When I decided to make New York my home, I could count five of the eight million humans in this city as friends. I sat in my new apartment looking at the air mattress, the yoga mat, the keyboard, and the art hanging on the wall--the sum total of my possessions that had made it to the city with me. My furniture, kitchenware, and the vast majority of my clothing was on a moving truck somewhere between North Carolina and the Upper East Side. I knew four human persons in a city of eight million. I had no job. I didn’t know how to work the heater in my apartment yet, and all of my warm blankets and clothing were on the bless-ed moving truck. My mom and I drove a load of stuff I didn’t trust the movers with the thirteen hours from our tiny, coastal farm, only to get a call on the way informing us that my things wouldn’t arrive in New York for a full week. We arrived on Thursday just before the beginning of November, 2016. We checked into the hotel and walked the nine blocks to my new apartment. As we stood in the sun drenched room, I thought, I remember this space being bigger. There is no way all my stuff will fit in this room. When the movers did eventually arrive, they looked at the space and asked where the bedroom was. “It’s a studio. There is no bedroom; it’s just this.”
My mom left on Sunday, four days before the moving truck was scheduled to arrive. I was sitting on the floor of my studio apartment and I had that thought that pervades newness and uncertainty, This is how my life is going to be now. I have no picture of what my new life in this new city will look like, so my brain decides that it will always be this: sitting on my yoga mat, alone, no job, no furniture, no heat. It is a dramatic little derp, my brain. Trying desperately to find a foothold, it settles on the present reality--what it sees right in front of it.
Fortunately, my life has been a series of uncertain adventures. College, a year-long missions trip, grad school, Austria, and now New York. This has not made this feeling any less a part of the process, but it has helped me give my derpy brain a bit of perspective in these moments. So even though I still felt anxious and upended, I had a semblance of some steps I could take to start building my new life.
For me, it began with making friends. Making friends as an adult is hard and weird. Though culturally we are profoundly lonely on the whole, it seems like we are all confused by how to make friends, particularly how to cultivate deep and meaningful connections from scratch. So, here are some ideas for what I found helpful when building the group of friends I now have.
Join a group
My mom left on a Saturday afternoon, and the first thing I did was find a church. You might not be a churchy person, and that’s totally fine. For me, I knew I wanted to find one anyways, so I decided to take the plunge right out of the gate. I found a church in my neighborhood that had an evening service. It was a much larger church than I was used to, and I was an emotional disaster. But I went anyways. I talked to one person, a woman standing at the welcome table, then found my seat. We made it all the way to the second song before I started crying. Only a bit, but enough to make my eyes red and my face puffy. There was a section of the service where we were supposed to greet the people sitting around us. So, I got to be the weirdo sitting alone and weeping openly. After the service, I filled out an information card and walked home.
As an overwrought introvert, this was not my moment to meet a bunch of random strangers. I was not trying to be the awkward person who walks up to a circle of friends and interjects myself, as I have the social grace of your average ostrich. In this instance, I realized that this large gathering context was not conducive to my particularized gifting and personality. Even so, the first step to starting over was showing up.
If you aren’t of the Jesus-y persuasion, think about a group you could join. Maybe there’s a social cause you could get involved with. Maybe your co-workers would want to form a trivia team. Just something that gets you out of your apartment and meeting new people. They won’t all be winners, but you might be surprised by what you find.
Put yourself out there
As an introvert, I would rather shower with a bear than make small talk. But it is an essential part of building new relationships. You’re going to ask and answer the question of how long you’ve lived in the city at least a thousand times. I spent many a coffee hour (post-church gathering) and social event meeting following the one person I knew around while they introduced me to people. I would then have essentially the same conversation over and over. I thought about making a sign that had the answer to all of the common questions, because I live and die at the altar of efficiency.
Going up to random strangers at a large gathering is my idea of torture; I decided to adjust my strategy. Since week one nobody wanted to invite the weeping weirdo to hang out after church and I did basically nothing to meet anybody, I decided to see if this church had some sort of small group/life group/community group/bible study situation. They pretty much all do, though they might use slightly different words. So I signed up for one online and went that Thursday.
