making friends, to make friends

The Secret Art of Making Friends: The Easiest Way to Make Friends Fast

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Photo by Ana Racquel S. Hernandes, Creative Commons License

Editor’s Note: While most of our articles are between 500-1,000 words long, the post below is a more comprehensive, long-format post designed to serve as a social tutorial. Depending on your speed, it will likely take you between 20-35 minutes to read.

If you thought middle school was awkward, try making friends as an adult.

Finding new friends as an adult is hard.

When is it acceptable to invite an acquaintance (or, yikes, a complete stranger) to be your friend? And just how does one go about that painfully awkward social dance in adulthood?

These questions haunt many adults especially when they encounter those rare people-they-instantly-click-with.

You probably have experienced some version of this happenstance. Maybe you were at the gym or in line at the coffee shop, but by some magic, you and a stranger struck up a conversation. You then discovered–within minutes of meeting–that you are 60+% soulmates (or at least have a deliciously eclectic range of things in common). Somehow, after knowing this person all of 2 minutes, you managed to have a better conversation with this near-stranger than you have with people you’ve known for years.

While you enthusiastically talk back and forth, you realize, this person is great! You’d like to get to know them more. But reality is bleak: they are going to walk out the door and maybe out of your life in about three minutes if you don’t DO SOMETHING.

This is likely when you play out All the Awkward Options in your mind. Do you ask for their number? Give them yours? What about add them as a Facebook friend? Suggest getting together? What’s too much? What’s over the creepy line?

Take a Breath. The need and desire to make friends as an adult is normal.

Many adults feel awkward admitting that they wish they had a few more friends. For some reason (probably social stigma leftover from 7th grade), you may feel like you’re supposed to have all the friends you need by adulthood. And, therefore, you may secretly worry that searching for more makes you something of a social loser or outsider.

But that’s not the case. Most adults, in fact, have an ongoing need to make friends.

There are many valid, normal reasons healthy people might be looking for friends in adulthood.

  • Adult lifes tend to change friendships for everyone. After high school (or maybe college, for some), when the constant stream of sports and extracurricular activities dries up, the amount of free time available to hang out with friends shrinks dramatically. If you’re married or have a family, or if you have been seriously investing in your education or career, you likely have less time and energy to invest in your social life (and so does everyone else in your shoes). While this seems logical, it’s proven by data as well. Findings published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, for example, discovered adults lose an average of two friends when they enter into a committed romantic relationship.
  • A 2013 study published in the Psychological Bulletin also suggests most people’s social networks start to decrease in their later twenties (likely due to things like marriage and starting a family). A study conducted by Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, also found adults interact with less people as they approached midlife. In other words, you can be confident that if you need to jumpstart some new friendships in adulthood, this is by no means a challenge only you are experiencing.
  • Needing new friends doesn’t mean you have failed in some way either. As it turns out, according to Gerald Mollenhorst of Utrecht University, it is normal for adults to lose and replace half their close friends every seven years. So if you’ve lost some friendships over the years, you are normal not exceptional.
  • Also life transitions–like moving, for example–almost always change the landscape of your friendships. It’s normal too if changing your job or your relationship status shuffles your friends around too. But even if you live in the same town you grew up in and work at the same old job, many of your friends probably relocated for college, a job, or a relationship.
  • It’s a fact of life that sometimes friends just move in two different directions over time. If you’ve made some big changes–perhaps you’ve obtained a degree or given up alcohol, become more physically fit or grown more active religiously–you may find you have less in common with friends you made in a younger stage of life.

Get this. It is often the seemingly popular people who are the most lonely.

While today’s generation is technically more connected than any previous generation, keep in mind that having thousands of Facebook friends doesn’t guarantee someone has even one person they can count on in real life. After extensively studying people’s Facebook use, Oxford University psychology professor Robin Dunbar found, people “who had unusually large networks did not increase the numbers of close friendships they had…” (For an interesting take on this subject, you might also want to listen in on the TEDx talk by Tanja Hollander who decided to visit and photograph her Facebook friends in real life.)

So yes. It IS harder to make friends as an adult…and here’s why.

At least as a young child, your social life is largely arranged for you. With very little effort or intention on your part, you spend the bulk of your day in school surrounded by people your own age who are going through remarkably similar experiences. In addition, the process of growing up usually includes vulnerability and openness which help you get to know others over long periods of time. Together, these factors create a natural breeding ground for friendship.

