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- Making friends as an adult can be difficult.
- As we get older, life changes can affect existing friendships, and adulthood can make forging new ones harder than it was in adolescence.
- But it is possible to make new friends in adulthood with a few simple steps.
- It’s a process that requires repetition, disclosure, and some initiative on your behalf.
It’s akin to how salmon feel when swimming upstream. Trying to keep in touch with your buddies post-college, much less forging new friendships, is difficult, exhausting, and sometimes futile.
But it’s not just you.
An analysis of a whopping 177,000 people found that friend groups expand until about age 25, after which they shrink like a sweater in the dryer. Additionally, a national survey conducted in 1985 found the most commonly reported number of confidants was three. Fast-forward several decades, and that number has dwindled to zero. That’s right, zero.
Whether as a result of parenthood, divorce, moving to a new city, or simply focusing on family and career, having to make new friends doesn’t end on the playground. It is a task and a skill that we revisit time and time again throughout life.
When it comes to making friends, semantics reveal an important detail: We make friends. Making a friend isn’t luck or chance: It’s a process, which is actually good news. You don’t have to wait for the stars to align; instead, with three factors – repetition, disclosure, and some initiative – we can give the stars a nudge.
1. Be a regular
There’s a prevailing sense that having shared interests – a love of bocce, Democratic politics, or Argentine tango – precedes a friendship. And while a mutual love of David Lynch films can’t hurt, the true magic ingredient is considerably less sexy than shared interests: repetition.
To have the best shot at friendship, we have to interact with the same person again and again. One study illustrated this fact perfectly: 44 state police trainees, when asked to name their closest friends, chose those who fell next to them in alphabetical order of seating.
Another classic study of friends in a university apartment building found that the most popular individuals were simply those who lived in the most highly-trafficked areas: the foot of the stairwells.
Therefore, think about how to see the same people on a regular basis. Rule out drop-ins, like one-time meetups or special events, and look for activities where the same core people show up every day or every week, like going to the the local dog park, choral group practice, Thursday night running group, or anywhere you can be a “regular.”
The bottom line? Keep showing up. Commit to any new activity for at least a few months. Conventional wisdom holds that six to eight conversations – beyond “Hey, how’s it going?” – are necessary before people consider us a friend.
2. Talk about yourself
For the shy among us, answering questions that come with meeting new people can be torture: ‘And what do you do for work? Where are you from? What brought you to this city?’
But it can be just as frustrating for our conversation partner to have to interrogate us.
Therefore, experiment with sharing the details of your life and inner workings more freely. If you’re shy or socially anxious, experiment with initiating and offering more than usual.
This might feel wrong, as if you’re talking too much, being annoying, or making it about you, but if you’re known for being reticent, give yourself permission to stretch and grow. Research shows what draws others in is disclosure, specifically that which is “sustained, escalating, reciprocal, and personalistic.”
Whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, or anywhere in between, telling someone the details of your life sparks them to share with you, which in turn brings you closer.
Even the most banal small talk can be made personal. Talking about traffic can be a disclosure: “I prefer to ride my bike because it’s so much faster, but I draw the line when it’s raining like this.” “Traffic was horrible, but ‘2 Dope Queens’ got me through as usual.” “The construction on Broadway is nuts – I could barely get to my favorite donut place.” You’re still talking about traffic, but you’ve also laid the groundwork of conversation by giving them a topic or two to riff off.
3. Be the conversation starter
It’s not your imagination that people seem busy and noncommittal when it comes to making new friends. But as long as you get some basic friendliness (no grunting and staring at their phone when you say hello), try this mindset: Assume that they like you, and act in kind.
Unapologetically brighten when you see them. Share a little bit of your life. Don’t wait for them to initiate the “hello,” or suggest trying the new ramen place – be the reason the conversation starts.
In my experience as a clinical psychologist, pretty much everyone is secretly scared of getting rejected. So initiate. They’ll be relieved and you’ll be on your way to those six-to-eight conversations.
There’s no doubt about it: It’s tough to cut through the busyness and ambivalence of life to meet new friend after we’ve tossed our mortarboards. But don’t despair: the stardust that is potential friendship is all around us. Interaction by interaction, disclosure by disclosure, initiation by initiation, we really can, as the Girl Scout song reminds us, make new friends.
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, award-winning host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Follow her @ellenhendriksen.