It’s really hard to make friends as an adult. One of the reasons is that we subconsciously approach it as “finding” friends rather than “making” friends. We think about it in the same way we think about love at first sight, that we’ll meet this amazing person and instantly be BFFs. But it’s very rare to immediately click and bond with someone you just met. Because friendships aren’t found – friendships are made. And yet, we were never taught how to make friends.
For most people, it takes time to get to know someone and build that relationship. But it takes a lot more time when you don’t know how to do it; all the friends we’ve made up til now have appeared natural and easy. It’s only when you get to adulthood that you realize: making friends is hard.
In How to Be Yourself, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen maps out a three-step process for making friends. This is not a life hack; it will require a lot of investment, of both time and emotion. But it is a step-by-step, psychology-based guide on how to make friends. As with all things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Whether it is foolproof or not depends on you.
1. Spend time with people.
Becoming friends stems from seeing them a lot. If you think about it, all the friends we made were because we were in close, forced, repeated proximity. There were the neighborhood kids we played with as babies. There were the classmates we saw every day for 200 days of the year, between 1 to 12 years of our lives. In college, we had roommates and neighbors and classmates and people in the same club/sorority/fraternity. At work, they are the people we sit next, people we speak day in and day out for years, people we eat lunch with and talk shit with.
So the first step to making friends is to see someone and spend time with them regularly. There already are people we see on a regular basis, whether it’s the barista who makes your coffee every morning, or the person you pass every day running at the park, or the crossing guard at your child’s school (I was the child in this case; timid as I was, I worked up the courage to talk to my elementary school crossing guard one day as she was waiting for a car to pass before taking us safely across the street). Or it could be the members of your book club, softball team, or volunteer event. Right now you might merely be making small talk with these people, but that’s a start. Keep showing up, and you’ll get familiar and comfortable with them, and they with you.
2. Share things about yourself.
You know those lists of questions meant to increase intimacy between strangers, where you ask each other increasingly personal questions to get to know each other at warp speed? Disclosure is like that, but at a more natural pace. In real life, you can start by answering the ubiquitous “How are you?” not with a “I’m good, how are you?” (I do this ALL THE TIME), but by sharing a bit of ourselves: “I’m good! I found this amazing berry cobbler recipe I’m excited to try!” The ball is now in their court. If they’re interested, they will ask follow-up questions. If they’re not, that’s cool too; we still succeeded because we broke out of our comfort zone and tried!
But we have to be careful about how much we disclose. “Hi, how are you?” is not an invitation to talk about your unresolved issues from childhood that are preventing you from having healthy adult relationships and how it caused your clinical depression. Too much, too fast – confessions are best saved for your priest and/or established relationships. Most people are not comfortable jumping into the deep end upon just meeting someone. Disclosure should be “escalating and reciprocal.” Start with something innocuous, like hobbies and interests. Gauge what they’re comfortable with sharing or hearing, and work up from there.
3. Show people you like them.
People like people who like them. People also like people who take initiative. Because we’re all scared of being rejected, the person taking the initiative removes that possibility of rejection. Saying hi first signals to them that you are happy to see them; a warm, smiling response to their “hi” signals that conversation is welcome. (This is an extension of Step 1.)
Once rapport has been built, you need to socialize in different settings. Expand the relationship outside of where you see them regularly. The key is to be specific. Invite a coworker to go hiking this weekend. Ask a book club member to have lunch this Tuesday. Plan extra batting practice for a day before the next game with a teammate who’s just as bad at softball as you are. Be specific, and make concrete plans. Because, let’s be honest: have you ever actually met up with someone after saying “Let’s hang out sometime”?
These steps are all very simple and intuitive, but extremely difficult to act on, especially for people with social anxiety. Personally, I struggle the most with sharing; I keep things to myself, more as a result of social anxiety than because I’m a private person. I worry about people judging me for who I am, even people I don’t care about (which makes no sense). But I’ve been working on these steps, and I’ve had deeper conversations with more people in the last few months than ever in my life.
Like I’ve said before, I love this book. It’s opened my eyes to a side of myself I’ve lived with but never acknowledged. I would recommend it to anyone, whether you suffer from social anxiety or not. The chapter on how to make friends is definitely my favorite; it shows that we all know how to make friends, we just have to take action.