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Striking Up a New Friendship: It's Not So Easy

Social isolation is on the rise.

Becoming socially isolated is more and more common. Friends may move away, or a job promotion may require putting down roots in a new place. Divorce itself can be as socially dislocating as a cross-country move. Working at home instead of an office can mean entire days without face-to-face contact with anyone. For someone who lives alone, the omission of workplace relationships can result in profound isolation.

How are we supposed to make new friends as adults? We need an entry point into other people’s lives. Many friendships do get started at work. Places for encounters abound in the workplace through shared resources like water coolers, copy machines, and break rooms. There are ample opportunities for starting up conversations while waiting for the microwave, so long as at least someone else isn’t head down, texting away.

When a team at work completes a project, the group may go out for a celebratory beer together. Getting together outside the office is a chance for expanding relationships beyond discussions of work issues. Yet I know many people now who work on virtual teams where there is no post-deadline feast or fest together. Some employers have stopped sending workers to out-of-town conferences, subscribing to the less expensive option of webcasts for professional development credits obtained through solitary listening instead.

Companion —this word has the Latin roots “pan” (bread) and “com” (with or together). Virtual contact is not personal contact. An email communication is not the same as an actual conversation. This fact must be emphasized because the value of personal contact is being forgotten. Yesterday, I called to give a reference for someone I once supervised, and the prospective employer and I ended up having a digressive exchange full of stories, ideas, and surprising professional convergences that could never have emerged to this extent in an email. The next time our paths cross, we may go out for coffee. We may break bread together.

Moving from superficial chitchat to building a friendship is no simple matter in itself, but first people need a way to test out an initial interest in knowing more about each other. More than one or two casual encounters may be necessary before bridging over into personal territory. For instance, parents faced with transporting their kids to endless activities often become friends with the parents of their children’s friends. Calling to get in on a carpooling arrangement leads to chitchat about jobs or schools or the price of gas, and then soon thereafter comes a book group invitation or even a dinner date on a Saturday night.

Communal workspaces are becoming increasingly popular, especially for those who live and work alone. At least there are chances to strike up conversations while reaching for creamer in the refrigerator or replacing paper in the copier. Walk into a Starbucks and you are greeted with the sight of almost everyone focused intently on their laptops. Trying to find a plug for yours might require a ten-second dialogue, but that’s all—unless the person you have interrupted has been craving some kind of conversation and friendliness breaks out.

Wendy Lustbader
Source: Wendy Lustbader

Indeed, the modern plague seems to be loneliness. It is hard to reach out to anyone when we are mostly relating to screens rather than to the people around us. There was a time not long ago when people would talk to each other on trains and planes, while waiting on lines, during idle moments of availability to one another. Now with earplugs shutting out spontaneous conversation, we have to disturb another person’s plugged-in world in order to make contact, and that feels like too much of a barrier for something so tentative.

Later life can be especially challenging in this regard because we may start to outlive some of the friends most dear to us, and it can be hard to summon the spirit to extend ourselves. For people of all ages, though, doing something contributory in concert with others is often a useful remedy. Volunteering as a friendly visitor to people who are homebound, tutoring kids at a local school, or helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity may come with the rewards of new friendships.

To me, the sight of several people at a bus stop involved in their devices is a portrait of how we are living these days. Conversations between strangers are on the wane. There are fewer chances to discover commonalities when a neighbor walking his dog is listening to NPR or someone down the block pulling weeds is humming along to a concerto on their headphones. We have become worlds unto ourselves. It happens all too frequently that we can find ourselves friendless in a new place, geographically or emotionally, while going about our business. My hope is for a collective awakening in which we become alert to opportunities to unplug, reach out, and get personal once again for all of our sakes.

Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2018.