Written by Zane Pocock
If you’ve decided to forgo alcohol, maintaining a healthy social life is one of the most difficult aspects that many of us are familiar with. This is a complex enough challenge when we stay in the same place; maintaining friendships that have been partially built on drinking, getting through the Christmas season and getting to know yourself again are just the start of the hurdles we face.
But removing yourself completely only makes this change even harder, even if it might initially seem easier to start over. Whether by choice or for work, family or any other reason, sometimes we find ourselves leaving our old lives behind not only behaviourally, but geographically as well. It’s no small undertaking and it can be even more difficult when we’ve already removed a crutch we previously relied on.
I have now moved to an entirely different country twice since I decided to stop drinking. The first time was so difficult that I reflect on those three years with a feeling that I partially wasted a chunk of my mid-20s.
The main realisation is obvious in hindsight but difficult to confront when life is already busy: not all enjoyment, socialising and purpose can come from work and family. No matter where we find ourselves, it’s imperative to build a community. In my case, the easiest way to do this in a new environment would have been to hit the piss and connect with others over painting the town red. Hell, I’m comfortable admitting that I did that the first time I moved and I still have lifelong friends from that time.
But habits change and now I don’t drink. I’m still comfortable and happy about this decision, but it has made life difficult when moving around the world. So what do you do?
Here are some tips I’ve discovered for moving to a new place as a non-drinker. They can probably be applied to all situations, but moving geographically is a particularly difficult challenge to navigate. The key is to follow through on these intentions.
Build your comfort zone
This post is all about getting into social environments and building your sense of community without the help of alcohol. Although it might seem counterintuitive, one of the best things I’ve done is put a lot of effort into making myself feel at home.
For the three years that we were living in Sydney, my wife and I never set up our own place. We moved into a fully furnished apartment because we liked the harbour view, and that was that. But it never once felt like home – it always felt like we were living in someone else’s life, in transit to whatever our ‘permanent’ home was going to be.
This was a mistake. No matter how important it is to get outside and meet people in your new community, it’s equally important to have a home that you feel comfortable in; somewhere that offers respite from a loud, busy world and can function as a home base for all the battles and challenges you’re going to face.
So, what makes a place feel like home for you? For us it meant we needed to buy our own furniture, invest in some resilient house plants, and front up for the wall-repair costs to install some art that we actually wanted to live with. I had forgotten the feeling of walking in the door and feeling the stress drop off as my nest was revealed before me. It’s helped me acclimatise and jump into unknown situations with the knowledge that there’s a comfortable respite waiting to greet me later in the evening.
Join a Meetup group
What are you passionate about? A great hack I’ve found for easing into social situations without the help of a drink, has been to connect with others that are interested in similar things to me. It means the conversation flows relatively seamlessly – in many cases, so effectively that I found it easier than with alcohol.
Meetup is a powerful online tool for this, with in-person gatherings organised by crowds of like-minded people in various group sizes and locations. I was astonished by how many groups I could join when I signed up for the service and I’ve made healthy use of it. I try to get to something every week and my community thus far has essentially grown from this central hub.
There are other options, most of which are facilitated through other virtual or online communities – it all depends on what social channel your people tend to concentrate on. Local Facebook groups will often be very specific and bond over a sense of where you’ve come from. In my case, for example, a group of New Zealanders in New York has been a supportive, thriving community. Or an app like Shapr facilitates one-on-one meetings. This has been great for professional and personal connections alike, in a context that allows for deeper personal relationships to be built.
Join a sports club
This is similar to interest-aligned socialising such as joining Meetups or book clubs, except sport is a particularly helpful exercise (sorry) thanks to the endorphins – locking those good feelings into a connection with the people you’re with and forming incredibly deep, meaningful social bonds. The key thing to realise here is that you don’t have to be any good.
It’s also a great way to get to know a different culture. For me, baseball was a foreign concept, but through engaging with a local club I now feel like a piece of the American puzzle has been filled in for me – while also being a lot of fun.
When I’m at home before an event, the sun has set and I’m a little tired from the day, I’ve always found it the obvious choice to just stay home. Social environments exhaust me; even more so now that I don’t have a prop to launch me into everyone else’s superhuman social level.
But from my recent experience, Woody Allen seems to be right when he says, “Showing up is 80% of life.” When I moved earlier this year, it didn’t take long to fall into the familiar trap of signing up for things then using every available excuse not to go. I was tired, it was too hot, the commute too long, I had very important work to do … You know them all.
