For members


‘Being honest helps’: how expats have overcome loneliness in Germany

Removed from their language and culture, many people who first arrive in Germany experience feelings of isolation. The Local has spoken to expats who have struggled with loneliness to find out how they overcame it.

For seven years as a child, Stacy Weiss lived on a Air Force on Germany’s western border. Twenty years later, the Texas native decided to revisit, reaching out to the family her parents had rented a house from.

But her trip was more than the brief hop overseas she planned: after she reconnected with the family’s son, the two began a long-distance relationship. Within a few years, they were married, and Weiss bought a one-way ticket to the Eifel region.

Despite immediately feeling like she had an in with her husband’s family and friends in their idyllic small town, she felt alone. People seemed unfriendly and distant, and making friends beyond acquaintances was hard. She held onto connections back home through social media, crying during holidays when it seemed like life there had moved on without her.

“It was really difficult at first,” says Weiss, who found a job teaching English at the local university. “There’s that expat honeymoon phase the first couple of weeks where it’s very exciting and then the newness wears off. At first I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t working. I was trying to fix my loneliness by looking back to the States.”

Loneliness among expats

Whether in small towns or big cities, whether moving abroad with a significant other or solo, many expats in Germany have experienced loneliness, or an often sombre sense of being cut off from others. The feeling is often magnified by struggles to learn the language, form deep connections, and generally integrate into the culture.

“The loneliness that expats experience comes generally with a sense of alienation,” says Jan Kaspers, a Berlin-based psychologist who works with expats.

Indeed, learning German to at least a conversational level and interacting with Germans themselves helps subdue these feelings, according to a survey of Spanish expats conducted last year by University of Cologne psychology master’s student Juan Serrano.  

Yet social interaction on its own isn’t always a cure for loneliness, says Kaspers.

“People start to realize after a while that they have made a lot of new acquaintances, but that deep down they are still mostly unknown by the people around them, and this can cause loneliness. Friendships can take time to develop, especially in larger cities.”

Introversion can actually be an advantage over extroversion when it comes to dealing with loneliness, he adds, as “introverted people tend to have less, but also more high quality contacts.”

Photo: DPA

In order to meet more people after moving alone to Munich, Indian expat Ashish Anand attended event after event organized through InterNations, a social activities network for expats. But after a few years he still found them quite superficial. To fix that, he adopted a “quality over quantity” approach, interacting with the smaller pool of people who reciprocated his openness beyond small talk – to his surprise even becoming friends with Germans he previously believed to be somewhat reserved. 

“I think that when people start sensing that you’re coming from this genuine place, then the vibe is completely different,” says Anand, an author who has now lived in Germany for 10 years.  “And then quickly you can get into a discussion, a common point.”

SEE ALSO: Calls grow for Germany to follow UK example and combat rising loneliness

A lonely society?

It’s not just expats who feel lonely in Germany. In 2018, Christian Democratic (CDU) families spokesman Marcus Weinberg called for “a removal of taboos” on the subject of loneliness so that “it doesn’t remain a dirty issue.” He joins other politicians and religious leaders in the country who have advocated for Germany to follow the example of the UK in combating loneliness.

“Similar to most other Western countries, many people in Germany don’t like to admit that they are lonely,” says psychologist Maike Luhmann from the Ruhr-University in Bochum, pointing out that it can affect all age groups. In a recent study of 16,000 Germans, she found that the age of 30 – a transition time for many – is when there are elevated levels of loneliness.

“Probably people tend to think that lonely people are often to blame themselves for being lonely,” she adds. “Especially among young adults, admitting to feeling lonely may be akin to admitting to being unlikeable, socially incompetent.”

British expat Rebecca Hilton was no stranger to expat life when she moved to Wiesbaden, having spent the previous three years in Bangkok. Yet she found herself feeling more alone in a society more similar – “I don’t stand out as an expat until I open my mouth” – but less outwardly friendly.

Yet she found that being honest with others about her loneliness, whether other expats or Germans, helped her overcome it by forming connections with people “who operated on the same wavelength.”

Seeking to meet more like-minded foreigners, she also created the Expat Book Club. Their first read was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine about a young woman suffering from isolation and loneliness. “On some level it resonated with everyone,” says Hilton, who is originally from Bolton, near Manchester, “that on the outside it looks like you’re doing just fine but on the inside you can feel completely isolated.”

Photo: depositphotos/wavebreakmedia

Making friends amid different social norms

It was a feeling of loneliness that caused Belgian expat Marijke Hermans to co-create Supermamas, a volunteer network in Berlin for expat mothers of newborns. Moving to Berlin while pregnant, she didn’t know a soul in the city except the friend with whom she formed the support group. Despite having studied German for years, she felt overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and the lack of friendliness in comparison to what she found at home.