As we age, though, people are less willing to be vulnerable and open. Adults, in fact, develop better ways of cloaking vulnerability and appearing fine on the surface even when things aren’t going well. They’re less likely to risk social rejection too. So while your child counterpart may have had no trouble walking up to a complete stranger at the neighborhood pool and asking, “Wanna play?,” you might rather drop dead than offer that same invitation to someone who works out at your local gym.

But before you are too hard on “friendship in adulthood,” you might also want to take off the nostalgia filter and remember that it may have only seemed like you had a lot of friends as a kid. In actuality, many of those kids probably didn’t act as truly committed friends toward you–not in the way you understand “friendship” as an adult anyways. Rather your social requirements and friend expectations were likely much lower back then.

Adult friendship is worth the effort.

While making friends may be harder as an adult, especially given the demands of maintaining jobs, marriages, and families, the research is loud and clear: maintaining social connections is critical to our well being. According to this research review, keeping social ties positively impacts your lifespan as much as quitting smoking and twice as much as exercising. Similarly, another study found that social isolation increased a person’s risk for developing high blood pressure as much as having diabetes!

Friendfluence, by Carlin Flora, recounts how Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Ph.D. at Brigham Young University, found a lack of social support predicts all causes of death. “People with a solid group of friends are 50 percent more likely to survive at any given time than those without one.”

But we’re often under-prepared in the friendship department.

Unfortunately, despite the massive benefits of having friends, a lot of people are unequipped to build and maintain friendships. There were no required high school courses on how to maintain healthy social networks, of course, and very few parents likely sat their kids down for an in-depth tutorial on the subject. More than likely, then, you learned what you know about friendship through a combination of trial and error and observing others (in real life or on the TV or movie screen).

The good news is, thanks to research conducted in the past 50 years, you have access to far more information on friendship than previous generations enjoyed. While your ancestors were likely offered vague friendship advice like “Just be friendly,” you can now view friendship as a practice that can be easily learned if you take in the right information.

And the first key to growing your friendships is understanding that friendships won’t just magically form unless you take initiative.

Learning how to make friends (again) isn’t as terrible as it seems. Really.

Focus on you.

If you want to have great friendships, it’s not enough to just find some good people. To actually keep those friendships, it’s important to focus on being the kind of person someone would want to be friends with! While developing some healthy habits–smiling often, being positive, focusing on the good in people–help you play well socially, growing your circle of friends may require you to make deeper adjustments as well. For example, if you tend to be a passive, stay-at-home type, you will likely need to step outside of your normal routines. You may, for example, need to replace some activities you usually partake in alone with activities you do with a group.

Also, friendship is a two way street, which means you can’t just expect people to be available to you unless you are also available to them. Translated? Know going into a new friendship that you will sometimes have to inconvenience yourself in order to build and maintain relationships. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your core “self.” Just that you have to be willing to invest time in experiences (from bowling to ethnic food) that others might prefer, in addition to inviting them to engage in your favorite hangouts and activities.

Some  may sense a need to grow in ways that go beyond being open to new activities though.  You may know, for example, that you have long-standing self-esteem hangups that prevent you from befriending others. Or maybe you tend to be self-absorbed, you have a habit of holding grudges, or you struggle to express gratitude–all of which can damage your ability to succeed socially. If these are the types of challenges you’re up against, there is no shame in investing in your future by going to therapy or a support group to focus on being the best you! The more whole you are going into a friendship, the more value you will add to other people.

Don’t get too demanding.

Over the course of life, you’ve probably been drawn to people with whom you have a lot in common. Maybe someone even told you that this is the best way to select friends. But, and this is great news for those who want new friends, research shows you don’t have to limit your options to those who are like you. Studies instead show that people can (and often do) form friendships purely because someone happens to be close by (i.e. they sat by you in school, were on the same team, or went to the same church).

If you get along with someone who is extremely unlike you, then, definitely don’t rule them out of the potential friend pool. As long as they treat you well and the two of you can carry on an interesting conversation, you may find friendship with them turns out to be uniquely fun as it exposes you to whole new worlds and ways of thinking.

In general, resolve to give people more than one interaction to make a positive impression on you too. After all, getting to know a new person can sometimes bring out the nerves and awkwardness in ourselves and others. As long as new acquaintances aren’t overtly mean or abusive, make it a rule to give newcomers a second chance to relax, settle in, and find their way into your heart.

On the same note, it’s wise to take stock of any baggage you might be bringing into a new friendship that may make it extra hard to move forward. Have you been feeling lonely, for example? Or did a good friend of yours recently abandon or betray you? Negative emotions can sometimes bias us toward new people, so reflect ahead of time about the feelings you’re carrying and work to consciously push past them.

