How do adults make new friends?
I’ve come to realize that even though I complain about making new friends I’m well versed in how to do it. This is a function of having moved dozens of times and also because I was often the new kid who got picked on. I developed a thick skin and a need to help others feel welcome instead of rejected. Rejection sucks.
A few things to consider first:
People feel naturally friendly toward other people they see for a short while on a regular basis. This tendency is why it feels easy to be friendly to the guy that serves you coffee or the gal you see at the office, but it also makes it harder to develop a meaningful friendship with someone you met once at a party. You sometimes have to create the regular short interactions in order to build a friendship. In my experience, it takes six months of consistent interaction for people to consider you a friend.
Also important–and I’ll come back to this point at the end–people tend to gravitate to people who are like themselves. There are even some studies that suggest we befriend those who have genes similar to our own. You’ll need to fight this primitive instinct as it’s doing you no favors.
1. Be a guide.
Yes, I’m sorry, but you have to leave your house. You have to go to places where people gather and try to choose places based on your interests. Once you’re around new people stop worrying about yourself and instead concern yourself with the feelings of others. If it’s a party, get them a fresh drink or introduce people around as you get to know them. If you’re at a work function, find out what things they’re looking to accomplish and recommend books or events. If you’ve joined a new club and you’re feeling unsure, find the person in charge, figure out how it works and then become the person who settles in the new people at the next meeting. It’s even better if you can be the host for an event, such as a party or a meet up. Ignore the inner voice that is nervous and focus all of that energy on making other people feel at ease. No one believes me when I reveal that I have awful social anxiety; it’s well hidden by my concern for others.
2. Double book.
I don’t know what it is about our modern lifestyle but people are flaky as hell. They cancel last minute or don’t show up as a matter of course. Always double book yourself. That is: invite people to join you but also bring a book. If they stand you up you’ll have a book to keep you company. I know it hurts but don’t take their flakiness personally. I do have a three strikes and you’re out rule, of course. We’re busy people.
3. Go against the grain.
When you go to an event where there is a large group of people you should assess the room and then do something different. If it’s a wacky room full of comedians who are trying to outdo each other, be the person who serves food and ensures the host is taken care of. If it’s a quiet and shy room full of accountants, be the wacky one who gets them playing a word association game or talking about terrible travel stories. You can be the person who brings the energy required to balance the mood. Don’t be the jerk who thinks a party is boring; be the hero who makes it more interesting.
4. Be shameless.
I once had a chat at a party with a nice girl who had just moved to NYC from Seattle. I mentioned I was traveling to Vancouver and she mentioned she had good friends there. On my vacation I looked up her friends (with her blessing) and we had a terrific time. We even saw each other again in Australia and New Zealand. None of that would have happened if I weren’t a little bit pushy. It won’t be a success story every time–I’ve had plenty of awkward friend dates–but when it does work you have wonderful new friends.
5. Don’t re-brand Joe.
You may have a friend who has only a few areas of interest in common with you. Maybe you love going ice fishing with your friend Joe but he’s never shows up to your parties and he hates meeting up in a crowded restaurant. It’s okay, you don’t have to change Joe. Joe is just your ice fishing buddy and that’s fine. There are few people who will share all of your interests. Many of your friends are ice fishing buddies and you’re trying to re-brand them to suit your own needs, forcing them into activities they don’t want to do. Stop trying to re-brand Joe or else he will stop calling you.
6. No judgements.
I have absolutely no moral opinion about how you live your life. (Except that you have to vaccinate and keep your firearms locked because that shit affects me, too.) You do whatever makes you happy and I will not judge you.
7. Money, it’s a thing.
Money is a problem with friendship as imbalances can make getting together tricky. You may want a destination wedding and poor ol’ Joe hates Hawai’i and is too embarrassed to say he can’t afford to fly there. Do everyone a favor and plan for modest outings. If you’re well off, spend money on the nice food and drink and have people over to your house.
8. Dreaded telephone.
We all hate phone calls, but when a friendship is new they are a necessity. You have to call up and have a bit of a chat and learn about the other person’s style. Otherwise, you’re going to miss-read your snarky friend’s tone when she sends you a text. People have a phone style and it’s often different from how they communicate in person. Get to know the phone style in the beginning and all future communication will go over much better because you’ll hear their voice when they IM or text you.
