Need New Friends? Don’t Know How to Make Them?
6 ways to make new friends in any situation.
Posted Jun 15, 2018
Rita* was 23. She had a new job in a city where she didn’t know a soul. She was excited, scared, and lonely. What she wanted more than anything was a friend: “My college friends and I used to spend all of our time together. But now we were all working, so we couldn’t have gotten together even if we were still living in the same city. We texted, and sometimes talked. But it’s not the same."
Nathan* had close friends from childhood, but thought it would be good to develop some work buddies. “I’m not sure exactly how to do it,” he said. “I’m not a drinker, so going out for a beer doesn’t work for me. But I don’t know what else I can do without looking like a weirdo. Guys just don’t say, 'Hey, do you want to go to the movies?'”
Dana*, in her early 30s, also made a move — to a new country: “My husband moved for work. I came with him. We had a two-year-old and a baby on the way. I was up for the adventure. I thought it would be exciting, but I didn’t realize how much I was going to miss my family and my friends. And making new friends in a completely new environment, where I didn’t even know where to shop for groceries, was overwhelming to say the least."
Some of us make friends easily, almost without effort, while others find it harder. Yet starting a new job, a relationship, or a family can be challenging to established friendships and may demand new ways of connecting. Research shows a peak in the number of friends during our early 20s, followed by a steady decline as we move into our late 20s.[i] A move, a divorce, a job loss, or the illness or death of loved ones can make us long for the support of friends who are no longer available. And loss can make it even harder to make new connections.
Some friendships do last over time, of course, but many change shape, no longer providing what you need. Some end abruptly and sometimes painfully, and others simply get lost in the passage of years. We change physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Our social situation alters. Elena, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s powerful fictional saga about women’s friendship, describes some of the difficulty of maintaining and restoring old, important relationships. She says, “To regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn’t have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn’t have the desire.”[ii]
These changes can have many causes — you might outgrow friends, or they might outgrow you; your needs change; or one of you moves away. But sometimes even when you stay in one place, you need new friends. For instance, one study[iii] found that the mythical seven-year itch sometimes exists in friendships as well as other relationships.
It is, of course, important to nurture and care for old friendships. Like a marriage, a friendship may have to go through rocky periods in order to become deeper and more sustaining. But sometimes you really do need to meet new people and establish new friendships. For most of us, that’s easier said than done. So how do you make new friends when you need and want them?
Here are six suggestions I've collected from the men and women I interviewed while gathering information for my book on the joys and heartbreaks of women’s friendships. Not all will work for everyone, but don’t discard them all. Try something that doesn’t seem natural: I've met many people who've told me that they were surprised to find that some of the ideas they thought were completely out of the question helped them the most.
1. First, recognize that it’s normal and even healthy to want to make new friends at different times in your life.
Making new connections does not have to mean that you are being disloyal to your old friends. There’s an old folk song that goes, “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Maintaining important relationships might not always be easy, and your new friends might not be easily integrated into your old circle, but most of us manage many different groups of relationships anyway — family, school, work, church, synagogue, or mosque are just some of the multiple communities you may already be balancing.
2. If it’s not easy for you to make new connections, don’t give up right away.
And don’t beat up on yourself! Making new friends gets even more difficult for many of us as we move through the next stages of life. As a New York Times article put it, “As people approach midlife, the days of youthful exploration, when life felt like one big blind date, are fading. Schedules compress, priorities change, and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.”
3. Move forward in small steps.
Start by looking in your community for activities that you already enjoy doing. Rita, for instance, checked out online and print lists of activities that she liked. “I realized that was how I first met some of my friends in college,” she said. “So I went to my local newspaper and also to online sources for something that I could do without feeling overwhelmed by having to be social.” She found a beer-tasting event in the local calendar, and a Meetup of women her age who were reading a book she had been planning to read. “I chose one activity to begin with,” Rita said. “I actually didn’t meet anyone, but I had a nice time. And I started to feel a little more comfortable in the city — it was sort of like I knew there were people out there for me when I was ready.” Dana, who was less comfortable in new situations and also had limited time to engage in new activities, started out by going online. “There was a mom’s group in my neighborhood,” she said. “They had all kinds of advice and listings. I was just a silent observer for a long time, and I sort of got to know some of the women. And then I asked a question and got such positive replies that I felt more comfortable being more visible. And then, I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I ended up meeting up with a couple of the other moms and their children in the park . . . and now they’re my friends.”
4. Take a look at some of the connections that already exist in your life.
A casual friend from yoga might be interested in having coffee with you. And coffee can be the first small step toward a deeper connection. A coworker who has children the same age as yours may not have any more time available than you do. As a colleague, she is probably not the right person with whom to share all of your self-doubts and insecurities, but she might be a source of sympathy and support when you are trying to figure out how to get your son started on his homework while you try to meet a deadline.
5. Remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula for making new friends.
It might be as simple as just talking to other people, but if you’re shy or introverted, you might need someone else — a partner, a spouse, another friend, a colleague, or even a child — to help you make new connections.
According to popular belief, women get together to talk about feelings, while men get together to do something. Yet many men and women make connections through activities. Nate, for example, joined his company’s softball team and discovered that one of his co-workers also didn’t drink. “We went out with the team afterwards, though, and it was great! He had a coke and I had a seltzer, and nobody even seemed to notice.” Dana also started taking an English as a Second Language class and made several new friends, one of whom was expecting a baby only a few days after Dana’s due date.
6. Finally, keep in mind that deep friendships do not develop overnight.
It takes time to get to know someone, and time for them to get to know you. If you’re looking for an immediate BFF, you’re going to be in trouble when you realize that at first the connection might feel superficial. Over time, the relationship might deepen. But to start, it’s helpful to think, as one 90-something resident of a senior community told me:
“I have had good friends over the course of my life. Some of them are no longer with us, and others are just too far away for me to see or even talk to anymore. But, like the old song says, ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’ An acquaintance who I can chat with at lunch or play a game of bridge with in the afternoon is a good companion — and might become a good friend if we have enough time.”
* Names and personal information changed to protect privacy
Diane Barth, I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women's Lives. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (New York: Europa Editions, 2014).
G. Mollenhorsta, B. Volkera, and H. Flapa, “Changes in Personal Relationships: How Social Contexts Affect the Emergence and Discontinuation of Relationships,” Social Networks37 (May 2014): 65–80.
A. Williams, “Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends over 30?” New York Times(July 13, 2012).