Find new friends.

To develop a friendship, you must have a reason to repeatedly interact with a person as well as a willingness to open up with them.

With those two requirements in mind, there are probably already people in your life who could make great future friends. Do any former friends who you unintentionally lost touch with live in your area?  Are there any coworkers you enjoy talking to? Is there someone who reached out to you with an invitation to hang out in the past, but caught you at a bad time? What about alumni who live an hour away but could meet you half-way to hang out? Making the most of your existing acquaintances can provide a rich starting ground for fostering friendship.

Sometimes, however, old friends aren’t available or willing, and it makes it necessary to branch out.

Meet people.

One of the easiest ways to interact repeatedly with new people, and thus give friendship a chance to form, is to join a group, gym, club, church, or other type of regular gathering. If you follow your interests and put yourself in public places where the same people cycle in and out, you’ll naturally meet people with whom you have at least one thing in common (i.e. you work out at the same gym!). This will also give you some built-in things to talk about. For example, you can trade work out ideas, suggest fitness classes to each other, or compare notes on what time of day the equipment is most available. Don’t neglect the three places where you are most likely already interacting with the same people repeatedly: your neighborhood, work, and school (your own or your kids).

Also, when you first try out a new class or first meet the friends of a co-worker, keep in mind that a big portion of your first encounter will be spent in introductions and small talk. The first meeting may not provide many opportunities to explore potential friendship. So rather than going into a new group experience and being disappointed, go into new interaction expecting only to meet people and lay a foundation for the next time you will see them when you will have some ground to build on.

Tune into chemistry.

Do your best to maintain an open, positive posture as you interact with others in public places. If you do this, you will naturally begin to meet lots of people and the best possibilities will rise to the top.

Pay attention to chemistry, for example. When people date, many times they can sense good chemistry with a potential date almost instantly. You may have noticed that sometimes, there is a similar feeling as you build friendships as well.  While a great majority of the people you meet may strike you as “nice people” who you “might be able to be friends with,” there are often one or two people in your circles who you just feel an instant click with.

This “click” may be produced by a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have a lot in common or perhaps they show extra enthusiasm because they feel connected to you as well. Tune into this, and if you notice you and an acquaintance seem to hit it off easily, strike up a deeper or lengthier conversation to give yourself the chance to get to know them better.

Don’t expect to form a friendship with everyone you talk to regularly though. To expect every person you meet to become your friend would not only be unrealistic, it would also provide a constant series of letdowns. Some people will remain acquaintances and will never become anything deeper. And that’s okay. It’s nice to have someone to wave at or exchange a friendly hello with in the elevator, even if that is all it ever becomes.

Start the smalltalk.

Once you get a sense for which people might be potential friend material, make a point to talk to them. This doesn’t mean you have to chase them around work or corner them at painting class. But when you do cross paths, and life presents you with the opportunity, be ready to start a conversation.

Whatever you do, as you approach this small talk conversation, don’t over-analyze what they’re thinking or how they’re responding. Don’t speculate, for example, about whether you’re coming across as desperate. Instead, resolve to be proud to be taking a risk to invest in your own well being, in building your support system, and feel confident that a new friendship could be mutually beneficial for them too.

Remember, other people probably feel as self conscious as you do in a new conversation, so they probably aren’t examining you too closely. But even if they are, it really won’t impact your life a whole lot if one random person at your gym thinks you’re too outgoing, for example. No one clicks with every single person. So finding a few people who don’t engage is totally natural.

Issue an invitation.

Inviting a relative stranger to do something with you can feel like a giant risk, but when you step back and really think about it, it’s a tiny risk in the big scheme of things. After all, whether the person accepts or declines will likely have no bearing on your health, on where you are able to live, on your job, on your bank account, or even on your other social relationships. Not to mention, the person is only one of 8 billion humans who share the planet, so it’s not exactly a do or die situation. If one friendship doesn’t pan out, you’ll find someone else to befriend soon as long as you keep intentionally looking.

To minimize any feeling of risk, however, it can be helpful to smart small. Decide what the easiest, least vulnerable invitation for you to issue is. For example, what if you invited several co-workers to go out on Friday after work? Or what if you arranged for colleagues to take a fellow worker out to dinner on their birthday? You could even involve an acquaintance in planning this type of outing. This kind of event takes the emphasis off yourself so that declines don’t feel like rejection and, therefore, don’t discourage you from offering future invitations.

