstruction which relinquishes the fun, and generates a subtle social disconnect.  Humour can refer to unknown local customs, TV shows that everyone watched as a kid, or other random events that migrants simply don’t know about because they happened before they migrated, making the joke unfunny.  Of course, these complications occur on both sides: the migrant might not understand the joke, and likewise, the migrant’s joke may fall flat.  This can all be emotionally trying for a migrant who is trying hard to be liked.  So whilst humour can be a way to bring people together, it can sometimes be excluding for migrants.  Of course, understanding and generating humour can improve over time, as migrants live for longer in the host country.

Migrants coming to a new country also leave friends behind.  Old friends are no longer geographically close, or co-present.  Therefore, a consequence of migrating is the need to stay in touch with old friends in order to maintain the friendship.  Broadly this can happen in two ways, either by using traditional and contemporary means to stay in touch, such as letters, phone calls, emails and social media, and, making visits home.  Letters, postcards and cards are highly personal ways to communicate, because the letter is imbued with a sense of themselves in the time taken to write, the particularity of their writing (if handwritten) and by choosing what to send (if a card).  However, communicating by post is not immediate.  In contrast, new media technologies provide multiple means for migrants to maintain ties over distance, are cheap, offer simultaneous as well as serial communication, and are readily available in many countries.  The visual nature of Skype, Facebook and other social media is also a welcome way to see people who are far away.

Conversely though, communications technologies can exacerbate migrant’s feelings of distance and homesickness.  This can be because being made aware of what people are doing back home can make migrants wish that they were there too, or remind them about people who wouldn’t ordinarily have come to mind.  Likewise, the migrant might not want everyone back home to see them, or might feel surveilled in a way which is intrusive rather than caring.  Finally, even though texts, instant messaging and other similar real-time communication is usually readily available, migrants often have to deal with incongruous time zones that can impede communication.  In reality, it can be necessary to book in communication with home, to avoid late night and possibly inappropriate drunken calls whilst old friends soberly eat breakfast.  Different time zones can also mean that migrants might put off connecting with an old friend until a mutually agreeable time, delaying contact.  Both scenarios can remove the spontaneity of friendship, and subsequently change the ways that friendship occurs.

Visits home can overcome some of the dilemmas with staying in touch over distance, by providing the opportunity to see friends face-to-face.  However, rarely is the home visit the same as actually being at home with friends.  In many ways visiting home is an artificial situation, because contrary to the usual rhythms of daily life the migrant is only available for a specified interval.  This can add pressure to the migrant and the old friends alike.  For the migrant, visits home can be characterised by rushing from one place to another, attempting to catch up with everybody, and endless rounds of repeating the same news to old friends.  The visit home then, is not always a relaxing holiday.  This is an irony because many migrants will have taken paid or even unpaid annual leave to make the trip.  Indeed, visiting home requires an outlay of energy, time, and money.  When migrants have travelled a long way from home, the price of travel can be especially costly, and can increase when and if migrants have a family due to the need to buy additional tickets for a spouse and children.  For migrants who have lived in many countries previously, friends can be globally dispersed, adding to travel expenditure.  These outlays are not always considered or appreciated by old friends, who might feel left behind, or resentful about the migrant’s new life in another country.

The number of visits home can diminish over time.  Often migrants will visit frequently in the early years following migration.  The first visit can be marked as a special occasion by friends back home, who typically will make time outside their usual obligations to see the migrant.  As time passes, this can be less likely to occur.  Migrants make fewer visits, and old friends give these visits less significance in their calendar.  Life changes such as having a family can also play a role here, placing multiple demands on people’s available time.  The experience of the home visit is another consideration to understanding how migration changes friendship.   Migrants’ might imagine that their friendship will carry on where it left off.  Whilst this can happen, the lack of currency and co-presence can also lead to a weakening of shared interests and emotional ties, and a realisation that old friends no longer get on.  Migrants have to deal with this rupture, which can lead to feelings of emotional loss and nostalgia for the old friendship.

It is clear that migration has personal and emotional impacts on friendship.  Of course individual experiences will vary, yet migration does inevitably change changes the ways friendship is enacted and defined, and these changes evolve dynamically following migration.


Harriet Westcott has worked in academia for over a decade, teaching sociology and doing research. Prior to academia Harriet worked for a decade in social research roles for NGOs and government in the UK and Australia.