But in the past couple of months I adopted a policy that I had to go to everything I signed up for. This had some great benefits. It forced me to filter the signal from the noise on all the great groups I’d signed up to, through Meetup and the like. For most of us, we’re never going to go out for something every single evening. That is objectively exhausting and it requires being picky about what you sign up for. It means I’ve actually gone to things and now that I’ve met people, not only do they expect to see me again, but I also feel familiar with the environment and more comfortable heading out. It’s a self-reinforcing social cycle.
Keep in touch back home
Life gets busy, and if there’s one thing I know painfully well it’s that international social connections take a lot of effort to maintain, even with the global communications infrastructure we now have at our fingertips. Heck, sometimes it feels difficult enough if people are just in another neighbourhood.
Thing is, when you’re not seeing your friends, family and colleagues as often as you used to, it’s easy for this to escalate into full-blown social isolation – even if you’re doing everything else to establish a new community, perfectly. Home is where the heart is, and no matter how well you set yourself up, you’re likely going to miss everyone you’ve left behind.
Some people I know are really good at managing this, but if you’re not one of them then the solution, unfortunately, is good scheduling. Particularly if you’re managing different time zones, it’s helpful to have a regular recurring catch-up with the people you miss the most – it reduces the cognitive load for everyone involved and the game theory means everyone will give a second thought to cancelling at the last minute – what if you’ve arisen early or passed up another opportunity? Take your pick of medium for this – there are so many services from Skype to Facetime that there’s no point listing any preferred ones.
Challenge yourself to start conversations
In case you can’t tell by now, I’m a ‘textbook’ introvert. Socialising doesn’t come naturally to me and it takes a lot of energy to feel confident without liquid courage.
Are you curious about the place you find yourself in? That curiosity alone is probably enough to fuel an avalanche of questions for any locals you meet. That’s been the case for me. We all know this can be easy if you go down to the local bar, but if that’s difficult to manage then you can try some other tricks. One of my favourites is to skip the supermarket and instead go to the local butcher, baker, farmers’ market and the like. These environments are socially similar to bars as they often become local community hubs and you’ll find the people behind the counter will have sunk deep roots into the local goings-on and way of life.
I also try to make a habit of striking up conversations with taxi- and Uber drivers, people I’m stuck in a queue with, and in any other situation that seems ripe for a chat – with varying success. Pro tip: New Yorkers don’t like talking on the Subway.
No matter how many times people stress the importance of looking after yourself, it’s always worth being reminded of it and I’m sure many of us have yoga, meditation and exercise goals on our New Year’s resolution lists.
But the amount of noise generated in the name of self-care doesn’t undermine its value. A good diet, for example, is going to substantially change how your mood evolves in the course of a day and have a material impact on how you interact with others while you’re building your community.
Proper self-care brings the disparate pieces of the puzzle together. It means you have routines to get in to the day and unwind at the end of it. Exercise helps you think straight, and consistent sleep cycles help you reinforce things you’ve learned and build good mental models for your new environment. Look after yourself and the rest will follow.
Consider getting a pet
This one might be a bit difficult to manage so it’s certainly an optional suggestion. With that caveat aside, getting a dog is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my sense of community.
Within a few months of our most recent move, my wife and I had adopted a puppy. It’s a blessing in disguise because we’re constantly being forced outside for her toilet breaks, only to meet half the residents in our neighbourhood. Even ‘back home’ I have never felt so connected to a community as I do right now. After all, dogs will be dogs, and when they get together to do their doggy things the only option owners are left with is to get to know each other.
If a pet isn’t appropriate for your situation, just talk to your neighbours! I feel like I’m tapped into this thriving hyper-local network which isn’t exclusive to dog owners – it just helps to have the excuse. Now, when we have 20 police officers gathering in the apartment building hallway (true story) there are enough of us connected to systematically work out what’s happening, despite their tight-lipped approach. It’s deeply rewarding – and even a good safety precaution – to know the people you live amongst.
This list is not exhaustive, but it accurately presents the steps I’ve taken to build a community in a new environment as a non-drinker. What was a daunting task when I first moved, is now an opportunity to slowly construct exactly the life I want to live and the community I want to be surrounded by. If you find yourself in a similar situation, see it for the promise it holds and invest heavily in building your new social life. It makes life fun again. What have you found that works for building your community?