I decided to write this short guide because I feel like I see a lot of people struggling to make friends as adults. In school or university you are confined to a space with other people with whom you, by default, have common ground. After graduation those friendships tend to drift apart, people move to new cities for job opportunities or relationships, and somehow people wake up aged 28 or 35 and realise that they are lonely. It seems there are lots of people in the same boat: lonely adults who wish they could make meaningful friendships, but don’t know where to start.
I’m going to help you find each other.
But first, a disclaimer: despite the qualifications I do have as a psychologist, this advice has frankly nothing to do with my professional work. I am not a therapist or relationship counsellor. This advice is mostly made in my capacity as an extrovert.
Where to start
Friendships don’t need to be based on being identical people with identical interests and lifestyles. In fact one of the best things about friendships is being able to expand your own bubble and learn about the passions of other people. However, you do need at least some congruence around values and general areas of interest.
The easiest way to meet new people is by meeting friends of friends. And then friends of friends of friends and so on. However, joining a group based around an interest of activity is a good way to get out of your bubble. You can look for local sports teams or clubs (football, rock climbing, yoga). There are meet-up groups based around films, board games, whisky tastings, taxidermy, DIY, painting, and pretty much any other interest you can think of. Many of them offer beginner sessions, or will at least be friendly and inclusive to newcomers, so even if you’ve never participated in the activity you can meet people and learn something new.
The internet is a boundless resource for your specific area.
Activities are good because you a) have a go-to topic of conversation rather than awkwardly poking around to try to find common ground, and b) everyone is there to meet people willingly – you are not imposing on an established group as an outsider, or making the “cold” approach to people who may not be interested in meeting anyone at all.
Do not try to make friends in bars or clubs.
People hate small talk. However, small talk has a purpose and, when done correctly, doesn’t have to be painful.
The purpose of small talk is to tread water. People come from a lot of different backgrounds, with a lot of different opinions, and a lot of different lifestyles. Use small talk to probe into who the person you’re talking to is, and whether you have some common ground.
Small talk will also ensure you don’t offend people because you were lacking in information – for example talking about your weekly “I hate kittens” meet-up group to someone who is an avid cat lover. But more specifically to avoid pressing hot-button topics which people tend to get very defensive about, such as religion, political views, and lifestyle (children, relationships, family).
The interactions described above are intended for strangers at parties, or the aforementioned activity groups. Basically, situations where making friends is normal and acceptable.
My personal advice is to avoid trying to make friends at work, but your mileage may vary.
You start with an innocuous question or comment – about their weekend, or Christmas plans. They answer. If the answer is interesting, you can ask them to elaborate further. “Oh you went hiking? Do you go hiking a lot?” or “Oh, you’re going up to Norwich for Christmas? Is that where you grew up?” They answer. You tell them a little information about yourself, and continue the conversation. “Scotland, huh? I haven’t been hiking since I was a kid; my aunt used to take us to Wales. I’d love to get back into it though.” People love talking about themselves, and they love feeling like they are interesting. If you ask people questions they will like you because they think that you think that they are interesting. The purpose of offering information about yourself is that when the information volume is imbalanced (i.e., you know way more about them than they know about you), people start feeling awkward.
You’ll notice I said “if the answer is interesting”. A lot of the time, it won’t be. A lot of people are boring. A lot of people aren’t boring, but your interests do not line up with theirs. A lot of people are bad at socialising and don’t recognise “bids for information” (which is what I described above) and will give you one-word, uninformative answers.
All of this is fine, normal, and to be expected. If you’ve realised you’re talking to a person you’re not getting on with, just move on to the next one.
The point is that by getting into the habit of making these small talk prods, you might eventually stumble upon someone you click with.
You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a friend-prince.
How to make the leap from acquaintance to friend
Let’s say you finally met someone cool. The first step is to exchange contact information. It’s perfectly fine to literally say “Listen, you seem like a cool person. Do you want to swap numbers/add me on Facebook/whatever your preferred mode of communication is? It would be nice to hang out again some time.”
If they hesitate or get a weird look on their face, that means “no”. At that point you say “Hey, no worries if not. Enjoy the rest of your night!”
Let’s say they say yes.
Invite them somewhere. Don’t invite them to “hang out”, invite them to a specific event relevant to something you talked about or were doing on initial meeting. “Hey, I’m going to [thing] on Tuesday, do you want to come?”
They might say no. This may mean they’re genuinely busy, or they don’t like the sound of [thing], or maybe they’re feeling ill. It may also mean they don’t want to hang out, at all, and are giving you a “soft no”.
Wait for a bit of time to pass, maybe a week or two, and invite them to something else.
If they still say “no”, the ball is in their court and if they do want to cultivate a friendship with you it is up to them to reach out. Do not invite them to something else again unless they reach out first.
If they say yes – congratulations, you are on the path to building what might be a friendship!
Ideally they will also eventually introduce you to their friends, and you now have a much larger pool for meeting new people and making new friends, using the same process outlined above.
Some people have a “set it and forget it” approach to relationships. Once you have decided that You Are Friends, that label is assumed to be true until explicitly revoked. Some people can go months without even speaking to each other and then reconnect like nothing even happened.
However, most friendships do take effort and maintenance from both parties, or they wilt and eventually die.
This means that if you find yourself doing all the inviting and reaching out, either the person isn’t all that keen on being friends with you, or they don’t think you are worth putting effort in for. My advice is to not continue putting in the one-sided effort.
As a rule of thumb, reach out three times. If they do not reciprocate (invite you somewhere, send the first text message, phone you), then do not reach out again until they do. Once they do reach out, the “count” resets.
By the same token, you cannot expect a relationship to coast on the effort of the other person. If you are constantly turning down invitations and not reaching out, you can expect the friendship to dry out. Even if your reasons are legitimate, it makes the other person feel like their efforts are being taken for granted, or that you do not appreciate them, or that you are subtly trying to tell them to stop pestering you.
A few parting words of advice
Although this may sound harsh, none of the above advice will be helpful if you are fundamentally a boring or unpleasant person. Friendships are reciprocal. If you bring nothing to the table, you cannot expect others to want to be your friend. This means cultivating interests and hobbies in your own time. It’s incredibly difficult to hold a conversation with someone who has nothing to talk about, even for the most extraverted extraverts.
Unpleasantness, especially in the early stages of trying to meet new people, mostly refers to the inability to take rejection gracefully. Rejection is an inevitable, and incredibly common aspect of socialising. In the words of Dita Von Teese, “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there will still be someone who hates peaches.”
Finally, consider the area you live. If you are struggling to find like-minded people, it could just mean that there are no like-minded people around.
And finally, finally: don’t get discouraged. It’s entirely normal to have to speak casually to 100 people to find 20 that you like, of which 10 may like you back, of which 5 will take you up on your offer to hang out, of which 2 might become good friends of yours. Or you might meet your new best friend at that thing you’re going to on Thursday.