“Here I wouldn’t ask the person next to me at a coffee shop, “Wie geht’s dir?” I wouldn’t even know if I could say dir,” says Hermans, sipping a tea in a quiet cafe in the residential neighborhood of Steglitz.

Moving to Bad Mergentheim, a town just shy of 30,000 people in Baden-Württemberg, Jim Geren also felt a sense of isolation springing from very different social norms. Shortly after his arrival in 2013, “people would whisper at each other, point and stare,” he says with a laugh, “as though word got around that I was the new American in town.”

His biggest barrier to integration was the German language, and learning it largely through an intensive course has helped him mingle with the mostly German inhabitants.

“It takes people here a while longer to make friends,” says Geren. “People here are a bit more standoffish but when you break through that, they’re essentially friends, well, pretty much forever.”

Solitude versus loneliness

It’s important to separate solitude, or “the state of being alone with yourself” from loneliness, which can cause anxiety and depression when not addressed properly, says psychologist Kaspers.

He suggests creating a structure in one’s life in order to be more at ease with the uneasiness that being an expat often entails, be it getting up at similar times or meeting the same people.

Such predictability pushed Weiss to embrace expat life further and feel less alone. Looking to improve her German and get out of the house, she began taking an integration class five days a week.

“I just started forming connections with people,” says Weiss, who now blogs about expat life in the Eifel. “I wasn’t making best friends with anybody but I was getting to know people…who understood what I was going through.”

Yet above all, says Kaspers, “it is important to stay in touch with yourself. Be gentle and compassionate for the extraordinary situation you are in.”

READ ALSO: How I made friends during my first year in Germany

For members


What you need to know about Germany’s points-based immigration plans

Germany wants to make it easier for non-EU citizens to enter the country to help combat the shortage of skilled workers with the so-called "opportunity card". Here’s what you need to know.

What you need to know about Germany's points-based immigration plans

As The Local has been reporting, Germany is currently facing a huge gap in its labour force, with the Labour Ministry predicting a shortfall of 240,000 skilled workers by 2026.

This week, Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil presented the initial details of a new points-based immigration system, which is designed to make it easier for people to come to Germany to work. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German industries ‘most affected’ by skilled worker shortage

The new Chancenkarte (“opportunity card”) presented by the SPD politician is broadly similar to the Canadian points system, and will offer foreign nationals the chance to come to Germany to look for work even without a job offer, as long as they fulfil at least three of the following criteria:

1) A university degree or professional qualification

2) Professional experience of at least three years

3) Language skill or previous residence in Germany

4) Aged under 35 

Holders of this opportunity card would then have one year to look for a job and would have to finance themselves during that period. 

According to the Labour Minister, the German government will set a yearly quota for the number of people who will be able to come to Germany with an opportunity card, based on the needs of the labour market.

“It is about qualified immigration, about a non-bureaucratic procedure,” Heil told WDR radio. “That is why it is important that those who have received the opportunity card can make a living when they are here.”

Speaking about the proposals, Professor Panu Poutvaara, Director of the ifo Center for International Institutional Comparisons and Migration Research told the Local: “I welcome the government proposal. Germany needs more workers at different skill levels. What is important is that this should complement the current opportunities to come to Germany also from outside the European Union with an existing job offer, not replace these. I assume that the proposal is meant only to extend the current options, but the precise proposal is not yet circulated.”


According to a survey by the Munich-based Ifo Institute, the vast majority of companies in Germany are currently struggling with the issue of a shortage of skilled workers. The survey showed that 87 percent are facing worker shortages and more than a third of respondents see it as a threat to competitiveness. 

“The shortage of qualified employees, and meanwhile of employees in general, is the third threat to Germany as a business location, alongside shortages of raw materials and energy,” Rainer Kirchdörfer, CEO of the Family Business Foundation told die Welt. 

Changes to immigration and citizenship laws ‘high priority’

The proposed measure is part of a package of reforms to immigration law which will be presented later in autumn.

The government also wants to make it easier for people to hold multiple nationalities and make naturalisation of foreigners easier. In future, naturalisation will be possible after five years instead of eight years currently, and as little as three years in cases where people are deemed to have integrated particularly well.

“We need more immigration,” Heil told Bild am Sonntag. “To this end, the traffic light will present a modern immigration law in autumn. We are introducing an opportunity card with a transparent points system so that people our country needs can come to us more easily.”

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: ‘Changing German citizenship laws is a priority’

A spokesperson from the Interior Ministry recently told The Local that the changes are a “high priority” but they could take time. 

They said: “The modernisation of citizenship law agreed in the coalition agreement of the governing parties is a high priority for the federal government. There are also plans to make dual and multiple citizenships generally possible.

“The careful preparation and implementation of this important reform project is underway, but will take some time because fundamental amendments to the Citizenship Act must be prepared for this purpose.”