The Fleetingness of Expat Friendships

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader provides the flip side of these readers’ experiences:

I grew up as an expat. I left America at the age of four, did six years in Switzerland, then seven years after that in London before returning to America for my junior and senior years of high school. I feel that was a hell of a way to spend a childhood, but there are definitely negative effects when it comes to friendships.

Friendships made can be very quick to form, but looking back, almost all of them were friendships of utility: We were in the same place at the same time, and happened to get along well enough to help each other. From my expat days, there are really only two relationships that I maintain. The rest of those friendships dissolved the moment I or they got moved, with some promise of “staying in touch.”

My sense of the reason for this is the first few levels of emotional intimacy are cheap to give and cheaper to accept.

It’s the nature of the expat life; you need other people to help you, so you are willing to cut straight through the feeling-each-other-out stage of friendship. But with most people you hit a wall, where a deeper friendship just isn’t possible or there. And further, even if it could be, you aren’t always willing to take a chance that the person will still be here a month from now.

That uncertainty is key. Everyone goes home eventually, and you never quite know which way the wind is blowing. So you end up never  getting really close to anyone, to protect yourself from the inevitable pain of watching them go.

I wouldn’t trade my experience growing up overseas for anything. But that attitude towards friendship doesn’t stop at the shore. Expat life screwed with my ability to create deep, long-term friendships. Always I think in the back of my mind about if this person will leave, if it is worth the time and effort to be intimate against the risk. And often, it is simply easier to say no.

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