How to make friends and enjoy your social life as a digital nomad

Sonja & David
My friend David with his daughter, Sonja. Hanging out with them in Portland.
When I tell people about my life as a digital nomad, questions I often hear are, “don’t you get lonely?” and “How do you stand going to a place where you don’t know anyone?”

My answer is: not so far, and it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with old friends and make new friends. The world is small.

Here’s how it works.

When I’m getting ready to go to a new place, I first ask my closest friends if they know anyone in the new location that I might like to meet and if they would mind putting me in touch with them. This worked well for moving to Oaxaca, Portland, and Seattle. This is just one of many methods that have worked for me.

I’ll also discuss:

  • Friends of close friends
  • Friends of Facebook friends
  • Friends come to visit you in your nomadic life
  • Old friends and relatives who live in places you’ll be
  • What I still miss: continuous face-to-face community
  • New friends by chance and networking
  • Virtual connections – you are never far away
  • “Ambient intimacy”
  • Online work projects can also be social
  • Balancing solitude and social times

Friends of close friends

My good friends David and Jeremy have both lived in the Pacific Northwest in the past and David also has a relative in Oaxaca. Those connections led to new connections for me in a really nice way.

In Oaxaca, through David, I met Mary Kay (retired professor of Latin American studies who lives there now), and she introduced me to some of her friends. That was super-fun.

David’s sister Marla lives in Portland and I had met her once before, so she was a good connection to have there and was great at showing me around and telling me all about Portland neighborhoods.

In Seattle, one of the first people I met was Kim, a friend of my friend, Jeremy. She invited me to her family’s 4th of July celebration, which was great fun. She and I had met once before a few years ago at a conference (since we are both librarians).

Also in Seattle, David came to visit for a week (he lives in San Francisco), and we got together with his friends Bill and Cindy, and their friend Philip. Philip is also a digital nomad, so he and I hit it off as new friends and hung out throughout September and October in Seattle. He is now traveling in Vietnam for the winter and we plan to stay friends.

Mary Kay, Pano, & Carlos in Oaxaca.
Mary Kay, Pano, & Carlos in Oaxaca.
At Kim's family gathering in Seattle.
At Kim’s family gathering in Seattle.
Philip, David, Francine (Seattle friends).
Philip, David, Francine (when David was visiting Seattle – at Bill and Cindy’s house).

Friends of Facebook friends

People love to criticize Facebook (and it has many faults), but I find it very useful for connecting with a larger circle of friends, acquaintances, and people from the past. This is another good way to find people to meet in a new location.

Before I left for Tucson this fall, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone knew people in Tucson that I might like to meet. That resulted in two connections, 1) the close friend of someone I met at a conference a few years ago – Mary (she’s a freelance web designer who used to be a librarian, so we have a lot in common) and 2) Jerry – the ex-husband of one of my professional colleagues (he wrote some of the original UNIX books for O’Reilly and now is a freelance web designer, photographer, and chronicler of murals and other art in Tucson). I had fun meeting both of them during my two weeks of apartment searching in Tucson and hope to see more of them when I return in January.

Friends come to visit you in your nomadic life

Of course, when you are traveling to interesting locations (Oaxaca, Portland), old friends like to visit! One of my very best friends, Evelyn (from Boston), came to visit me in Oaxaca (and we did lots of fun touristy things while she was there). She also visited me for a week in Portland, since she had always wanted to go there. David’s sister showed us both around and gave us the grand tour. That’s another fun thing – when you’re new in a place, locals like to show you around and tell you all of the things they like about their city. I enjoy that.

We visited Monte Alban when Evelyn came to visit in Oaxaca.
We visited Monte Alban when Evelyn came to visit in Oaxaca.
Marla (David's sister) and Evelyn in Portland.
Marla (David’s sister) and my friend Evelyn in Portland.

Old friends and relatives who live in places you’ll be

Another thing that’s nice about having a location-flexible life is that it’s easy to spend time with people from my past. Since my mom died in 2012, I’ve been invited to stay with my cousins when I go for my yearly visit to Omaha. It’s been nice to be able to re-connect with them and get up to date on their lives, since I hadn’t been keeping in close touch with them during my years of living in Boston.

Rick & Jennifer (my cousin).
Jennifer (my cousin) with her husband, Rick.

Another old friend re-connected with me when he heard I would be in southern California this year — that’s my ex-husband, Pete. We hadn’t been in touch in over a decade (we split up in 2002), so it felt easy to be friends since so much time has passed. He invited me to visit him on his boat in San Diego, and I also enjoyed having dinner with his mom and sister (my former in-laws). I spent a total of two weeks in San Diego and it was fun catching up with Pete and talking about old times.

