Does permanent travel mean sacrificing real friendship?

Would you consider someone a close friend if you had gone for nine months without seeing them? What if you were also unsure about where in the world they were living these days?

Of all the photos of us with Jill & Josh from Screw The Nine To Five, this is the only one where we're not pulling HORRENDOUS faces.
Of all the photos of us with Jill & Josh from Screw The Nine To Five, this is the only one where we’re not pulling HORRENDOUS faces.

Most people would say a clear “no” – it sounds like you’re describing someone you've fallen out of touch with, or someone who's more of a casual acquaintance.

But for us, and people like us, it's totally normal not to have seen one of your friends for a year or so – and know that they're living "In Mexico last I heard, but they could have moved on to DC by now. Unless they're in Europe. Erm."

So how do you make and maintain friendships when you're always on the move? And are they real friendships, or are you just forming relationships of convenience as you bounce around the planet?

How to lose friends and distance yourself from people

Since we started travelling, I've lost touch with a lot of people I was close to back when I lived in London. Sometimes it's because the other person wanted someone to hang out with rather than Google Hangout with, and other times I did a bad job of staying in touch.

The friendships that have lasted the course have been surprising: if at the start I'd picked out people I thought I would still be close to after two years away, my hit-rate would have been next to zero.

Taking an audit now, the common factors in the friendships that lasted seem to be a shared worldview and a deep interest in a topic like business or self-improvement. The ones that fell away tended to be based around more surface-level interests like music or sports, or ones where we enjoyed each other's company at the pub but would never have called each other for a chat.

Mostly, the friendships that lasted are also with people who I didn't habitually see in a certain setting when I lived in London (like Fridays at the pub). So the transition to not being around so much wasn't as much of a jarring test of the relationship.

The nature of digital nomad friendships

This same pattern of interests is true of the friends we've picked up since we started travelling too: we have fewer casual acquaintances, but the friendships we do have are deep and awesome.

Although it would be easy to spend hours one-upping each other on miles travelled and landmarks Instagrammed, mostly our conversations revolve around challenges we're facing right now, our views on current issues, or stories from the past that help us get to know each other on a deeper level.

Friendships along these more meaningful lines can easily survive the huge gaps in physical proximity: we check in with short bursts of communication over email and Facebook, then when we meet in person or have a Skype call we go right back to where we were.

Of course, it would be way better if we could physically see our friends more, but I'm learning that opportunities to meet happen more than you might think. When you know enough people and you're all moving around with sufficient velocity, crossing over in a major hub isn't a rare event.

What doesn't work

There's a perception that to make friends as a digital nomad, you just need to rock up at a co-working space in a hub like Chiang Mai and you'll instantly connect with a whole tribe of people who'll become your new friends, family, and professional network all rolled into one.

In my case at least, that's not true: just because you're both wanky enough to call yourselves "digital nomads" doesn't mean you'll get along, any more than a single mum will automatically get on with other single mums.

The odds of becoming close are better than meeting a random person from the general population because you have some level of shared understanding and experience, but friendship requires more than having a Macbook, a large collection of SIM cards and a preoccupation with wifi strength in common.

In short, you still have to do the work to meet the right people.

So how do you make friends on the move?

Weirdly, given how antisocial we are on social media, we've met two of our closest friends on Twitter. At least one more friendship developed from someone who emailed us, and we became pen-pals for a year before we met.

Online friendships are a good place to start, because they're hard: everyone has plenty of emails and Tweets and Facebook messages already, so if you keep up a dialogue it suggests that there's something there.

You don't know for sure that you'll get on when you meet in person or video chat on Skype, but in my experience you can often tell whether you'll get along with someone from the way they write. And because the relationship didn't evolve from proximity or convenience, it's more likely to survive months of limited contact.

Of course, this approach reflects our own introversion: we get to put ourselves out there online, on our own schedule, and in the medium in which we're most comfortable.

If you prefer to meet people in person, going to co-working spaces and networking events works too, of course. You just have to be aware that the hit-rate of people you become buddies with won't be drastically higher than it is with non-nomads.

Not easy, but more than worth it

So: you will lose some old friends when you become a digital nomad, and you won't replace them just by finding a big group of other travellers – there's still work to be done in finding the people you really connect with.

But because you can form friendships online and maintain them without constant face-to-face contact, you don't have to live in cities that are hotspots for people living a location independent lifestyle. And even though it might seem unlikely, opportunities to meet up with your online friends in various places around the world will come up.

In my experience at least, and although you might assume the opposite, living life on the move has been conducive to forming deep and rewarding friendships with people – which more than compensates for the reduced quantity of friendships.

What do you think?

What has your experience of making friends on the move been like?

Do you have ways of forming relationships that I haven't mentioned here?

I'd love to hear from you in the comments!