Three fundamental human needs (part 1): Need to belong and why I might be having difficulty making Dutch friends…

“Life in a foreign country is a dance of submission and resistance. Self-knowledge comes in small repeated shocks as you find yourself giving in easily, with a struggle, or not at all. What can you do without? What do you cling to?”- from Expat

I’ve been reading a book called Expat – Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad. The stories were written by a group of American women about their lives abroad – in countries as diverse as the group of writers: Japan, Egypt, England, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, Taiwan…Even though each story covers a unique experience, by the time I reached the end of the 22nd and the last story the running thread was so clear in my mind: need to belong while trying to keep whatever you think constitutes your identity…

It didn’t matter if it was a Taiwanese American going back to Taiwan or an American living in Borneo all women talked about their efforts to fit in to their host culture by learning the language and getting used to the local food and customs. But along with the efforts to fit in most of them also developed a yearning to connect with their own home culture – not only because that is partly what makes them who they are, but also because it is what is familiar.

Even though each of us, as individuals, is unique there are some universal needs that we all share. Three fundamental needs that we come across in different lines of research in psychology are: the need to belong; the need to be autonomous; and the need to be competent.

These are needs that motivated humans to engage in behaviors that maximized their chances of survival as well as healthy functioning for many generations. So it’s no surprise that when expats tell about their experiences, how they struggled to meet these needs becomes the underlying essence of their stories. In the next few posts I would like to reflect on these fundamental needs and how they play out a bit differently in the lives of expats.

I referred to the need to belong numerous times in this blog as I kept on recommending building a social support network as one of the key resources – not only for expats but for anyone, especially at times of stress and challenges. Next to numerous other benefits a social network (see the post “Have a ride to the airport for an early flight?” for a review) satisfies our need to belong.  According to an extensive review of the research on the need to belong, this fundamental need appears to have two aspects:

  • having frequent personal contacts and interactions – ideally, positive or pleasant or at least, free from conflict and negative affect.
  • having a perception of interpersonal bonds or relationships marked by stability, emotional concern and continuation into the foreseeable future.

While being included is associated with positive emotions such as happiness, elation, contentment, and calm; social exclusion has many negative consequences including sadness, disengagement, passivity, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and negative thoughts about the self leading to a decline in self-esteem. People who feel excluded also question whether their existence is meaningful (more on fitting in and social exclusion next time)

For expats, most of whom left their families and friends behind, the need to belong becomes more salient in a new environment. No wonder one of the first things people do when they move to a new country is to start seeking out other expats who are in a similar situation. It is the fastest way to make connections when everyone has a strong motivation to satisfy the same fundamental need. It generally takes longer to establish connections with locals, who already have their social networks. Generally the first of the two aspects of the need to belong – frequent personal contacts and interactions – is taken care of rather quickly. It’s the second aspect that takes more time and effort – building bonds that are perceived as stable, continuous and involve emotional concern.

The good news is that the need to belong seems to conform to the motivational pattern of satiation and substitution. That is, people need a few close relationships and forming additional bonds beyond those few has less and less impact. Therefore, there is a world of difference between having two close relationships as opposed to none; but not so much difference between having eight versus six (Actually, three seems to be the magical number here – see a previous post “Have a ride to the airport for an early flight?”).

This might also explain why many locals are not as keen as expats to form friendships or content with just staying as acquaintances – because they already have enough relationships in their lives and the additional value they’ll get from new ones might not be worth the investment they’ll need to make. My husband and I have been complaining about the difficulty of making Dutch friends – it’s never difficult to chit-chat or go for a beer but as I also hear from other expats going beyond that is proving to be tough.

How do I make Dutch friends, then?

What does an expat to do if she really wants to make local friends? I believe reciprocity might just be the answer here. When we look at the social influence literature reciprocity emerges as one of the most powerful tools in getting what we want. Reciprocity is a deeply ingrained rule of social interactions – give people something they value and appreciate they feel the need to reciprocate almost automatically.  I think in the Netherlands the key might just be the effort you put in learning Dutch!  Almost all Dutch people speak English well, so speaking Dutch doesn’t seem to be necessary to communicate although I keep on hearing from people who have lived here long enough that if you want to make Dutch friends speaking Dutch is the way to go.

It makes more sense when I think of it from the reciprocity perspective. What I suspect might be going on in a Dutch mind is this: “If you make the effort to learn my language (which is not only quite difficult to learn but also quite limited with respect to its use in other places) then I would reciprocate by including you in my friends circle.” That doesn’t mean people are consciously thinking that way or actually aware of reciprocity being a key player in deciding to become friends with expats. In any case I think it is an explanation worth considering – what do you think? Well, that also means Dutch classes for me!


Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

This entry was posted in Automatic processes, autonomous, competence, Dutch, expatriates, expats, language, motivation, need to belong, reciprocity, relocation, social support. Bookmark the permalink.

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