Three Ways International Work Changed How I Make Friends {The Grove: Friendship}

You know that thing that happens when you start thinking about a topic and then you see it everywhere?

A Facebook friend recently posted this article from the New York Times. It’s about the “quotidian familiarity” possible in female friendships as compared to the expectations of a romantic relationship or marriage. A takeaway is the idea that it could be good practice to mark and celebrate our intimate female friendships and the roles we play for one another with anniversary-like regularity and intent.

Then this article from Relevant came up in my Twitter feed. It’s about five kinds of friendships to pursue. What I like most about it is Kristen Howerton’s writing and the emphasis on mutual openness with an eye towards growth, both personal and communal.

These articles aren’t written for cross-cultural workers, but I see qualities of vibrant friendships in them that for me were acquired overseas.

  1. Anyone is a potential friend

When I moved overseas, my world got bigger and smaller all at once, especially in terms of my friendships. Over the years, my friends have scattered over the globe, and I’m as likely to run into one at an open-air market in SE Asia as I am at my neighborhood grocery store. That’s the bigger part.

The smaller part is that before I learned the language, my pool of potential friends was tiny. So, fruitful and lasting friendships developed with people that I would never have elected before. Younger and older, married and single, more and less fashion-conscious than me, more and less theologically and politically conservative than me, and on and on. These markers became increasingly less important to me.

Back in my passport country, I resist the cultural prods that encourage friendships based on gender and season of life. That puts me in circles of moms with young children, and there are certainly women there with whom I want to cultivate intimate friendships. But I find myself craning up and over their heads and politely kicking against those prods because I know from experience my closest friends may not be of this flock.

  1. The discipline of small talk

I recently read this phrase, “the discipline of small talk,” and now can’t remember where. If you by chance have seen it too, comment please. Anyway, it resonated with me. One, because the language of discipline appeals to me, and two, because small talk can be nothing other than a discipline for me.

I’ve explored the function of small talk both as a language teacher and as a language and culture learner in China, and the truth is that it serves a vital purpose in building and maintaining relationships. Not just in a functional, “let’s get this over with so that we can get to the good stuff” kind of way, but also in its own right. The mundane things we talk about are filters through which we develop a sense of knowing someone. Way more happens during small talk than the exchange of pleasantries. It can be sacred space in which hearts turn towards one another or away.

  1. Distance doesn’t have to distance

I don’t mean that distance won’t alter your friendships. It will. It’s important to both acknowledge and grieve those shifts. Then jettison the guilt that plagues when it’s been too long since you caught up, since you made that Skype date, or returned that email, or missed that coffee date when you were in town.

Spontaneous, quick touches are enough. Like I said, the mundane details, both asking for and offering, are the stuff of continued connection. That connection could eventually see you back into heart-to-heart space. Or not. It’s okay.

There’s surprising potential here, too. I noticed that some friendships atrophied when I went overseas, and others bloomed. New ones even started. I did not expect that. For example, a team of people I’d never met came to help us for a week. One of those visitors became a friend I call up to invite myself over for brunch when I’m in town.

We have the best talks, and I always click on her Facebook links.

Where is the topic of friendship popping up for you? How has working internationally altered the way you make friends?


This is The Grove.  It’s where we gather to share our thoughts, our words, and our art.  So join us in the comments.  Show us your art work by adding an image. And link up your own blog posts on this week’s prompt “Metaphor”.  Click here for details and instructions. 


  1. Joyce Stauffer March 10, 2016

    Kim, thanks for sharing! Great writing as always!  It is so true that “cultural prods” in our passport country seem to assume we’ll hang out with those “like us.” But we’re forever different from being overseas, so we may enjoy the “variety” much more– friends and acquaintances of different ages and backgrounds!

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Thanks, Joyce! Your comment got me thinking about variety, and how our holy aspiration to be content in any and every situation can get twisted so that we fail to pursue the wonderful diversity that God has made. I’m so thankful to have developed a taste for variety in my friendships, and I’m thankful to count you among them.

