How to Make
AS AN ADULT
Every new friend is a new adventure…the start of more memories.
Once upon a time there was a girl who moved to northern Virginia. It was the third move of our new-ish five year marriage, and once again I found myself in a place where I knew exactly no one. (Being a military spouse requires you to step up your game.)
Lucky for me, I have a lovely dog who makes friends everywhere she goes (EVERYone loves Lucy). And occasionally her new friends become my friends, too. The neighbors behind us, especially their daughter, Violet, thought Lucy was the best thing ever (correctly so), and would come out to visit when Lucy was spending time in our backyard.
Through those encounters, Violet’s very friendly mom invited me to a neighborhood bookclub, which was the beginning of some wonderful friendships in the Best. Neighborhood. Ever.
Fast forward five years and we are moving again, back to Florida, where we are from originally. This move was particularly challenging for me personally (in part because I hated to leave our lovely newfound friends), and by the time the dust settled and I was ready to get out and start meeting people…COVID hit.
During the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, I discovered that my preferred lifestyle is actually very similar to what we now know as quarantine. (I also know from an informal poll that I’m not the only one who discovered this about themselves.) But now that I’m all vaccinated and boostered up, the time for sheltering at home has come to an end and I need to leave the nest and try to make a few new friends. Again.
Friends are awesome. They add fun and growth and memories to our lives. Making new friends as an adult is hard.
I don’t need statistics or research to prove it to me…I’ve lived it a dozen times since I left home to go to college. And I don’t think it is just because I am an introvert and my default is just to enjoy my own company, although that can make it more challenging. Once you leave the Petrie dish of college, where proximity practically insists on meeting and getting to know new people, establishing new relationships that are more than just acquaintances requires perseverance and a willingness to get uncomfortable. Often.
But while making new friends might be a challenge, having friends, specifically local friends, is fun! And good for your health, mental and physical. So I’m trying to think of the act of making new friends a bit like exercise.
It’s something I’m doing because it is good for me…I don’t have to be excited about the process of putting myself out there (and getting uncomfortable) to enjoy the end result.
There are, however, some things I have learned about making new friends over the years that make the process slightly easier. Some of it is my own hard-won knowledge and some of it is wisdom borrowed from other people. If you are in a new place or stage of life looking for some new friends (or just think there is always room to make another new friend!), here are the steps to take to find your new people.
1. Think about what you want from a new friendship.
I recently read this idea in Rachel Wilkerson Miller’s book, The Art of Showing Up, and it’s such a good suggestion! One of the hardest things about making new friends as an adult is the disappointment of a new relationship not looking the way we hoped it would. Giving some thought to your own expectations can minimize that frustration.
Ask yourself: Are you looking for a new group to hang out with on Friday night? A new BFF? Or just someone to meet at the gym? Knowing what you are looking for up front can help you be more discerning about which new people you meet would be a good friendship fit for you and help you avoid an all or nothing mentality.
You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
2. Go where the people are.
In order to make friends in real life, you have to actually leave the house. Ideally, go where there will be people who share similar interests with you. Sign up for an art class. Join an exercise group. Volunteer for a cause you care about. Get involved in a church group. A smaller group setting is more conducive to getting to know new people.
You can also find events through a site like Meetup.com, where groups of every interest post gatherings in your local area.
3. Say Hi.
The first step in making new friends (at any age) is to say Hi, I’m Sheri. Simple, yes. Easy, not necessarily. I don’t think it is ever really a comfortable experience for me, although it has gotten a little easier over the years.
In her book The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin set a goal for herself to make three new friends in any situation where she was meeting new people. (The nerd in me loves that she was such a planner. I respect that.) She felt it changed her attitude to one of anticipation. Looking at new folks and mentally asking herself ‘Are you someone who will be one of my three friends?’ made her more open and willing to make an effort.
4. Have a couple of questions ready to start the conversation.
As someone who really dislikes meaningless small talk with strangers, this awkward striking up of a conversation can be especially painful to me. So I do what any good nerd would do and enter a potential new friend zone prepared with a few questions in advance. Don’t judge, you know it’s a good idea.
Questions about the venue, the instructor or leader of the group, or how long the other person has been attending are all good starting places.
A great idea from The Art of Showing up is to ask for recommendations, instead of simply asking questions. Where is the best place to park around here? Do you know of anyplace good nearby to grab a bite to eat/coffee/cocktail?
It may be tempting to try to bond with a potential friend about the crappy weather or the class being too crowded, but letting your first impression be a negative one is a mistake. Misery may love company, but it doesn’t necessarily want to grab a coffee with her. The old cliché is true: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.
5. Be interested in what they have to say.
When we are dying to make connections (and when we are nervous), we often talk too much. Ask an open-ended question and then actively listen to what your potential friend has to say instead.
In other words, smile, make eye contact, lean in (not in a creepy way), laugh at their jokes. We all want to feel interesting and heard. Give that gift to a stranger and you have turned them into a potential friend!
