7 Awkward Tips for Making New Friends
Pursuing a friendship isn't easy, but nothing worth doing is.
Posted Feb 20, 2019
We’ve all heard the pretty myth about how true friendships last forever. And yes, some do, and those are precious. I have some friendships that date back to childhood and cherish them, though they are long distance these days.
But let’s be real: Lifelong friendships are the exception rather than the rule. Especially those in which the parties remain in proximity—close enough to do lunch, for example.
The problem with the friends-forever thing is that it might make some of us feel a little … inadequate. What does that say about those of us who find ourselves lacking in friends from time to time? Certainly, I’ve wondered about myself when in friendship deficits—especially those do-lunch kind of friends. So I’m comforted to find that one 2009 study finds that friendships typically last about seven years.
OK, everybody’s friendships come and go. “A reason, a season, or a lifetime” is a reassuring old adage about friendship that I repeat to myself when lamenting lost friendships.
Proximity is long-established as a key factor in friendship. But in our mobile culture, proximity is hard to maintain. Friends move away. We graduate from school. People change jobs. They get divorced and move into a new social circle. One way or another, friends drift out of proximity.
Sometimes we simply grow apart from friends as priorities shift. You have kids or grandkids and they don’t. You lose interest in partying and they don’t. They meet a new special someone and get too busy with their boo for friends. (Not a good thing, in my opinion.) They start medical school and have less time for anything else. All kinds of changes change friendships.
For introverts, friendship attrition can be challenging because we keep few acquaintances in the pipeline to intimacy. Losing one close friend can be an enormous blow and leave us at a loss for filling the gap in our lives. And finding new people is hard for us because, all things being equal, we would rather stay home, which is not conducive to making new connections.
For introverts, new friendships rarely just happen spontaneously. We aren’t promiscuously friendly, we usually go home before any after-party hair-letting-down happens, we are cautious about opening up to new people in any significant manner. For my own life, I’ve found it takes a concerted effort and sometimes-awkward forays out of my comfort zone to try to make it happen. However, if you find yourself feeling lonely or disconnected, it might be time to make a solid effort to fill the friendship gap.
Here are some of my best practices for trying to make new friends. None of these is easy, but nothing worth accomplishing is.
- Target people who genuinely intrigue you. As introverts who don’t like putting ourselves out there to make friends, we are all too likely to let friends pick us rather than choosing people for whom we feel an affinity. Try changing that. Survey your acquaintances and consider who among them seem likely suspects for friendship, or a PNF (potential new friend). Put your energy into trying to connect with those people rather than sitting back and waiting to see who puts effort into you.
- Try angling for proximity. Once you’ve identified a PNF, think about ways you might be able to increase proximity to that person. Can you find a seat next to them in class? Are they a member of any club or organization that interests you? (While introverts tend to not be joiners, any group that meets regularly is a great way to make friends, since it means seeing the same people over and over, giving us time to get comfortable with people.) Or do you belong to something they might be interested in? Can you toss that into a conversation and see if they might bite? Can you drift into their conversation group at a party? If you’re an introvert who likes introverts, look for the people acting introvert-y at parties and divert them from their conversation with the dog to talk to them in your low-key introvert way.
- Do that thing you do so well: Text and email. While respecting the etiquette of these communications (texting is fairly intimate, make sure it’s welcome, long emails can be off-putting), you can start setting the foundation of friendship this easy-peasy way. “Saw this article and thought of you…” is always a good ice breaker. Facebook is also a low-key way to make contact if you're the Facebook kind. Keep these early correspondences brief and friendly and try to spur conversation. But remember, it’s not really a friendship if it’s never face-to-face.
- Make the first move. Extend an invitation. Yes, I know. So awkward. So first date. So risky. But try it. One thing I like to do is now and then is get two tickets for an event that interests me, whether or not I have anyone particular in mind to join me. (My husband is not always interested in the same entertainments as I am.) For some reason, having tickets to something makes it feel less awkward to me to contact a PNF and say, “Hey, I have these tickets and husband isn’t into it, thought of you.” It’s flattering (indicating that you thought about their particular interests) and it takes the emphasis off of you and puts it on the activity.
- Listen well but talk too. Introverts are great listeners; it’s one of our finest traits and we all know it. And absolutely, that ability to listen is one of the gifts we bring into a friendship. So by all means, dazzle the PNF with your rapt attention. But don’t imagine that’s enough to clinch a friendship, because if all you’re doing is listening, however gloriously, you are likely to leave the encounter feeling unsatisfied. (It's a subject I've written about before; more about it here, and here. And, by the way, your PNF might leave it feeling vaguely ashamed or hoodwinked into oversharing.)
Real friendship requires real intimacy, and real intimacy requires vulnerability. It requires opening up maybe a little more than you feel comfortable. It’s a way to close what Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy, calls the “intimacy gap”: that chasm between the intimate friendships we crave and the casual friendships we have. “Study after study has shown that revealing and sharing is essential to building a relationship and establishing trust,” Nelson writes—while also cautioning that pacing is important too. You don’t want to info-dump on a PNF. “I firmly believe vulnerability in healthy friendships should be incremental and mutual, sharing bit by bit.” she writes. So push yourself a little to reveal even if it feels awkward and maybe even too soon. Do it carefully and it’s a building block to intimacy.
- Repeat. Back when I was in high school, my best friend, a classmate, and I found each other via one afternoon of intense talking, talking, talking. It was like a magical connection that lasted for many years.
Alas, that kind of magical connection rarely happens once we reach adulthood. We become more cautious. We’re busy and unlikely to have the leisure for spending extended time with someone we don’t know well. And we’re not as over-the-top in our emotions as teenagers, so we’re less likely to develop a friend crush quickly.
In other words, even the most delightful evening with a PNF is unlikely to clinch a friendship the way it might have in adolescence. According to a 2018 study out of the University of Kansas, it takes 50 hours of time together to move from “mere acquaintance to casual friend”; 90 hours to establish a friendship, and more than 200 hours to develop a close friendship. With any luck, your PNF had a grand a time with you as you did with them and will do the reaching out next time, but don’t count on it. You might have to make the awkward move more than once.
- If it doesn’t take, move on. Sometimes a friendship doesn’t take, despite my best efforts. Often, in fact. But sometimes it does, and that’s what I’m going for. After all, introverts don’t need a lot of friends. Just a couple. Try a few times and if it doesn’t take, don’t belabor it or take it personally. Chemistry is hard to predict and everybody’s life is complicated. Give yourself lots of credit for the effort, and move on to the next PNF.