Today I want to talk about a topic that’s come up before in my column over at Kotaku – something that a lot of people have issues with.
So stop me if this sounds familiar.
You have a tight group of friends. Maybe you were the tightest of bros when you were in college. Maybe you’ve been buds since high school. Maybe you’re like me and you’re still close with some of the folks you met in that pre-kindergarten Yamaha class your parents made you take under the guise of being “well rounded,” but was really meant to set you up to get into that Ivy League college of their dreams.
Regardless of when you first met your core group of friends, you were tight – brothers and sisters in all but blood.
And then… you start to drift apart. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way things happen to shake out. Priorities change. Marriages and children mean that some of them have less time to spend with everyone. Someone moves out of town for work. You may see each other once or twice a year if you’re lucky, maybe stay connected via social media, but it’s not the same. And because it gets so much harder to make friends – not acquaintances, co-workers you shoot the shit with or people you see on a regular basis, but actual “let’s hang out and actually do shit together” friends – once you’re no longer in school, you feel like you have a limited pool of friends… and it’s getting smaller all the time, with no real way of finding new people to bring into the group.
Or maybe you don’t have an established social circle. You may have just moved to a new city, you may have had to cut ties with your old life or you just may never have had many people you were close to… and you have no real idea how to change that, especially now that you’re out in the “real world”.
Regardless of how it happened: you’re left feeling somewhat adrift. You may have every other aspect of your life together, but this is just the one place where you have no idea what you’re doing. You’re interested in making new friends but unlike when you were in college, it’s no longer as simple or intuitive as it once was. So… what the hell do you do?
Relax. All of those skills I’ve been teaching you about dating? They all apply to making friends as well.
Why Does Making Friends Get So Hard After College?
It seemed so much easier in college, didn’t it? There might have been an awkward point or two during freshman orientation, but you found your group relatively quickly. You might have sought them out specifically, or been brought in by someone who was already there. Or maybe you all just happened to drift together like dust-bunnies, pulled together by the static electricity of weed and a love of watching Adult Swim completely high. It was easy. It felt natural. You had your weekly rituals – the Friday night TV marathon before heading out to the bars or coffeeshops to just… hang.1 You might have had some rocky times – inter-social circle relationships meant that lines might be drawn, personality conflicts meant trying to resolve things without picking sides – but you got through them OK.
But after you’ve got that diploma in your hand… it all just goes away. Suddenly what was intuitive just doesn’t work. There might be an early grace period when you’re young and you’re working in a “young” company – some Internet start-up that’s trying to make up for low pay and shitty hours with a “cool-we’re-all-bros” atmosphere, say – but on the whole, after you hit your mid 20s, that sense of friendships “just happening” seems to disappear into the ether.
Well, to start with, once you’re out in the “real world” (such as it is) the demands on your time change drastically. We might have had classes and work-study programs, but we had fewer necessities and responsibilities to occupy our time. Meal plans and on-campus housing meant that there were fewer errands to run during the day. You had more opportunities to set your schedule to your preferences – if you were especially clever, by your junior or senior year, you could ensure you always had three (or even four) day weekends. When you’re employed, you have far less flexibility; even with flex time options, you still have 40 to 50 (or more) hours of your week accounted for. Throw in mandated overtime and the various little time-sucks – grocery shopping, waiting for the cable guy, etc. – that our lives are heir to and you’ve suddenly got less time for bro-bonding than you ever did before.
And speaking of less time: you frequently have more commitments and responsibilities than you had while you were in college. Relationships, especially LTRs, take time and maintenance. Even when you’re allowing for “me” time, you still simply aren’t able to devote quite as much time to hanging with potential new buddies. And if you have children… well, good luck there.
It also doesn’t help that when you’re in college, the vast majority of your peers are likely in the same stage of life as you are – you’re all young, possibly living on your own for the first time and around the same age – physically and intellectually. Once you’ve graduated, you’re tossed out into the world where you may be footloose and fancy free, but your co-workers are older, married or on a completely different path than you are. The commonalities you had with your fellow students that helped ease the transition from “person on campus” to “friend” just aren’t there.
This is why you have to treat making friends differently. In fact: making friends post college is incredibly similar to dating wen you come right down to it.
It Takes Time
One of the first things to realize is that – as in dating – there’s a courtship period. Just as you need to progress from “potentially fuckable” to “willing to date” to “in a relationship”, so to does it take time to move from “acquaintance” to “friend”. And, just as with dating, the amount of time that it can take is incredibly variable. To pull examples from my personal life: on two separate occasions in the past year, I’ve made friends with folks that I’d been waiting in line with at various events and just started shooting the shit to pass the time. We went from “strangers” to “friends” in the span of an hour and change, plus a few trips to the bar.
Another good friend of mine – the guy who officiated at my wedding, actually – was a friendship that developed over a couple months. We met at a mutual friend’s party, then I ended up being a regular at the bar where he worked. When it was slow, we’d chat about movies, comics and assorted geekery. Eventually, he invited me to a party he was throwing and then later on, to guest on his podcast – and things just progressed from there.
The key to developing a friendship over time is patience and casual interaction. Being able to just have a low-key chat at a party or killing time together when you’re both waiting for something does more for fostering a friendship than trying to push going out for beers right away. Those casual hang-outs have a cumulative effect; they allow you to get to know one another at a relaxed pace and give you both a chance to see whether the other person is cool or not and build the rapport that’s going to lead to friendship. It’s better to err on the side of taking more time to get to know somebody – and letting them get to know you – than to start making lunch plans and feeling let down when they can never seem to make it or just don’t reply at all. There’s less pressure and less of that gut-punch of loneliness when you’re able to play it cool.
