In grade school instant friendships can spring from swapping lunches or riding the same school bus, but after high school, the wide friendship pool evaporates as we start to explore the world. This is especially true when life throws us into transition mode—a move, a baby, a new love, a career switch, a breakup, or an empty nest.
“Friendships are automatic when you are a kid. You have a critical mass of people around you in your neighbourhood that are the same age with the same interests. It’s complicated when you’re an adult,” says Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends and adjunct professor in the department of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Get Past the Awkwardness
Consider this: You meet a new neighbour with whom you immediately bond over your shared clumsy-newbie tennis-playing skills. You think of offering the person your cell phone number in case she has any questions about the neighbourhood, but then you chicken out. What if I’m coming across too pushy? Then she’ll try to avoid me and I’ll ruin everything. You decide to wait until you bump into the person a few more times.
Bonior says that awkwardness should be embraced because the truth is everyone feels awkward. For example, I could have said, “This is awkward. I feel like I’m asking you out.” She suggests finding a way to joke about it because the awkwardness will pay off.
Find the Confidence
Potential friends may be found at work, but many people hesitate on becoming naturally close friends with co-workers, because they assume that they don’t have time. “It is really easy as an adult to feel that you are too busy and to doubt yourself. You know, ‘This is embarrassing, I’m this old and I don’t have friends,’” says Bonior. This negative self-talk can create more anxiety and make it harder to meet people.
Look Past Your Screen
Though your smartphone can act as a security blanket when you’re solo at a social event, it is best to tune out distractions so you don’t miss an opportunity to make small talk. Don’t impose too high standards on the substance of your impromptu conversations. Whatever comes up during small talk (the weather, pizza, random observation) is a nice path to talking about more substantive issues, according to William Rawlins, PhD, author of The Compass of Friendship and Stocker Professor of Communication Studies at Ohio University.
While new friendships can emerge from the light chitchat on social media, nothing can replace the richer experience of an in-person meeting. “When we are meeting people face to face, you get a sense of someone’s vibe, their voice, how they carry themselves, their laugh, their eye contact, that will give you some sense of your resonance with another person,” says Rawlins.
Discover Your Community
Meeting new people comes down to a numbers game but don’t put pressure on yourself. The more times you put yourself in the path of other people, while doing the things you love—whether it is walking your dog to your favourite park, going to that weekend boot camp class, or volunteering for a cause— your chances of making friends increase. “If you start going to the same places with the same groups of people over time that can start re-creating the naturally occurring communities that we used to have as kids. Repetition builds familiarity and familiarity breeds good feelings and that’s what we base good friendships on,” says Bonior.
Consider This as You Make Adult Friends
A study on the lifelong benefits of friendship that appeared in the journal Personal Relationships found that people underestimate how many other people may be in the same friendship conundrum they are in. Knowing this, overcoming the above challenges are worth it.
According to this same study, relationships with friends matter just as much as family over the life span, contributing to health and happiness. “We expected friendships to be good for you, but the fact that they would get more and more important over time was surprising,” says the study’s lead researcher, William Chopik, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “The importance of friendship never decreases so I would advise investing in the most fulfilling relationships that will stand the test of time.”