Something happens to us as we get older – it's almost like we develop social fear. While age, undoubtedly, brings about an improvement in many of our civil traits – the ability to stop ourselves from having a tantrum in the supermarket, for example – there are some parts of our social consciousness that become stunted with time.
I was sunbathing at my pool on Reem Island recently when I overheard a conversation between two young girls, who must have been no more than seven years old and were clearly meeting each other for the first time. "I like your swimming costume," said one to the other, after spotting her playing at the side of the pool. "I have a pink frilly one at home, too, but today I have my blue one on. Do you like it?" she asked, with all the conviction of someone fully expecting "yes" for an answer.
The other girl, much shyer and slightly hesitant, nodded her head while bashfully stroking the frills of her own costume. I turned back to my book and tuned out, thinking nothing more of the encounter. A couple of hours later, the pair caught my attention again. By now, they were screaming in delight as they chased each other around the edge of the pool, arranging to meet there again the next weekend – both wearing their frilly pink costumes this time.
The older we get, the more those what-ifs fill our heads
As I lay there, alone, jolted from the pages of the novel I had spent the afternoon lost in, I took a quick glance at the other solo sunbathers to see if anyone else had a stripy bikini similar to the one I was wearing. And I wondered if it would be so easy for me to stroll up to a stranger, unsolicited, and bond over something as basic as a shared taste in swimwear. Could something so simple result in a newfound friend and plans to hang out again next week?
It’s a perfectly feasible scenario, but the reality is it just wouldn’t happen – in fact, the mere thought of it gives me anxiety. “What if they think I’m weird?”; “They’d definitely think I’m weird”; “What would we talk about after we ran out of swimsuit-related small talk?” The what-ifs in my head were infinite, with very few positive outcomes.
As I packed up my things and scurried up to my empty apartment, I began reflecting on the reality of making friends as an adult – something I have done a lot since moving to the UAE six months ago. When it comes to friendship, children are usually fearless, bonding over the simplest of things. The older we get, the more those what-ifs fill our heads, and previous experiences of rejection stop us from putting ourselves out there in that same carefree way.
If the second little girl had ignored the first, or the conversation had dried up within two minutes, chances are, neither would have given the encounter a second thought. But had the same thing happened between two adults, there would have been much anguish, evaluation and analysis as to whether you went about things the right way and what that person thinks of you now.
How to make friends as an adult is something I thought about only after I arrived in the UAE. Until then, it had just sort of happened. While I don't have an excessively large friendship group, the few close friends I have are akin to family. But that was at home, in Bristol. Those relationships have been up to 25 years in the making, and have been nurtured with time, love and shared memories, shaping them into the airtight bonds they are.
Putting yourself out there
Moving to a new country often means leaving those bonds behind, and while some people may have ready-made connections waiting for them when they arrive, for many, it means starting all over again. Loneliness seems to be an almost inevitable part of living abroad. It's the evil twin of all the other tax-free, sunshine-filled benefits. But it doesn't have to be. While I was pondering the pool encounter, I thought about the ways in which I had reached out to people since I arrived here – gestures that were not overtly blatant, but still took guts.
I joined a netball team despite not playing in a decade; I used platforms such as MeetUp and Bumble BFF to find potential connections; and I even sent a message to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend (really) after spending weeks convincing myself that she would think I was strange for contacting her out of the blue. She didn’t. And we hang out regularly now.
Six months ago, I would never have done those things. Surrounded by the comfort blanket of my long-standing friends and family, it would have seemed alien to me. But what might have been the social norm in your home country goes out the window when you move abroad, and whether we realise it or not, we all resort to a more childlike way of forging connections. After all, we already have two things in common: the UAE and leaving home. And those commonalties come with a side of empathy, a shared understanding of what it means to make that move and to feel lonely, and the courage it takes to befriend a complete stranger.
So while it still might be a while before I approach an unsuspecting sunbather at my pool trying to strike up a conversation, I will remember those two little girls the next time I feel nervous about putting myself out there. It might come to nothing, but it could just be the start of a blossoming friendship – matching swimsuits and all.