Don’t Be a Jerk: How to Maintain Friendships While You Travel

I love my friends from home. Before I went marauding around the world, got a career and met some guy, they were my support system, my cheerleaders and my number one distraction from the fact that I was stuck waiting, when I really didn’t want to be. Even now that I am barely ever around they still support me, even when the only time we can chat is 3 AM EST.

Unfortunately, when you live abroad or travel a lot, there’s a good chance you’re going to miss out on some important milestones: weddings, graduations and other important life events. You will also miss a lot of the small, everyday things that are necessary for friendship maintenance. If you’re not careful, people start to disappear completely!

So, if you want to keep your friends (and I imagine most of you do), you’ll have to put in a bit more effort than you would if you were there to go out drinking with them on Friday nights. Thankfully you have a major tool on your side: the internet. How did people keep in touch before the internet? My best friend and I haven’t lived in the same city since we graduated college 5 years ago and we are even closer now- thanks to gChat.

Here are your Do’s and Don’ts of maintaing your friendships while abroad:

Do Remember Important Dates

This is obvious, right? Birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. Thanks to facebook and computer calendars this is super easy and it takes just the tiniest effort to reach out and let someone know you’re thinking about them.

Don’t give people the impression that whatever you’re doing is just way more important.

Nobody likes that smug, self-important guys. If you imply that you have better things to do than be their for your friends, chances are they are going to drop you pretty quick.

Key to this is getting your ego in check: you might be off climbing mountains in Asia while your friend’s work desk jobs, but that in no way makes your life more meaningful. When you can’t be there for someone- apologize. Sincerely.

Do Keep the Lines of Communication Flowing

Talk to your people at home whenever you can. This can be really hard when you get wrapped up in the day to day excitement and busyness of travel- all of a sudden it’s been two months and you’ve been radio silent. If you still want to have friends to come back to though, try to make the time to send an email, do a quick skype chat or even send a postcard (I am terrible at postcards, it’s kind of ridiculous).

Do: Visit friends who have moved exciting places (Like Japan!)

Don’t Just Talk About Yourself

Your life may be mega-exciting and your friends are probably psyched to hear about it, but hold yourself back once in awhile. What’s your friend up to? How’s work? Ask the questions that let people know you care about their lives too.

Do Accept that Your Travels are only Somewhat Interesting

The first time I got back from a long trip I learned a really important lesson: 90% of people really don’t care about the details of your travels. Time and time again people would ask me how my trip was and where I had been only to have their eyes glaze over after about 30 seconds.

Don’t get offended, it’s not personal, it’s just the way people are. Save the details for the people who ask for specifics.

Also family, be nice to them too.

Don’t Write Off Missed Milestones

If you have to miss somebody’s wedding or graduation or whatever, be prepared to make it up later on. I like to buy people cool gifts from foreign countries (bonus: I get to shop). I’ll also try to treat my friend’s to a celebratory drink when I see the next, “you got engaged three months ago? Here’s a beer!”

Do Make the Extra Effort

The sometimes daunting thing about maintaining friendships at home is that it falls on you to make the extra effort because you are the one disappearing for months at a time. It’s not up to your friends to chase you down, it’s up to you to be accessible whenever you can. It’s worth it though, if they are people you care about.

The bottom line: When you show people that your heart is with them, they don’t get as upset that you can’t be. Also don’t be a smug travel bastard, because everyone will hate you.

20 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Jerk: How to Maintain Friendships While You Travel”

  1. What a great idea for a post! I just got home yesterday from interning in Madrid this summer, and I definitely have some catching up to do.

    I think the best piece of advice that can be taken from this is that “it falls on you to make the extra effort because you are the one disappearing for months at a time”. It’s not something that people always think about because they’re so busy discovering new things, but it’s definitely the truth. If keeping your friends at home is a priority, you need to make the effort!