Having children will force even a wall flower to come out of their shell for planned play dates. Unfortunately, our kids will may befriend children who have parents we do not enjoy. It’s like an arranged marriage. In one of our better scenarios we forced the kids to learn to like each other because we parents enjoyed spending time together, but that took a long time. It’s not ideal. Meet people in other ways or you’ll feel frustrated. Stay-at-home-moms, I’m talking to you here.
Kids are frustrating for those couples who don’t have them as they watch their long-time friends fall off the social radar when they start to procreate. Both parties need to make an effort to maintain a friendship when there are big life changes like divorce, children, marriage, moves, etc. Your friendship won’t ever be the same but it doesn’t have to disappear either.
10. Don’t overshadow.
I overshadow people all the time and I’m sorry for it. Like, when new people are telling me about a movie they enjoyed I’ll bite my tongue because it might be a project I worked on and I don’t want to overshadow their enjoyment with the fact that the star was a jerk. Or, they might be talking about recent travel to a country where I lived for a time and I don’t want to immediately jump in and be a know-it-all. I first noticed this problem when I was a child and we’d moved to a rural town in Long Island and I’d speak of my experience traveling the world. The kids thought I was either a liar or a braggart and they hated me for it. Really, the only people I can let my hair down with are fellow opera nerds and other world travelers–people who tend to be as pompous as myself. But this rule applies to everyone: Be fabulous with fabulous people, and the rest of the time be modest.
11. You are prejudiced.
(The boldest one for last, baby.)
When you hear the old cliche, “Birds of a feather flock together,” do you consider it a pity? The self-selection that happens in social media is magnified in real life where awkward social situations create barriers to communication with strangers. It’s almost with a sense of relief that people recognize commonality in one another. People are comfortable speaking to someone who is like themselves, speaks the same language, uses the same cultural shorthands, dresses the same, or has similar slang–almost always this is someone who has skin color similar to them as well.
This is a problem.
I’m not talking here about the meta-problem of how self-segregation might harm society, I mean that you are missing out on some real growth and beautiful friendship because you’re not moving past the initial surface. Making friends with people who are different from yourself takes extra effort.
You may be feeling defensive right now and thinking that your friend group is actually very diverse, thankyouverymuch. Okay. Think of your closest friends. Now tell me, are they all approximately the same age as you? Hmmmm…
Most people have a hard time breaking out of a self imposed self image. You can’t be friends with someone who is much younger or much older than yourself. These self-limiting voices are whispering to you.
It took me many years to notice I had these voices in my head.
When I was twelve I had a fantastic time at a party talking with a man in his sixties about books we both loved. I later asked our mutual friends if I could have his phone number and I tried to get in touch with him. He got pretty weird about it. There was no impropriety at either end, we could have kept talking about good books over the phone, but I never heard from him again.
Later, when I was seventeen, a young girl of twelve did the same to me, asking if we could keep in touch after I left for college. I got weird about it. I didn’t even notice I was being weird about it. And I didn’t respond to her messages.
These are extreme examples of age difference, but it did help to clarify for me that there are a lot of unspoken societal expectations controlling us.
If you’ve ever been the oldest person invited to a wedding and found yourself feeling awkward because you’re hanging out with so many young people–you must stop and re-assess your attitude. Your age is not as important as the interests and values you share with your friends.
It’s harder to be friends with someone who doesn’t speak your language as their native tongue, or who comes from a different culture even within your own country, such as a difference race or religion. Those individuals are going to feel wary when you approach them with the intention of being friendly. Recognize that they have those voices in their head and make the extra effort to get to know them. I have great friends who are much older and much younger than me. I have great friends from other cultures, and yeah, sometimes I put my foot in my mouth or do something to give offense. But it’s okay. We move past it. They tell me I’m being an asshole and I apologize. As friends do. And I’m not limiting myself to people who are exactly like me which makes my life much more interesting.
Okay, good luck. I hope you find some of these tips helpful and I’d love to hear if they pay off for you in some way.
Yours in everlasting pomposity.