If you are not about that church life, think about the places you already are--work, the gym, the building you live in. Maybe you start by asking a coworker if they want to grab lunch. Maybe you ask a group of people from your gym if they like to go running and gradually work up to starting a running group with them. Maybe you ask someone you see in the hall what their favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood is. Maybe your roommates would want to read a book that you’re all interested in and discuss it. An easy place to start is to think of things you’re already doing and see how you might be able to involve other people in those things.
I gave myself permission to put myself out there in a way that still honored my introversion. Instead of forcing myself to stand in a circle with more than five people and engage in the group conversation, I focused on meeting and connecting with one or two people at a time. Even if the conversation started with small talk, it was easier to maneuver the conversation to a different level with just the one or two humans to bring along with me. Your way in might even be bringing up how much you dislike small talk.
There’s definitely a balance here that I still struggle with. I don’t want to play the extroversion game of relationship building, but I do want to make friends. There’s a level of compromise I’ve arrived at that likely won’t work for everyone. You’ll need to find your own balance and give yourself permission to say no and just go home if your brain just can’t handle the idea of socializing. I did that many times. But every so often, I would push past my discomfort and go to these group gatherings. It didn’t always pan out, but that’s ok. You won’t make friends with everyone you meet.
Once I started meeting people, I started getting invited to stuff. I made it a habit to say yes to as much as possible. I kept going to that same community group, and they connected me with humans who connected me with other humans. I ended up getting invited on a ski trip just a few months after I moved. I met someone on that trip who asked if I wanted to play on a rec touch football team. I grew up playing soccer, which left me skeptical about the sport of football. There was too much standing around for me to have ever really gotten into it. But I weighed the options and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try it out. If I didn’t like it, I could choose to not continue the following season.
My bandwidth for social outings and trips has largely depended on phase of life. When I was working in a restaurant, I found it difficult to say yes as much, because that job involved interacting with humans and managing relationships in a high pressure environment. Now that I’m a writer and spend most of my time alone with my thoughts, I have more social energy reserved that allows me to say yes to more.
Be open to unexpected friends
I got back into restaurant work six months after moving here. The hospitality industry attracts all sorts of humans: actors, students, writers, the undecided and in-between. The work is stressful and intense. I worked in a relatively small restaurant, so I got to know everyone quickly. There was a bartender who started around the same time as I did, and we ended up working a bunch of lunch and brunch shifts together. We had very little in common, but we did have shared moments of arriving at the restaurant at 9:30am every week and slogging through those shifts together. We had to help each other out when things got busy and keep each other entertained when things were dead.
For me, my closest friends are not generally the ones who pop up immediately talking a big game. They are the ones who over time reveal themselves to be most consistently present. The most frustrating thing for my strategic, efficient self is that relationships take time. I want the immediacy of something formulaic and results-based. And that’s just not how it works. Over time, you’ll learn who shows up consistently and when it counts, who listens and shares deeply.
Keep doing it
If you live in a place like New York, you might have noticed that people are constantly moving in and out. Once you build a core group of friends, you can calm down with the number of the things you had to say yes to at first. For example, I no longer play football. You’ll be able to focus your time. When I moved to the city, I was desperate for friendship, but I was also emotionally closed off. Through the friendships I have made (and therapy, let’s be real), I am learning to trust within boundaries and to be more open.
I remember what it’s like to be the new person who so badly wants to build friendships, but feels awkward in big groups. I use that memory and that compassion to motivate me to continue to meet new people and to connect them to the people I already know. It’s challenging to be the new person if there isn’t someone inviting you into their group. I don’t always nail it, and I still give myself permission to say no when I need to. But once you’re the person who knows people, you can make a world of difference to another lonely person by extending the invitation. That doesn't mean you have to be their best friend, but you can introduce them to someone who might be.
This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it’s a place to start. This is what worked for me, and I trust you to adapt this advice to your context. A lot about life and our relationships is out of our control, so it's important to focus on what is. You can't force people to like you or want to hang out with you. But you can start small and you can give it time. You can adjust your strategy if it isn't working. You can learn as you go. As my therapist likes to say, "There is no losing. There's only winning and learning."
If you’re interested in reading more about friendship, I wrote a whole blog series on The Art of Friendship, and one on love. Check out the below episode of my podcast, "Unsuitable with MaryB. Safrit" for a great conversation on friendship. You can also drop me a line and ask me anything.