  2. Love this advice. So important to maintain relationships especially with those who are close and dear to you. It’s tricky to keep the relationships going, but sure is fulfilling. On another note, I am struck by the 6 degrees of separation right about now. In the second picture (with your friend who is in Japan now?) I see a familiar face from my former high school and the pic with your family, OMG I think your (brother) he went to my middle school? What this is hillarious b/c I found your blog randomly a year + back, met you once very briefily, and am totally enjoying your travel writing. Cheers!

  3. Great Advice! I agree that since you’re the person who ‘left’ the standard layout of your friendship… it’s kinda up to you keep up the communication! It hard to lose your support system, so I always try to keep up – even when it’d hard!

  4. Old friends, who needs them. Plenty of them while on the road, and better ones even, cause as me they move on. Family, can’t live with, can’t live without them, but as long they don’t expect eating their birthday cakes or a monthly postcard kiss I am okay.. So yeah guess I am jerk. Not complaining at all.

    But sometimes, oh sometimes, when the moon is right and the beers are cold, and you feel like, well, lost in the universe, it all seems like a nice idea. Oh my.

  5. You are so right… so often during my year abroad, I’ve gotten annoyed that my friends and family at home just aren’t making the effort. And while some of them aren’t worth keeping in touch with, you’re soo right, with just a quick “Hey how are ya?” or a postcard they receive on a random day at work from you, it can revive the friendship entirely! You said it perfectly here.

    Haha, and sometimes it’s hard for us travelers to not be jerks when our stories are so much cooler than discussing what was on TV last night! 🙂

  6. After 10 years living abroad… I must say, maintaining friendship hasn’t been easy. Some, I’ve lost along the way… but others (the true ones), continue on being a very important part of my life. I’m lucky to have a group of friends that travel… and some time on another, I know we’ll see each other again! I try to organize trips with them whenever possible, keep up on e-mails and skype calls. I keep up on what they are doing, where they work and always know if they are happy or not.
    As you say, it’s key to keep communication flowing and to care about them the same way you would want to be cared of.

  7. Yeah, it definitely takes more effort to maintain your friendships when you’re traveling or living elsewhere. So if you want to keep your friends, then yes, you will better make the effort. But then again as life moves forward, some friends stay, some drift apart. It’s part of life. You can’t keep them all unfortunately, but the ones you want to keep, yeah, better make sure you have a bit of credit in skype 😉

  8. Thanks for the post! Staying in touch with old friends is always difficult, even if you aren’t traveling. Life gets busy for everyone, and if your friends are too far away to conveniently grab drinks or ice cream on random week nights, it’s really hard to stay in touch. I’ll have to keep these tips in mind.

  9. Great post! I sent my close friends a bunch of postcards while I was traveling (in addition to emails and skype calls) and took the time to write detailed cards, trying to highlight things I saw that each individual would enjoy. Most people really appreciated the effort of their own personalized card and receiving “snail mail”.

  10. This really is great advice. It’s so hard to keep in touch with people from home when you’re living elsewhere. New technology and social media make it much easier, but still, finding the time to write a lengthy email can be tough. When I was traveling through Italy, I kept a blog, which made it easier for family and friends to keep track of me. That way, when we did talk, it wasn’t a huge catch-up game of what I was doing and where I had been. We could almost pick up where we left off. Keeping it was still a time commitment , and sometimes finding Internet access was tough, but it definitely made things easier in the long run. And people really enjoyed the first-hand accounts of my travels! Great post!

  11. This was a great post. I always find it hard to keep in touch when I’m away because it’s just difficult to remember. I get wrapped up in regular life and forget to sit down and write those letters and postcards, or send those facebook messages to make sure that I keep up to date with friends. These are some good suggestions and I’m working on it!

  12. Is that photo of you with your family taken in Arlington, VA, specifically in Clarendon? I swear it looks like exactly where I used to live! About your entry, I agree, it’s important to maintain relationships. I found that even though I was the one who moved to a different country, I was the one who had to do most of the initiating of contact. Otherwise, I would only ever really hear from folks who had lived abroad before. Even with my own family, I had to do a lot of the reaching out. I guess that’s just how it is sometimes.

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