Pete with his boat in San Diego.
Pete with his boat in San Diego.

What I still miss: continuous face-to-face community

Speaking of my closest friends, one thing I do miss is a sense of community in one place — a small group of friends to hang out with on a regular basis, face to face. Back in Boston (when David still lived there), we used to hang out frequently, going to lots of movies, and three of us (including Evelyn) used to meet up at Diesel Cafe in Davis Square, Somerville almost every Friday night.

One day I will likely settle in a regular place (or two places – winter and summer) and be able to have that kind of regular, informal, face-to-face hanging out with friends. For now though, I’m still happily nomadic.

Me, David, Evelyn at Diesel Cafe.
Friday nights at Diesel Cafe – playing with a fisheye lens for iPhone & David making a point to me and Evelyn.

New friends by chance and networking

Some of the new friends I met were by chance, or by networking with people in the community.

Two examples: 1. In Oaxaca, I met Diana (from Colombia), when I was invited to a social gathering for expat women. One of those women, when she heard I wasn’t totally happy with my apartment, told me that Diana was looking for a housemate. So she invited Diana, me, and another friend to have dinner so we could get to know each other. Diana invited me to see her rental house and we hit it off and decided to become housemates. We shared a really great house for my last two months in Oaxaca and Diana was a pleasure to know. She speaks fluent English and French in addition to her native Spanish, and has traveled all over the world, and written a book full of her beautiful photos and experiences of working with women in indigenous cultures.

Diana, my friend and housemate in Oaxaca.
Diana, my friend and housemate in Oaxaca.

2. In Portland, since I was going to be there for six weeks and it’s such a great town for biking, I rented a bike using a site called Spinlister. You can rent bikes from locals that way (much cheaper than a bike shop). The person who I rented the bike from was great – Tim delivered the bike to me along with a storage bucket attached, and a lock and helmet. He was full of advice about the best places to bike and later invited me on an all-day bike ride to Oregon City with him and another friend. That was really fun.

New friends Gregory & Tim invited me on a bike ride to Oregon City.
New Portland friends Gregory & Tim invited me on a bike ride to Oregon City.

Virtual connections – you are never far away

In the meantime, it’s easy to keep in touch virtually these days (obviously). I remember the old days (back in the 1980s), when I was traveling alone in Guatemala for a month, and long-distance calls to my boyfriend back in Boston were very expensive! So we mostly wrote letters and had maybe one or two short calls during the month I was away. I definitely felt lonely during that trip.

These days of course, you are never far from people (virtually). My friend David, even though he moved to San Francisco from Boston a few years ago, has kept in touch, mainly by phone. He loves to talk on the phone more than anyone else I know. When we’re in the same time zone (west coast), we talk more often — since east coast friends are going to bed around the time we feel like chatting.

My other very close friend Melissa, hates talking on the phone, but she loves to write long emails or Facebook messages – so that’s how we keep in touch. It almost feels like the old days of letter writing – we tell each other the details of our lives in long, wordy messages.

Other good friends of mine — Jeremy, Steve & Kathy, Bobby & Gerard, are easy to keep in touch with via occasional phone calls, Skype calls, email, or text message. Since this year I was usually a few hours away from them in time zones, we tended to schedule a Skype or phone call and get caught up all at once, but less frequently. And now that Bobby & Gerard are traveling in Turkey and India, I’ll keep up with them via Bobby’s blog: A Small Case Across India.

Gerard & Bobby
Gerard and Bobby (Roberta), my Boston friends who go to India almost every year.

Ambient intimacy

Have you heard the term, “ambient intimacy?” Here’s a definition from a 2007 article by Leisa Reichelt:

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

I like this — it’s why I still enjoy participating in Facebook. There is something really nice about reading updates from people (some who I know well, some who I used to know well, and some who I only sort of know). I post updates about my life about once or twice a week and I scan my feed almost every day. There is something really nice about seeing those “likes” and comments from friends old and new, and relatives I haven’t been in touch with until we became Facebook friends.

It’s such an easy way to keep in touch. And the feeling of “ambient intimacy” — well, it’s really not intimate, but it’s something valuable to me — it’s a feeling that I’m never far away from connections and news of people’s lives.

Especially when you are living in a foreign country, and not fluent in the language, it fills some kind of gap between visits from old friends, hangouts with new friends, and the times between Skype and phone calls when you want to feel connected.

