How To Make Friends As An Adult When It Feels Impossible

11.02.21

When I moved to Dunedin for university, my number one fear was that no one would want to be friends with me. 

Having lived in Auckland for twenty years, with the same friends for most of that time – many of whom weren’t going to Dunedin or my hostel – I was terrified of walking to the dining hall alone; shuffling my sad little plastic tray along the conveyor belt to stock pile even sadder looking mystery meat and yesterday’s bread and not-really-butter pudding onto my plate. In hindsight, I should have been more scared of failing entry-level Finance (tick). Or losing my passport on a drunk night out 24 hours before a family holiday to Fiji (tick). Or gaining the “fresher five” (double tick! It was actually ten!). 

When I graduated from Uni and moved back to Auckland, I once again found myself scared of being isolated or excluded, this time from a city I didn’t recognise anymore. And truthfully, I did struggle for about a year to find my place within a group of Aucklanders who had largely stayed put after high school and had planted roots I didn’t have yet.

I think there’s a level of self-awareness that we foster in adulthood that makes it hard for us to make friends. It’s what stops us from going from A to B. From complete strangers to “Do you have a spare tampon?”. In fact, a 2018 study found that it takes the average person 200 hours to make a new friend (!). And yet, despite the wait time, there are hundreds of people reading this article who are determined to learn how to do it. I know, because you’ve told me.

My friend Lara moved to New Zealand from South Africa in her mid-twenties, so, as she puts it, “I had no choice but to completely re-establish a network and community.” She admitted this was initially exhausting, as you’re constantly on the look-out for opportunities where you could meet someone new, “And whenever you’re in those environments, you’re hyper-aware of presenting the very best version of yourself – kind of like dating!”. Well if it was dating, Lara would have been proposed to approximately 2,486 times by now. Seriously, this woman has a God-given talent for acquiring new friends. I’ve never met anyone as supremely talented at going from “Hi, nice to meet you!” to “Which of those AirBnb’s should we book for our trip next weekend?” within the space of a single evening. Sometimes my friends and I will be out with her and look over to see Lara deeply engrossed in a conversation with a person none of us recognise, only to later discover she’d met them in the bathroom six minutes earlier.

Okay, so how does Lara do it? What’s the secret sauce to making friends as an adult? The short answer, according to Lara, is that there isn’t one: “You can’t fabricate history with a person! It takes effort. But the first thing to do is switch your mindset: It’s a privilege when your path crosses with someone new and you get to share an experience or conversation with them.” 

Practically speaking, Lara relies on a few key tactics to help her connect with a new person and ultimately cultivate community: 

“Basically, the goal is to walk away from every interaction with the other person feeling good, seen, and heard.” So keep those three things in your head as a little checklist: Good. Seen. Heard. “Eye contact is a clear sign of intentional engagement with someone”, and Lara recommends practicing getting really good at holding eye contact with the people you regularly come into contact with: The guy you order your coffee from, the person you roll your yoga mat out next to every Wednesday, the people you play social netball with, the person you ride the elevator with most mornings. When we don’t hold eye contact with a person, we are signalling to them that we are not interested in having an interaction, period. So make sure this is the message you want to send. Lara also said it pays to reflect on how you conduct yourself in the company of your existing friendship circles and whether or not you’re creating an environment that is inviting to someone new: “Never ever, ever, engage in any kind of behaviour designed to make someone feel like they’re “on the out”. That is simply a shortcut to you feeling more “on the in” at someone else’s expense.” 

If you do find yourself engaged in a conversation with someone new, even though it can feel a little clunky, Lara reminds us, “Generally speaking, ‘small talk’ doesn’t have legs, so you need to commit to the conversation. Commit to going a little deeper with the person, and recalling any details that they offer up later on in the piece. This helps them to feel seen.” Back to the checklist: Good. Seen. Heard. Another way to make someone feel seen is to compliment them, but be wary of saying something you don’t actually mean: “The key is that the compliment has to be genuine, and the best way to do that is to enter a situation not focusing on yourself, but instead observing and acknowledging those around you. Sadly, as a society, I think most people aren’t expecting friendliness or a compliment from a stranger, so don’t be put out if your compliment isn’t received in the way you thought it would be – as adults, our expectations of others often go unchecked.” 

Finally, Lara said that how we leave a situation is just as important as how we enter it, “If you conclude an interaction with, “We should catch up soon!”, understand that follow-through on this statement is the foundation of that potential friendship.” I can also appreciate that, ultimately, implementing Lara’s advice will come down to each individual’s level of self-confidence; how far are you willing to go to connect with another person? And if the answer is: Ahhh not very far, then why not try psychotherapist Phillipa Perry’s recommendation, “Experiment with assuming everyone is interesting, attractive and pleased to see you.” For what it’s worth, it’s worked wonders for me.

Because before you consider someone a best friend, they have to first be a casual friend, and before they can be a casual friend they have to be an acquaintance, and before they are an acquaintance they are, in fact, a stranger. No different to the person you’re sitting beside on the bus on your commute home from work, reading this article, right now. So, why not say hello?


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