I’ve always maintained a kindergartener’s approach to making friends.
- See a person I’d like to be friends with;
- Walk up to him or her;
- Declare friendship.
This has worked well for me, historically — and maybe just because I’m drawn to the type of person who might just do the same thing. In college, I made one of my closest friends because I noticed she wore the same on-trend-but-now-embarrassing type of white tee, which was a sure sign we were tapped into the same zeitgeist. And if that wasn’t enough, she made smart comments in the theology class we took together (swoon!). That was pretty much all the proof I needed about our potential. I declared friendship with her. Turns out, she was about to do the same.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to adjust my approach. For some reason, subtlety is important to adults. Just for the record, I reject the rationale behind this shift — that somehow grown-ups require a more complex friend-making process because we’re more “serious” and “wouldn’t want to seem like a creep.” I disagree. If playground standards still ruled, we’d all be a lot happier.
Despite my strong (and sometimes loud) opinions, I haven’t managed to sway reigning social norms that dictate how adults go about this friend-making business — as far as I can tell, if you’re new to a city and are hoping to connect with someone, you can’t just exactly walk up and deploy the Kindergarten Technique™ to declare friendship. So what’s a person to do? Making friends outside the context of Kindergarten is hard and can be intimidating — even awkward. Maybe you’ve noticed.
I’ve heard it’s a little easier in New York — where I lived for about five years — than other cities. (Minneapolis, Portland, and Cleveland all have bad reputations for being clique-ish; anyone from those places want to confirm or deny?) The logic goes that this is because so many people in New York are transplants — only a few grew up here or have friends from high school hanging out and hanging on.
And in a city of 8.5 million people, most people are surprised at the common experience of loneliness — the hustle can be isolating, and keeping up can be tiring. But this loneliness compels people to opt in: for drinks after work, for free yoga in the park, for a day trip to the Rockaways with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend because it’s better than taking the subway those two hours alone when it’s a really great day for the beach.
A couple of years ago, I was thrilled to be set up on a “friend-date” by a close colleague, and even happier when this new friend agreed to meet for burgers in the park rather than a hip rooftop bar or new restaurant — I took this as a sign of good things to come. As if to confirm my suspicion, we talked for four hours about family, art, religion, and fashion; finished our burgers and shakes; then agreed we needed a gelato nightcap. Our favorite conversation topics were outmatched only by our common cravings. We were kindred.
More recently, I showed up to an event for writers and publishers in my city and, though I had resigned myself to scarfing down the buffet lunch in a corner I’d claimed (rather than attempt simultaneous eating-and-small-talk), someone asked to occupy the chair nearby. She complimented my headband just as I was about to compliment her skirt. We talked books, and by the end of a few minutes, we’d exchanged phone numbers and social media handles.
But I know this doesn’t always happen. I’ve sat through new-friend-dates that test my comfort with awkward silence and my speed at getting the bill. I’ve been ghosted after promising hang-outs. I’ve followed the trajectory of friends from high school on Facebook and wondered how we didn’t manage to connect back then, given how much we seem to have in common a decade later.
I don’t know if there’s a trick to finding success (or avoiding the instances of awkward silence). The lessons from the episodes above may lead to a few helpful takeaways, though.
First of all, instead of automatically showing up to the places where the “regulars” hang out — the popular and well-established scenes in a city — seek out the other newbies who might be looking for an adventure off the beaten path and aren’t already knee-deep in routines and cliques in the city.
Second, make it clear you’re in the market for new connections, and let friends-of-friends help connect you to wider circles than you already know.
Finally, perhaps the best advice I can give is simply to show up to the places that reflect your deep values — whether that’s a bookstore, a church, a concert, or a park — and, knowing you are likely to have the significant stuff in common with anyone else there, survey those spaces for the folks who may have your superficial interests in common, too.
Any of these tips might spark a connection. And when you feel like you have good reason to deploy the KT™ — for example, when you sign-up to clean up your local park and you notice that she’s got the latest Anne Patchett book in her tote, or you show up to Mass on Sunday morning and recognize the unmistakable band t-shirt from the concert you also just attended — you can declare friendship without hesitation.