I enjoy it for that.

Facebook likes
Enjoying all the comments & likes when I post to Facebook.

Online work projects can also be social

Even though I no longer have access to the social connections that a regular workplace provides (the MIT Libraries is very social with lots of parties and fun!), I still have social connections with collaborators (the co-author of one of my books and the co-founder of my web startup). We’ve had regular Skype connections during these projects and they are fun people to collaborate with. I also enjoyed working via Skype with the freelance editor we hired for our self-published book. A nice thing about working for yourself is that you can choose who to collaborate with on your projects.

In addition to that, I joined a virtual community (Kick Start Labs), for advice and mentoring about my business — for a small membership fee you get access to a Google+ community and twice monthly mentoring phone calls, with downloadable recordings. I even met someone from that community in person for coffee one day, since she was in also in Seattle.

In March, I attended a really great conference, Pioneer Nation, in Portland, Oregon. It was a fun way to meet in person with other freelancers and entrepreneurs, and I learned a lot and got inspired there. I didn’t have to pay for lodging, since as a digital nomad I could just move to Portland and live there, paying rent instead of a hotel. I stayed for six weeks instead of just the few days of the conference.

Speaking of work connections, I use Twitter mainly as a professional social network, not so much a personal one, like Facebook. So when I was in Portland, I decided to try contacting someone who I only knew virtually on Twitter – she’s a librarian there who frequently re-tweeted my posts about library/tech topics, so I got in touch and she showed me all around Portland. It was so fun! I was glad to meet her and make the connection.

Balancing solitude and social times

On those tests you see sometimes about introversion and extroversion, I always come out as an “ambivert” — halfway between introverted and extroverted. I am happiest when I have some social, talkative times, alternating with periods of quiet and solitude.

So this way of life suits me because I can alternate over time. Right now I’m in New England, visiting and staying with my old friends Steve & Kathy (in Montpelier, Vermont) – friends I have celebrated Thanksgiving with for many years. In a few days I’ll move down to Brattleboro, Vermont to be with my longest-lasting and closest friends (Melissa, Sandy, and their grown kids and ex’s) for the Christmas season. This tribe really are family to me, since I’ve lived in New England for longer than my childhood and teenaged years in Omaha, Nebraska. We have holiday traditions going back for 25 years and I’ve watched their kids grow up and been through many adventures and changes with this group of friends. (There should be a word for friends who are family to you!)

So I’m in the middle of seven weeks of a very social time!

When I head back to Tucson in January I’ll have more solitude, since I only know two people there so far. I’m looking forward to that, because I enjoy having my own space, setting my own schedule, working on my projects, and having plenty of time to think and to read. While I’m there I hope to get to know a few people and be a bit more social, since face-to-face time is even better (or maybe complimentary) to “ambient intimacy.” I will probably join a meet-up group or two, and perhaps also join a co-working space.

In the end, it all balances out. It almost seems easier to make new friends when moving around than it did while living in one place, because living a “location-flexible life” is a good conversation starter! People are always curious.

So if you want to become location-flexible, don’t let fears of being lonely hold you back.

Sandy, Rosa, Melissa
Some of my Christmas friends who are family to me. (Sandy, Rosa, Melissa).
More of my Christmas friends who are family to me. (,Rosa, Melissa, Xavier).
More of my Christmas friends who are family to me. (Rosa, Melissa, Xavier).
Xmas friends
My Xmas friends who are family to me. [Me, Xavier, Isaiah], [Alison, Isaiah, Rosa, Xavier], Gino, Gloria, Jerry.
Dog: Daisy, Cat: Thumper
When staying with friends you can enjoy their pets (since you don’t have your own as a nomad). This is Daisy & Thumper of Montpelier, VT.

Related links:

  1. Ambient intimacy – 2007 article where Leisa Reichelt coined the term.
  2. Ambient awareness – from A Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology by Amber Case (love this book).
  3. Extroversion-introversion assessment by Dan Pink (take the quiz).
  4. Advantages of co-working – from Become Nomad blog.
  5. Four reasons why living abroad is great for making lifelong friends – by Katya Barry.
  6. How to overcome being alone – by Nomadic Matt.
  7. In defense of technology – by Andrew O’Hagan in the New York Times. “For me, life did not become more complex with technology, it’s became more amenable, and what a supreme luxury it is, being able to experience nowadays your own reach in the world, knowing that there truly is no backwater, except the one you happily remember from the simple life of yore.”