I started my current job with the usual new employee orientation. That day, I talked briefly with another new hire, and I quickly learned we had a lot in common, even mutual friends. As the year unfolded, I knew I wanted to be friends with her but could sense myself being awkward about it.
To make plans outside of work, I need a way to contact her that isn’t a work email, I thought. But for some reason, I was hesitant to just offer to trade numbers and suggest plans for us and our significant others. Why was I treating this like asking a high school crush to prom?
Simple — because adult friendships are hard.
Sojourning from our 20s into our 30s means learning how to “adult”: Have a way to organize your finances and pay your bills reliably. Make a meal plan and a grocery list to save money and prevent waste. And don’t freak out when making legit adult friends is hard.
I’ll let you know when I have an iron-clad, surefire, guaranteed way to do all that. In the meantime, I’ll share a few lessons I’ve learned about navigating the social jungle of adulthood.
I loved college because it produced ready-made environments in which I could find people seemingly pre-screened to be my friends. What’s more, we lived and studied and recreated together, which facilitated my getting to know them.
Do you like singing at church? See you at choir rehearsal two nights a week. You want to be a counselor for this summer program? Let’s attend several training and preparation meetings and then work together 24/7 for six weeks straight. You enjoy performing on stage? Can’t wait for two months of daily rehearsals followed by performance nights followed by cast parties.
The hard part in adult life isn’t the lack of opportunities like this — it’s that we aren’t accessible to one another in the same way. We don’t live on campuses with dozens of clubs, organizations, and lectures concentrated together to beckon like-minded people together. We don’t have the ease of walking across a quad to find each other. We don’t have the surplus leisure time to commit to doing many different kinds of things together.
Being an adult means identifying your priorities and acting on them decisively. A good place to start? Take the hobby or interest that’s burning most inside you and seek a social outlet for it. For me, it was accepting a friend’s invitation to weekly pub trivia, where I reconnected with old college acquaintances and met new ones, all while enjoying my love of useless knowledge and frivolous competition. The tricky part is that you’re the one who has to get out of work at a reasonable hour; sacrifice your evening Netflix-binge time; and commit to attending regular rehearsals, meetings, or gatherings where attractive social situations await.
Be patient and realistic
I think in retrospect, I sometimes feel like my best friendships escalated quickly and took little work. In reality, they happened in carefully-crafted conditions and probably involved more investment than I care to recall. In adult life, you can’t really expect those advantages.
For instance, co-workers may be the people you see most, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should become your friends. I know that when I step into a break room that is swirling with gossip and office intrigue, I prefer not to socially engage. When I happen upon a co-worker at my lunch break, however, and we stumble into a cordial conversation about how our families are doing or how the game last night was, then I relish the connection and warm to those people. The way that happens is often just random luck.
In adult life, you have to set reasonable expectations and settle in to play the long game. Not everyone has to become my best friend; making casual friends is great, too. I may not meet and get to know everyone in a new setting quickly. And some of my casual friends, over time, may become closer friends, too.
Don’t lose sight of your old friends
Sometimes in adult life, I feel like I’m not keeping up with the Joneses. I’m not eating at the hip, trendy restaurants; I’m not drinking mixologist-curated cocktails at late-night bars; I’m not posting selfies from the coolest spots in town. At times, it all makes me feel like a loser. But I typically remember fairly quickly that I don’t want that stuff. I’m more interested in laid-back conversation over craft beers at a subdued brewpub; getting tickets to a game or a show; or cooking dinner at home and inviting my friends to bring dessert.
This is where my old friends come in. While I may languish in self-doubt as I try to strike up new friendships, my best friends remind me who I already am. Their company brings me security and comfort to be my natural self, to tell jokes without doubting my sense of humor, to be vulnerable without fear of being left hanging. My best friends are my reset button, whether from afar on FaceTime or sitting across the table from me sipping a beer. Spending time with these go-to buddies reinforces my self-knowledge and helps me remember my best, truest self.
I would never presume to reveal the full scope of my complex emotions or off-color sense of humor to a new friend right away. But having the security to offer my full self in the company of old friends reminds me of the love that is possible in new friendship, too. It’s the reason why it’s worth swallowing an adult version of teenage anxiety, sticking my neck out a smidge, and inviting my co-worker over for dinner.