You know how being needy turns off potential dates? This is just as true for potential friendships; being too eager, pushing being friends too hard or generally acting desperate is going to drive people away faster than just about any other behavior you can think of. Much as with dating, somebody who is too eager to make friends is usually displaying low emotional intelligence which is an all-around turn off in relationships, whether platonic or otherwise. It implies that there’s a reason why they have few (or no) friends – and most people aren’t going to want to stick around to confirm that suspicion. It also gives the impression that the needy person is going to be expecting a higher level of emotional commitment and investment than the potential friend might be willing to give. When someone is acting needy or pushy to make friends, it suggests that the new friend is going to be providing for the majority of his or her social needs, which is a lot of pressure to dump on someone you’ve only just met and barely know.
And in fairness: it can be hard not to come across as too eager, especially if you have relatively few friends. Making new friends is awesome and exciting! It’s a great feeling! But letting yourself get caught up in the new friendship rush2 can open you up to disappointment. After all, people can have asymmetrical levels of friendship; one person may think that the other is their BFF while the latter thinks the former is a cool guy but not be the first on his “people to hang out with” rolodex. Finding out that the person you were assuming was your new potential best man doesn’t feel the same about you can seriously hurt and leave you wondering whether you’re really friends at all.
Cultivating an attitude of cautious interest , at least at first, until you’re closer and hang out more often, is often best. You like ’em – after all, you want to be friends – but your life doesn’t necessarily revolve around them.
Leverage Your Interests
Want to know where to go to meet new friends? Put your interests to work. Finding ways to actively participate in the things you’re already interested in makes it easier to find your people. If you’re a tabletop gamer, find a gaming group that needs someone new. Are you a reader? Join a book discussion club. If you’re into anime, find an anime club. Find MeetUp groups that are based around things you’re already into. Join an amateur kickball league. Take a class you’ve always been interested in. Not only will this give you a more active life, but it will also put you in contact with people with whom you already share commonalities. By having that immediate common ground, you neatly cut through the many differences that might mean you wouldn’t meet them or interact with them otherwise. You may be in different stages of your life, but you’re both taking part in this thing you both love… instant rapport building material.
Remember those two times I mentioned making friends within an hour and change while standing in line? It’s no coincidence that both of those were at events for the Veronica Mars Kickstarter. We had immediate commonalities – being fans of Veronica Mars – which led to finding more commonalities like video games, Joss Whedon shows and making really inappropriate jokes out of just about anything.
Another benefit to finding new friends via your hobbies is that it makes you part of a community. Part of the reason why it was so much easier to make friends in school was that sense of shared identity – you’re all students together at the core, even if you subdivide into other cliques within that group. Being part of a new community helps trigger the pack-instincts that make us bond together; you’re no longer a “you”, you’re an “us”, which in turn makes others warm up to you faster.
And of course when you’re part of a group that meets regularly, it’s much easier to build that cumulative “getting to know you” time that helps you make the transition from “new guy” to “new friend”. It takes much less effort to bond with people you see on the regular, whether it’s weekly or monthly, than people you only see sporadically.
Take The Initiative
Just as with dating, you’re going to have to be willing to be the one to make the initial overtures of friendship. As much as we’d prefer that the folks we’d like to be friends with to be so charmed by us as to make the first move, you can’t rely on somebody else to do the heavy lifting for you. This means that if you want to hang out with a new friend, you have to be be able to do the asking.
And just as with dating, it can help to keep things low-key at first. Inviting somebody to a social event – getting people together to watch the UFC match at a sports bar, for example – is a low-investment, low-risk way of asking a potential new friend to hang out. It diffuses the potential awkward by being part of a like-minded group rather than a one-on-one get together and puts the focus on something external. In a worst case scenario, you can both just focus on the match instead.
But whether you’re organizing a get-together to watch Wrestlemania at Buffalo Wild Wings or just wanting to hang out and chat, you want to pick a place where you can just chill out and talk. This is why grabbing beers is always a popular option when trying to bond with potential new friends; the alcohol helps lower the nervousness and the bar is a place where getting together to trade stories and get to know each other is not only expected, but part of a long and glorious tradition of bonding.
One thing to keep in mind, especially when your friendship is just starting out, is that you may be doing more of the inviting. As I said earlier: it’s entirely possible to have asymmetric levels of emotional investment and it’s quite possible that you’ll be more into them than they are to you. The other thing to keep in mind is that like all relationships, it takes time for people – even platonic friends – to find their rhythm and balance. Some people tend to be the planners and doers in a friendship (or in a couple, for that matter) and end up doing more of the initiating than the others. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person doesn’t view you as a friend or doesn’t want to spend time with you; they just may be more reactive than proactive. It can take a while before you settle into the equilibrium that will balance out who asks whom to do something. So if you’re interested in hanging out with your new buddy… just ask. It doesn’t do anyone any good to be staying at home and miserable in order to make a point.
But more to the point: making new friends means making an effort. Sometimes you’ll put in more effort than you get back… and those are often the relationships that simply just drift away. But other times that initial emotional outlay will be paid back with interest… and those often are the friendships that can last a lifetime.