Why is making friends so much harder as a grown up? I’m not talking about Facebook friends or twitter followers – or even acquaintances or colleagues. I mean real friends. Over the years, I’ve worked out how to spot these ones – they are the friends who will offer to help you with the most dull but essential of tasks (like assembling ikea furniture or moving house). The ones who you don’t mind leaving alone with your family or letting see your ugly-crying face (you know what I mean). The friends that you can sit in comfortable silence with because you don’t need to impress each other or prove anything – you just are. Those friendships are rare and they can take years to develop.
As a kid, making friends was as easy as sharing your favourite colouring pencils or arranging an after-school play date. Almost instantaneous. By high school, most of us were instinctively drawn to a clique and made friends through shared interests like sport, drama or the Backstreet Boys (I may, or may not, have belonged to a group called “The Backstreet Babes” in Year 8). Sometimes those “shared interests” may have felt more like forced same-ness, yet for many the bonds of high school still managed to last. Fast forward to Uni days and friendships are quickly formed through a shared desire to limit exam note prep and maximise time at the pub – after all, nothing fast tracks a friendship like necessity and co-dependency.
Recently, I read a NY Times article that highlighted the challenges of making close friends as a grown up:
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.
This makes perfect sense. Most twenty/thirty-somethings are highly mobile creatures, constantly on the move whether it’s travelling, changing jobs or moving cities. Whilst Facebook connects us in some ways, it’s no substitute for proximity – in fact, the ability to catch up on someone’s life via their newsfeed just further reduces the need to physically see them! Repeated and unplanned interactions are also near impossible as a grown up – between work schedules, family commitments and general life administration, there is barely time to cram in a skinny latte with your bestie between dashing to your yoga/spin/pump class and getting your weekly groceries. And this is assuming that you don’t have a partner and/or child to factor in too. Let’s top it all off with the fact that, by the time we reach grown up status, we’re all about the boundaries – we know from past experience what hurts and our guard is often up by default. We trust and confide slower (and fair enough – there’s often more at stake than our schoolyard crush finding out how much we “luv” them). Despite the nice ideals, the expectation vs reality (a must-watch tumblr!) of making friends as an adult leaves a lot to be desired.
So what happens if/when we lose touch with our high school and Uni friends? Does this mean that we are doomed to eat lunch alone in the playground of life forever? Although I briefly felt this way, I’ve decided the answer is definitely not. There may be no friendship express lane after 25, but it’s a much more scenic route and well worth the extra miles. Actually, I think the quality of our friends drastically improves with age (even if the quantity decreases). Why? By our late twenties, most of us have a pretty good idea of who we are, what we want, what our values are etc. Not only that, but we are comfortable with that person – or at least well on the way to making peace with it. We’ve been through more life experiences, which means there’s a broader range of people to connect with and relate to – friendships no longer have to be a case of pure circumstance or convenience but an active and deliberate choice.
If travelling, being single and moving cities has taught me anything, it’s the importance of making friends as a lifelong process. Here are 3 of the best ways I know how:
1. Talk to strangers
We’re conditioned from an early age not to do this – but one of the best things about travelling is that it bashes this out of you. I’ve met some of the most interesting people on buses/trains/planes, in hostels/hotels, on tours and beaches. But converting “interesting people” into friends when you’re not travelling? Trickier. Since being back in Australia, I’ve actually made some great friends from talking to strangers at dinner parties, networking functions and (believe it or not) the gym. The best attitude is this – every stranger is a friend that you haven’t met yet. This aura of approachability and friendliness will attract the best kind (and, if I’m being honest, the occasional weirdo – but that’s all part of the fun).
2. Connect – then reach out
Too often, we miss the second step. We do the Facebook or LinkedIn add, swap numbers/emails/business cards, but nothing comes of it. It’s the grown up equivalent of asking “Will you be my friend?” The school-yard fear of rejection and losing face rears it’s ugly head. And sometimes, it does genuinely feel like people have reached their “friends quota” and you’ve been put on the waiting list. If that’s the case, there probably wasn’t much hope of a friendship anyway. For the most part, people are interested and curious in getting to know other people – it’s human nature. So, remember to reach out and actually organise the “mates date”.
3. Be the kind of friend you’d like to have
This sounds like something your mum would tell you, but it’s true. So, think about what rates high on your friendship barometer – it’s different for everyone. If you’re looking for a friend who will drive you to the airport, offer to be your plus-one to that awkward family function, call to say they’re thinking of you or just show up with a batch of soup during flu season – then be that friend. Natural selection will work its magic and you’ll be surrounded by like-minded and like-valued people.
I’m not saying that all friendships need to be intense, life long bonds – on the contrary, most friendships have a natural expiry date and that’s perfectly ok. It’s important to have a mix of networks, acquaintances, colleagues, best friends, close friends and everything in between. But, despite being out of the friendship express lane, I’ve been lucky enough to pick up some pretty amazing hitchhikers on the scenic route – and I’m so grateful.