  2. Leslie Verner March 10, 2016

    “Then jettison the guilt that plagues when it’s been too long since you caught up, since you made that Skype date, or returned that email, or missed that coffee date when you were in town.” Yes. This is my problem– the guilt! But I’m learning to let it go and trust that my friends know I still love them. Love your insights in this article. And I’m so thankful to be one of the friends you found through living internationally.;-)

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Thanks, Leslie! How many years did we go without much contact? And still I always knew that I loved you and you me. Now look how God has given us back to each other again in a new way.

    2. Michele Womble March 11, 2016

      I really liked that part, too, Leslie.  I also appreciate what you said “I’m learning to let it go and trust that my friends know I still love them.”
      I need to learn to do that, too.

  3. Elizabeth March 11, 2016

    I’ve always gravitated to older women for my friendships. I have friendships my own age,too, but I love that older women have lived more and learned more, and often I have more in common with them anyway. So I love that whole getting outside the “age box” that seems so prevalent in America.

    Also — the small talk discipline! Love it. Funny, I was just thinking about small talk last week, about how you don’t really know someone unless you spend enough small talk time with them to know the food they like, the books and movies, the colors and clothes and cars they like. Some of those things might seem inconsequential, but they’re really all part of the big package of who we are, and it’s in the little details that we get to know one another so well. It’s how my husband knows to buy me V-8 or a Jane Austen movie and how my best friend knows to get me a science book or a logic puzzle. The little details do matter! Thanks for drawing attention to it!

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Elizabeth, I love reading those little details about you! Mine would be a very small decaf coffee or a documentary, a Yoga Journal (used to be People until the editor changed =( or a card game.

      1. Elizabeth March 11, 2016

        I like documentaries and card games too (as long as they’re not so fast-paced that I get lost)!

    2. Michele Womble March 11, 2016

      I love the idea of small talk as a discipline, too.  I hadn’t thought of it as a discipline, exactly, but I think it’s true, we really have to discipline ourselves and  LEARN how to do small talk well.  I like that you (Kimberly)  said that it has a purpose…and Elizabeth, that without small talk how do we know or find out the details about people…it’d be like exploring Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the ocean) and then thinking we knew the ocean when we haven’t yet seen a beach or snorkeled in reefs..

  4. Alison March 11, 2016

    SO many helpful points in this article!

    In particular, the idea of small talk being a discipline! It’s especially noteworthy to me, being an introvert who is, usually, averse to small talk! Is there a specific article useful to growing in this discipline?

    I also loved “I resist the cultural prods that encourage friendships based on gender and season of life.” because, as a single in an international worker community, I have often found that my friendships with women who were married with/without children often left me wanting…

    Well written, thought provoking, and in some ways, healing. Thank you!

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Thanks, Alison! I’m so glad this post was good to you. Don’t miss the link in Rachel’s comment below; it’s such a good article! As an introvert myself, I’m stoked to poke around this new site I didn’t know existed.

      Also through a commenter, I am newly aware of the book The Black Swan Effect by Felicity Dale in which I hear she addresses friendship between genders beautifully. It’s on my to-read list now. Maybe you want to add it to yours. Apparently, we’re not alone. =)

      1. Alison March 14, 2016

        I’ll have to check that book out, Kimberly. Thank goodness for not being alone! haha 🙂

  5. Rachel March 11, 2016

    love how serving overseas has caused me to make friends with those different than myself.  It is so stretching and so so good!

    I am wondering if this is the article you read about small talk?  I found it through Emily Freeman’s blog and it stood out to me!

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Oh! Thank you, Rachel! That wasn’t the one, but it’s even better. =) I am so happy to learn about Quiet Revolution.

    2. Alison March 14, 2016

      What a great recommendation Rachel! I really enjoyed that article. Thank you!

  6. Grace L March 11, 2016

    It is one of the things that I love about living overseas here in Asia – spending so much time with people in their 20’s and 30’s. And they seem to love being with a 70 year old! It certainly helps me to stay young. When we go back to the states for a visit, we do spend time with older people, and that too can be interesting, especially if they also have a global vision.

