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How to Make Friends in a New City

One of the hardest parts of moving is finding a community. Here's how to do it.

 Jiarong Deng/Pexels
Source: Jiarong Deng/Pexels

Yasmin moved to Chicago and didn’t know a soul. She was optimistic about making friends but had no idea how to do it. She’d sit in cafes, or sometimes at bars, hoping that someone might talk to her. She even went to a “going out” meetup group, despite her reservations about flying solo in a sea of strangers. She met a few people, but no one stuck.

Yasmin isn’t alone. Many of us have taken the brave step of moving to a new city and are confused as to how to make friends. It’s hard, but not impossible. To make finding friends in a new city more seamless, start the work of making friends before you get to your new city. Reach out to your friends and see if they know anyone in the city you’re moving to who they could put you in touch with. You might even post on social media (you can search for people by city on Facebook) to see if anyone in your network is in your new city.

The important thing about making friends in a new city is being flexible, or open to “locationships”—friendships that are sustained simply because you’re in the same place at the same time. Research finds that quality interactions enhance our satisfaction with our relationships more so than any old interaction—which may leave you sifting through mounds of people to find people you deeply connect to, but also some interaction is better than no interaction. Even small conversations with others boost our mood and increase our sense of belonging. Plus, your locationships might introduce you to people you feel more connected to.

Michael, an immigrant from Syria who moved to Phoenix, can attest to the importance of being flexible. He prides himself on being someone who can get along with anyone—although he still has his deal-breakers, like racism and disrespecting waitstaff. Because others are sometimes wary of him because of his Syrian background, he knows how it feels to be cast aside. So when it comes to making friends, he doesn’t have stringent “disregard criteria”—snap judgments used to exclude someone as a potential friend. He’ll make friends with retirees, people who have kids, or drive his Uber—that’s how he ended up hanging out with a bus driver who spent their time together picking up women. Although the bus driver date didn’t work out (he eventually had to ask him to stop hitting on everybody), being in a new city is still a good time to soften your disregard criteria and look out for all different types of friends.

Michael’s other advice for making friends in a new city is to put yourself out there and initiate, and don’t take it personally if people turn you down. It can be as easy as saying "It was great talking to you. I'd love to hang out sometime. Can we exchange information?" He met his best friend in Phoenix, a Syrian doctor just like him, when he introduced himself to her at a party and asked if she wanted to hang out afterward. Evidence from psychology research backs up Michael’s advice: People who initiate are less lonely, and new acquaintances are more satisfied in their relationships with someone who is willing to initiate. Don’t assume friendships happen organically—go out there and make them happen.

We can also be strategic about who we initiate with. Transitioners are people who are new to an environment, and research finds that other “transitioners” are particularly open to spending time with new friends. So, you’ll want to make sure you follow up with other transitioners you meet. They’ll have more time to connect.

After another quiet night alone of Pho take-out and Sabrina The Teenage Witch episodes, Yasmin wasn’t sure if she made the right decision to come to Chicago. To hold herself accountable for human interaction, she joined a drawing class. And by showing up to meet others at a repeated, rather than a one-off event, Yasmin capitalized on something called the “mere exposure effect”—a psychological principle that reveals that the more we see someone, the more we like them. The mere exposure effect suggests, as Yasmin eventually intuited, that having continuous interaction with another person will make us more likely to form friendships. But you’ll still need to initiate—ask someone from your class to grab a coffee after.

When Michael reflects on where he sees his friendships going in the future, he looks forward to making friends that help him pursue some of his hobbies and passions—running friends to go on runs with, nature friends to go on hikes with. A part of him feels shy about making friends though, since he’s moved around a lot and had to leave good friends, and it’s tempting to spare himself the heartbreak. He pushes through the grief, however, by realizing how important friends have been to his life. “Friends are ultimately about two people trying to make each other’s lives better, and how can I say no to that? ”

Note: This article is posted on my website where you can take a quiz to assess your friendship skills.

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