Another great way to issue low pressure invites is to pay attention to conversation and suggest doing things you already know the other person likes. This article from Huffington Post suggests asking people about their weekends. By doing this, you can hear about what they like to do and discover possible things that you might both enjoy doing together. Other low pressure invites might include going out for coffee, drinks, lunch, a movie, or a concert (I have two tickets, would you like to join?).

Even if you’re nervous, reach out anyways.

Otherwise, you may falsely believe you are building friendships when really the people you’re interacting with still view you only as an acquaintance. In order for a new friendship to last, it often has to exist outside of the place where you met the acquaintance. You have to both believe you can get along, enjoy each other’s company, and add value to each other’s lives. Otherwise, when the exercise class or the job ends, the new friendships are likely to end too.

If making an invite seems tough to you, don’t feel like you have to rush into hanging out with someone the first couple times you run into them. For those who are on the shy side, it may take you a month to feel courageous enough or to find an opening that feels natural. The point is to do it though. If you know you will resist taking this step, you might even want to set a deadline for yourself by making it a goal to invite them to do something (anything!) within one month.

Adopt habits that make it easier to connect.

Just as you can make a habit of asking people what they did over the weekend, or what plans they have for the coming weekend, it can also be helpful to regularly ask people for their contact information. If you’ve never asked someone for their phone number before, or if you have only done so a few times, this may feel a little awkward at first. But if you continue to do this intentionally, it will become natural. Often times, it can be as simple as, “Oh hey, I thought of you the other day and was going to text you and then realized I didn’t have your number.”

If you interact in the business world, you might also ask your acquaintance if they have a business card. Or ask if they’d be okay with you friending them on Facebook. As you can imagine, having a way to reach people greatly increases the chances you’ll get in touch with them! And bonus, if you give them your number as well, it may also prompt them to invite you to hang out in the future.

Be open.

How do you move beyond casual surface chatter with someone you’d like to develop a deeper friendship with? A big part of the equation is learning to be open. For example, if you know people from work or from church, it may be easiest to solely talk about work or church when you speak to them. But to truly foster emotional connection, it usually requires sharing more real life experiences–particularly your challenges. So instead of asking what they think of the new gym the church is building, ask if they find it difficult to make time in their family’s schedule to get more involved in church activities. This gives you the chance to share your own challenges…and helps you find a topic they can relate to.

How to deal with rejection.

So you start regularly interacting with the same people, you small talk, you open up, you invite them and then they (gulp!) decline your invitation. What do you do next?

First off, don’t take it personally. You likely already have some friends. And the world is full of other friend possibilities. If this one doesn’t work out, there is a sea of options available to you. You don’t have to hang your social hopes and dreams on just the one person at hand. Odds are, their decision not to join you is totally unrelated to you. They may have very little free time or emotional energy in their current stage of life, for example, and they may not be able to squeeze in additional activities at this particular time. But, if you keep things positive, even a person who is uninterested or unavailable today may end up becoming a friend more slowly or in a later stage of life.

Keep in mind too that people have different personalities. While some people may write a new event down in their calendar the second you tell them about it and text you questions about it later the same day, others may not even answer your texts or calls. While a no-reply may come across as rude, it may not really be a sign they are dismissing you. They may just be more disorganized, or may have had every intention of responding later and then forgot about it. Don’t assume the worst of people! There is no reason to prematurely close doors that might still be open to you.

Volunteer to lend a hand.

One of the fastest ways to show people you value them is to volunteer to lend a hand when they need one. Do you have a work friend or a gym acquaintance who is having surgery? Ask if you can drop off a meal or if you can come over and walk their dog for them. Is another soccer mom having car problems or do they have several kids to run around at the same time? Ask if it would help if you picked up or dropped off their child along with your own. Small gestures of kindness help people trust that you intend to be a good friend to them if they invest the effort on their end.

Say yes.

Whenever it’s possible, accept invitations others offer you. And don’t just put weddings and baby showers in this category. Also consider spur-of-the-moment-invites, like, do you want to come along to the craft show or the auto show this afternoon? So you were planning on washing your car and cutting the lawn. Oh well. If you can rearrange your other projects so you can say yes to even an off-the-cuff invite, you will send a powerful message that you are open to hanging out and should be considered for future hangouts as well. It will also make it easier for you to issue your own invitation in return. “I had so much fun at the golf outing. We should hang out again.”

But what if you’re shy and it’s truly, truly difficult for you to accept the invitation? If at all possible, do it anyways. If you’re the reclusive type who knows you like to soak up solitude (to a fault even), you can’t wait for the time to strike when you feel like saying yes. It probably won’t come. You have to say yes out of principle because you know that saying yes helps you advance your hope of building more friendships in time.