Gretchen Rubin also created a Checklist for Making a Good First Impression which includes asking questions…but also following other’s conversational leads. If your potential new friend brings up a new topic (that you are comfortable pursuing), ask some questions and follow them down the conversational rabbit hole! Which leads to…
6. Be enthusiastic.
Don’t be afraid to show your enthusiasm for whatever lights you up. Folks enjoy being around other people who are excited about things in a positive way, even if that excitement isn’t about subjects or interests that matter to them personally. It shows you are engaged in life and have hobbies and passions.
Enthusiastic people are the ones we are instinctively drawn towards. Don’t be afraid to geek out about what you love.
7. Embrace your awkward.
Meeting new people can be intimidating. Especially if you are entering an environment where most of the participants already know one another and you are the newcomer. And when we are intimidated, sometimes we try too hard. Anyone who has re-played every word from an interaction with someone they just met can relate to what I mean. Inwardly I groan at myself when I know I’ve been a total goof while trying to engage with strangers.
Go easy on yourself if you trip over your words or basically say all the wrong things. It’s going to happen. (I speak from experience.) Either these new people will smile and embrace your human-ness and continue to get to know you…or they won’t. And that’s okay. We aren’t meant to be friends with everyone we meet. They aren’t the only potential friends out there. Be patient with yourself.
8. Be patient with the process.
While you are being patient with yourself, also be patient with your new potential friend.
In her article, Why Making Friends in Midlife is So Hard, Kathrine Smyth compares making friends in midlife with the experience of dating. It becomes “dependent not only on chemistry and common interests, but also on a shared vision of what your new relationship could provide. Half the struggle is finding someone who wants the same thing you do, and at the exact same time.” I wasn’t great at dating, either, which explains a lot, actually.
And even if you do find a potential friend that clicks, people’s adult lives are usually pretty complicated, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. Sometimes the delay of a return call or postponement of a coffee date isn’t personal at all.
Gretchen Rubin explains that “We tend to view other people’s action as reflections of their character and to overlook the power of situation to influence their actions”. Maybe your potential friend has a sick child or a work emergency and isn’t just ghosting you because they are rude. Show potential new friends some grace as well.
9. Accept that everyone isn’t going to be a good fit.
We also have to accept that sometimes, just like in a dating relationship, a potential friend just isn’t a good fit. Maybe you don’t have enough in common or the timing just doesn’t line up. Don’t try to force a friendship with someone who isn’t on board.
It can be hard to read people sometimes, I get that. One of Miller’s tips is to be open and just tell people you are trying to make some new friends. She says there is nothing wrong with saying “We should hang out soon! I just moved here and haven’t met a lot of people yet!” or “We should get together sometime! I’d really love to meet some new friends who are in my industry/live around here/also parents, etc.” This can be a good way to gauge someone’s interest, and most people will be empathetic and supportive of your vulnerability, even if they aren’t your next new BFF.
10. Don’t let rejection sideline you.
Unfortunately, just like in dating, when it doesn’t work out, it can feel like rejection. Like you just weren’t quite smart/sophisticated/funny enough to make the cut. Intellectually you may realize everyone you meet isn’t going to want to be your new bestie, but the heart can still take it a little personally.
This can be especially hard if you are in a place where you are starting from scratch making new friends and are truly lonely. It can be helpful to remind yourself of the truth that Olivia Laing describes in her book The Lonely City: while loneliness “feels entirely isolating…it is in reality a communal state, inhabited by many people”. Your feelings of loneliness are shared by many, many other people. And those other people are out there looking for a friend as well.
If this particular not-new-friend is someone you are going to see regularly, like every week in spin class, don’t let that make you awkward. Just smile and wave and continue your quest.
11. Pace yourself.
Because it can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster, this trying new friends on for size, try to pace yourself. You don’t have to jump from one encounter to the next without taking a breath. Remember, you are the best friend you will ever have. So take the time to take care of yourself. When a potential new friendship doesn’t go the way you’d hoped, spend some quality time being a friend to yourself instead.
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.’
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
12. Don’t give up.
The practice of making new friends requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. We have to show people who we are and risk their rejection…or their indifference, which can be just as painful. But there isn’t a shortcut to making connections with other people.
In her famous talk The Call to Courage, Brené Brown says: Vulnerability is about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. You can’t engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability.
And the vulnerability she is describing is exactly what is required in the making of new friends. You have to keep finding the courage to show up when you feel uncertain and uncomfortable and don’t know how things will turn out.
It’s hard. You don’t have to pretend otherwise. You just don’t give up.
Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.
Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin
Adulting already has so many challenges, it feels a little unfair to also have to start from scratch forging new friendships at this stage in our lives.
But I think Kathrine Smyth gets it right when she says: To meet new people…who see me as I am right now, not as who I used to be-is to acknowledge the growing that we all have left to do.
This adult version of you has even more to offer than every version that came before. More insight, more experience, more authenticity. We become more ourselves. Finding the people who will appreciate this newest version of you is worth the effort.