One aspect of international careers and lifestyles that is rarely discussed, yet critical, is building and maintaining thriving social networks in your target destination abroad. The ability to create diverse networks and “plant your flag” in each city you go to will provide you with a strong return on your investment. But how does one go about doing this – especially if he or she is more of an introvert? Is there a systematic means by which an individual can create thriving social and professional circles out of thin air?
Yes, there certainly is. I will now proceed to tell you how to do this and how to maintain your international network, once constructed.
This piece will cover social networks and professional networks separately, because the approaches to crafting these are fundamentally different. Primarily, you will go through a background and explanation of what exactly is being proposed here, because executing a proactive and systematic method to building targeted networks and tribes in a foreign city and country is highly unorthodox. Afterwards, you’ll be provided with tips on how to best approach and blend into these groups, effectively planting your flag in different communities and cultures in your target destination abroad.
First, a bit of background on what this is all about. When I was an undergraduate at Penn, I decided to study and work abroad in Shanghai for my junior year and summer. During this time, I moved into a cushy apartment complex with dozens of other American expatriate students. While this was fun, I quickly realized that my life was strikingly similar to my stereotypical college life back at Penn. The entire purpose of my Shanghai journey was to meet new people, have new experiences, and begin turning China into my adopted business base and international playground. Five weeks into my study abroad program, it was nothing more than a non-stop beer pong tournament played with Tsingtao beer instead of Coors Light. Something had to change. I decided that I needed to branch out into different social circles and, since I didn’t have existing social circles in China, I would have to build them from scratch.
Through a combination of attending alumni events, chamber of commerce events, meetup groups, facebook events, and randomly running into interesting characters throughout my day (and especially at night), I began to build a diverse group of social circles outside of my study abroad group. This included representatives from the chamber of commerce, branch managers of multinationals, muay thai kickboxers, Koreans, Brazilians, Shanghainese, Chileans, Taiwanese, French, Swedes, and Penn Alumni. Ultimately, these lasting relationships set me up with the ability to get free housing, access to business opportunities, interview offers, job offers, and much more over the following 5 years.
Contacts are Currency
While my efforts to build my own circles required a lot of trial and error, it is ultimately a lot simpler and easier to accomplish than you think. This is fundamentally due to the fact that, once you go abroad, it is much easier to make a connection with other people than it otherwise would be at home. For example: if you and I are both from New York and we run into each other at Grand Central, it is of little consequence that we both happen to be Americans. However, if we ran into each other at a house party in Rio de Janeiro, we would suddenly have an instant connection and a plethora of discussion topics.
Ultimately, people who venture abroad for fun, academics, careers, or business are naturally trailblazers in some way, shape, or form. They are pioneers who have actively broken out of what their peer group and society tells them is the “right” path and definition of success. They are crafting their own unique and extraordinary life stories and are usually interested in sharing their story as well as hearing yours.
Expatriate communities are a great resource and are usually very useful in one way or another. Your first instinct upon meeting people in your target destination should always be “how can I add value to this person’s life?” Always be thinking about how you can help people out and assist them in whatever they may be doing in your shared adopted home. You will find that the karma will come back to you in spades.
Building a Professional Network
In general, I classify my circles into two distinct categories – social and professional. You’ll find that these groups will blend into each other more often than not. The best sources for these professional networks, I’ve found, have been at embassy meetings, chamber of commerce meetings, alumni groups, and an organization called “Toastmasters.” Toastmasters’ main purpose is to help individuals practice their public speaking, which is highly useful unto itself. However, people who go there tend to be the proactive and ambitious type. In most cities that have a Toastmasters presence, you will encounter many intelligent and diverse people with whom you can create strong and lasting relationships.
In addition to this, breaking into these sorts of events and exchanging information with people will help you immensely with the job hunt and with business development. If you are currently studying abroad or have recently graduated and are seeking gainful employment, I suggest that you intern or work at your country’s embassy or chamber of commerce. This experience will give you practical and country-specific skill sets and knowledge. That work experience, in turn, will inevitably provide you with practical tools that you can use to get offers in your city abroad or give you an edge in the job market back home.
Another beneficial result of these experiences will be that you will have direct access to a strong network of companies and decision makers in your target destination – assuming that it is a major city. By being in the “tribe” of the embassy or chamber of commerce, you are only one connection away from a lot of powerful people.
Always follow up on the contacts you’ve made. Send them something for free – PDF ebooks are particularly resourceful. Even if they don’t end up reading it, they will remember the gesture. From this point, if you’ve decided that you want to keep in touch, make an appointment to meet again – a good second meetup spot would be industry events, lunch or dinner, and a vodka-fueled night out – depending on the context of the relationship.
Building a Social Network
In general, people go to nightlife venues to go and mingle. However, I strongly suggest that you don’t rely on nightlife alone to build your social circle abroad. The problem with nightlife venues is that, on a subconscious level, if you keep meeting people specifically in the context of nightlife, you are unlikely to build a strong and sustainable relationship with anyone. I know this because I have “clubbing friends” in the majority of the cities I’ve been to. While the calls, texts, tweets, and pokes to come out and party are nice, it would be difficult for me to call them actual friends and not acquaintances.
However, having that sort of nightlife circle is fun and is certainly not mutually exclusive to having great friends; some of the best contacts I’ve made abroad have been over a round of drinks. Ultimately, you should be striving to create deep roots and strong bonds with your new friends. A solid way to do begin doing this is to engage in sports. The primary advantage you get from activities instead of clubbing is that you interact with people in an alcohol free environment, you have mutually intelligible conversations that everyone will remember, and you are likely to continue seeing this same group of people in the next class. If the activity involves switching partners, such as in salsa dance or boxing, you should get to know your partner as you dance with or pummel that individual. You may find that the two of you have more in common besides welts and bruises.
Moreover, taking dance classes in your target destination is a very effective way for a guy to have multiple dates in one night. You’re also paying a fraction of the price you’d otherwise pay in both cash and time to meet that many women in one night. You’ll also build a new skill set for yourself – a real win win.