While it’s okay to decline when you truly feel tired or have a conflict, of course, keep in mind that if you decline too often, people may take that as a sign you’re not interested in hanging out the next time. They may even start to feel like they’re bothering you by continuing to ask and may stop inviting you along completely.

Stick with it.

Here’s the thing. Once you find a new friend, engage in small talk, invite them to hang out, and then–miracle of miracles–you actually hang out, you may feel like you’re done. Check this friendship off the list. Connection completed. But that’s not how life works. While they may consider you a casual friend after spending time together just once or twice, most adults need to interact with someone regularly over the course of a couple months before they start to view you as a friend and not just “someone they have hung out with.”

Try to hang out once a month for five to six months in a row. Or, hang out once a week in a different way each time. For example, perhaps they can join you for a jog one time and catch a movie or dinner with you the next. If you don’t connect for a week or two, make sure you don’t disappear. Drop them a text to ask how they’re doing or follow up on something they told you was going on in their lives. Did you shake the flu yet? How did your work presentation go? If for some reason you are traveling or sick or extra busy and a few weeks go by without hanging out, make sure to offer your intention to catch up soon. I’ve been so busy lately, but I haven’t forgotten you. We have to catch up soon.

Focus on one friendship at a time.

Every person has different social desires and needs. One person might prefer having a single close friend while another might want to have 30 acquaintances. After you make one or two friends, you should be able to feel out how many more friendships you need or want, as well as how many you have the time and energy to maintain. If one of your friends is in a busy stage of life, and isn’t available to hang out socially, you may want to intentionally try to meet a few more people to see what possibilities emerge. Keep in mind that you can always invite several people to hang out with you at the same time so that you don’t have to fit in a bunch of one-on-one social engagements every single week or month.

Follow the trail of friends!

The good news is that friends often lead to other friends. As you get to know one friend well, you will likely have chances to meet their friends or family, and in time, they too may become part of your social circle. Each person you befriend, even if they’re only interested in a casual, surface-y relationship, is also a potential bridge to a whole new group of people. The more people you meet, then, the easier it will be to meet others.

Let friendships grow at different paces.

An important part of making and keeping friends is managing your expectations. For example, it’s critical to understand that not everyone has the same social needs or desires. As mentioned earlier, some people may prefer to have only a small number of friends while others may want to have as many as possible.

Similarly, some people may prefer to only have casual relationships where they do active things like play sports, but don’t get into each other’s personal lives very deeply. Others, though, will want to discuss everything from marriage problems to their religious beliefs in great detail.

Along these same lines, one person’s idea of friendship may be as scattered as having coffee once every other month, while others may invite you to join them in run of the mill errands three times a week. Some people may trust easily, diving deep into personal talk the first time you meet them, while others may not get beyond surface small talk until they’ve known you for years.

Friendships work best when we embrace our friends’ preferences rather than fight them. If you enjoy having deep conversations, build a few friendships with others who like this style of communication as well. It doesn’t mean you can’t still have a few casual friends who you invite to movies or concerts or who come over to watch the super bowl. Just don’t try to make all of your friends operate the same way at the same level. Let each friendship function in the way it works best. You may even find you enjoy having a variety of different types of connections and social experiences as well!

Conclusion

As a rule, seek to remain open and on friendly terms with everyone in your social and work circles. Or as St.Paul put it, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.” Maintaining friendly interactions with large numbers of people leaves the most possibilities open, so that any number of these acquaintances could develop into a deeper friendship at some point in the future.

Finally, if you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: the first key to growing your friendships is understanding that friendships won’t just magically form unless you take initiative.



There are 5 comments

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  1. Diane

    I appreciate how it tells me what’s natural. Sometimes I think I’m the only who has doubts about how others perceive me. It helps to know everyone feels a little unequipped sometimes.

  2. Mia the White

    This way way too basic for me frankly. If adults get this far and need this sort of detail I think they got bigger problems on their hands. No offense lol.

  3. JuliaGirl90

    I love this site. It’s speaking to my reality right now. Just when I thought I was doing well in life, I’ve run into some social stuff that’s blown me away. I have no idea what to do. Even though these articles might not be about my specific situation, there reminding me about how to act and how to take the high road. So good.

  4. Erika Lanz

    To be honest not a lot of people talk about this stuff so I’m not sure where people are supposed to pick up this information. Don’t read the articles if you are so far beyond this but let the rest of us learn please.


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