    One thing that I marvel at is how many people we have met since working internationally, people we would never have met if we hadn’t stepped out for this work. Our lives are so rich from the many new relationships we have formed. I am reminded of a song we used to sing in Girl Scouts: “Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” In all this I treasure my best friend back home that I have know for more than 25 years.

    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      Grace, I’m humming that tune. =) What a treasure to have a best friend of 25+ years. And what wealth to have such a variety of friends in Asia and at home. They are all richer for befriending you, too.

  7. Michele Womble March 11, 2016

    I just wrote a whole long comment that I was almost finished with and then lost it. 🙁

    I’m not going to rewrite all of it (yet, at least, maybe tomorrow) but I wanted to say that I really appreciate each of the points in your post, Kimberly.  Saying “Spontaneous, quick touches are enough. Like I said, the mundane details, both asking for and offering, are the stuff of continued connection. That connection could eventually see you back into heart-to-heart space. Or not. It’s okay.” feels like permission granted to let it go and not worry (I’ve been worried about not staying deeply connected enough with some of my friends – friends with whom I WANT to stay connected) ….it’s true that the small talk and the small connections keep us…connected…so that when the opportunity IS there to jump into the deep end – we’re close by because we’ve stayed in the shallow end instead of leaving the pool altogether.  It’s not so hard to get into the deep end from the shallow end.

    It would also be hard to stay in the deep end all the time.  The deep end is great, but eventually I’d get worn out.


    1. Kimberly Todd March 11, 2016

      That’s the worst! I’m sorry, Michele. I’m sure you put a lot of care into that comment. Thanks for persevering with this one. If you come back, cool. If not, it’s enough. =)

      I’m so glad there’s permission in here to go a little lighter, a little freer. I need that permission daily, and I don’t always get it…or give it. =(

      I love your water illustrations here and above about how important all the depths of friendship are – from shallow to dark trench. It’s so good to see the shallows as an appealing, relaxing place that I want to hang out.

  8. Anna March 11, 2016

    This topic stirred up lots of thoughts. 🙂  I’ve appreciated small talk since a scene in the opening chapters of “War and Peace” that I read between my junior and senior years in high school, and I’ve been meaning to reread for the past 20 years.  One of the characters uses small talk to diffuse a tense situation.  That was a lightbulb moment for me, and I’ve used that strategy with various success.

    Probably the best and worst part of life overseas are friendships.  The worst because we have to say so many good-byes and all our people are scattered everywhere.  The best because we get to meet so many new friends, and because they are scattered everywhere, we get to reconnect with friends almost everywhere we go.

    Living in another culture with multiple languages also helped me to appreciate small talk more.  Often, that’s all I could do, but slowly over time, relationships built.  It was different from the way I was used to building them- lots of time and shared experience instead of lots of talking.

    While still in the US, I also learned the lesson of having friends with many differences.  Some of that was due to multiple moves in different areas of the country.  At one point, I met a lady in church and quickly judged her as someone I had nothing in common with.  We ended up teaching a class together, and she has been one of my close friends.  (That was over 10 years ago.)  After that, I realized that some of the people that I had the most in common with on the surface weren’t my closest friends.  Often those I became close to had deeply shared values.  I think they influence more than we realize.

    1. Elizabeth March 11, 2016

      I love that — using small talk to smooth over a tense situation. That’s beautiful. I need to learn how to do that!

    2. Kimberly Todd March 12, 2016

      Anna, your “lots of thoughts” are fantastic. Thank you for writing them out for us!

      I love Russian lit. I’m very slowly working my way through The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. It’s cool that your small talk revelation came so early and through such a great source. =)

      1. Michele Womble March 12, 2016

        oh, cool!  Have you read Crime and Punishment?  It’s amazing.

    3. Michele Womble March 12, 2016

      Anna, I LOVE “War and Peace”! (High Five. )  I’ve been intending to go back and read it, again, as well –  I may read it in Russian next time.  🙂

      Funny how bests and worsts go hand in hand.


  9. Wendy March 18, 2016

    Boo, I blogged about Friends yesterday, but missed getting it on here for the linkup. Never mind. It was a good prompt that made me think hard. Here’s my link:

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