How many friends do you have on social media? How many likes have you gotten and given today? And of the hundreds of online acquaintances who know your lunch was lit (insert fire emoji here), how many of them have you actually had lunch with?
In this increasingly online world, it sometimes feels like the only real connection going on is the one between our phones and Wi-Fi providers. After getting fed up with measuring my own self-esteem via social media interactions, I bowed out—save for the occasional rant on Twitter about whatever company has earned my ire that day—and logged off. I found hanging up the hashtagging hat liberating, but also found that it gave me an “I’m accidentally on the edge of society/people probably think I joined a witness protection program” vibe. Plus, it meant I had to actually look around when I was waiting for the bus, and sometimes there was eye contact. Be prepared.
Quitting social media is a bit of an eye opener; one day, you’ve got 1,000 “friends” to interact with (or not?), and the next, you suddenly have no idea what Stacey, your neighbor’s third cousin who you met once at a BBQ, thinks of the latest celebrity divorce. You’re no longer in the loop about Lauren’s on-and-off again relationship drama. Leaving social media made me realize how much I relied on the internet for human interaction, and how socially isolated I was: I had few friends I actually spent time within person. If I were a Sim, my social bar would’ve been red. To put it simply, I was lonely. I quickly realized I needed to make some IRL friends—and stat.
But making new friends as an adult is challenging. Outside of the digital divide, there’s a myriad of reasons one might struggle to make friends. Maybe you move a lot, like me. Maybe you work from home—also me. Maybe your ideal night is more gaming-in-pjs than pre-gaming-in-party-clothes (yep, that’s me, too). Basically, if you’re like me, then your “making new friends” game probably sucks—social media or no.
Over the course of a month, I tried my best to make new friends—and I don’t mean acquaintances. Nope, I aimed for fully fledged, official, long-term friendships. With bracelets, hopefully. And so I embarked upon a socially awkward journey to stamp out seclusion, slaughter sadness, and smash solitude (my first step probably should have been to stop talking like that).
As every good procrastinator knows, the most important first step is research. I was surprised to discover just how many articles about how to make friends there are out there, and how many online posts there are from people seeking advice. We’re all pretty darn lonely, it seems. There’s not an article, blog, or Reddit thread my eyes have not perused in search of a magic wand-waving trick that will conjure me up a better social life. Despite my best efforts to avoid making any effort, almost everything I read for Operation Make Friends seemed to indicate that at least someform of effort is required; I could not merely dwell in my beloved pjs under blankets. Boo.
There’s plenty of advice online about how to make new friends as a grown-up person: join a club or group, find friends online, reconnect with old friends or acquaintances, and approach people awkwardly at bus stops (OK, maybe I made that last one up), but does any of it actually work? And what happens beyond the suggestions? How do you take the steps between, “Hi, ummm, my name’s Elcie” to having your very own whimsically named group text? Like a lamb to social slaughter, I decided to find out.
For my first step, I set out to join a club. The most popular—and I suspect only—website for doing so near me was meetup.com. Joining is free, and you share as little or as much information about yourself as you like. Although I uploaded a sorta-recent-kinda-looks-like-me photo, I spotted plenty of profile photos of random birds, scenic mountain ranges, and fields of flowers, so it’s definitely acceptable to stay anonymous should you choose to. Unless, of course, things have really gone to pot and even hawks and hillsides are lonely these days.
In the nearest city, there were thousands of groups and clubs to join, ranging from your standard let’s-get-drunk groups right through to the more sensible career-minded ones. And that was great—except for the fact that my nearest city is about an hour’s travel, and I don’t drive. Yet another strike against my homie-making hopes and dreams!
But, I’m nothing if not persevering, so I just made my own club. I decided to create a group for people in my town to meet for coffee. Wildly inventive, I know, but what’s the point in promising potential pals we’re going to be trekking the jungle or bungee jumping while we cultivate friendships? There’s no jungle nearby, and I’m scared of heights—and I just really like coffee. It costs around $10 per month to create your own group, but you can’t put a price on friendship. Well, apparently, MeetUp does, but whatever.
“There’s nothing quite as weird as swiping left on people just wanting to make friends, and I felt like the Cruella de Vil of camaraderie.”
While I waited for the locals to flock to my newly-formed group (spoiler: they didn’t), I decided to try out the next piece of advice: using the internet to find IRL friends, but not via social media. I downloaded a few friendship-making apps and got to swiping. First up was an app called We3, which connects people in groups of threes. It sounded like it would work really well, lessening the pressure on both the online conversation and an actual meeting. I’ll never find out, however, because I never got matched into a group due to a lack of users nearby. Splitting my time between a small town in Northern Ireland and an even smaller town in Ohio, I sort of expected that.
The app Patook had good reviews, so I gave it a precious place on my homescreen next. Given the hundreds of warning messages about the consequences of flirting in the app description, it seemed like a good choice for finding platonic pals. Like a dating app, you swipe on people whose profiles seem promising, and if you match with each other, you move to private messaging. There’s nothing quite as weird as swiping left on people just wanting to make friends, and I felt like the Cruella de Vil of camaraderie, each swipe sending another puppy-eyed potential playmate to the skinning room. However, most of the people on the app were at least a boat ride away in the more populated cities of England or Scotland, and I’m not a pirate.
Unfortunately. I did make sort-of progress with one app amigo. But whether we were chatting because we truly connected, or because we were the only two people in a 100-mile radius, remains to be seen. Between Christmas, sicknesses, and busy lives, we still haven’t met, but I plan to break the loop of back-and-forth-messaging and ask to meet for coffee or skydiving or something soon.
While I was busy swiping, my new MeetUp group had attracted a whopping two people to join me for coffee. Thankfully, it’s quality over quantity for real-life friendships, so, armed with my laptop in case of soul-destroying no-shows, I headed off for what very much felt like a job interview.
I’m a confident enough person, but I still get nervous walking into a busy coffee shop, trying to appear nonchalant while simultaneously mentally comparing every patron to a blurry profile photo. Thankfully, I found my budding buddies, both women around my age who live nearby, and what was at first awkward small talk soon became interesting, fun conversation. Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out, both of these lovely ladies also found making friends difficult, each for their own reasons—busy lives and illness. I ended the night feeling a little less alone in my loneliness, and we’ve since arranged monthly meetings. So far, I’m counting this group as a win, but only time will tell if these two ladies become close, forever-friends, or if our friendship fizzles out over time.
Another common friendship-making tip was to think about the friendship possibilities of people you already know. This could be friends you’ve drifted away from for no discernible reason, or an acquaintance you’ve just never thought of “like that.” Again, I’m all in on this adventure, so stopping short of the mail carrier, I reached out to a plethora of people, old and new. This included friends I haven’t seen in a few years for no real reason, and even though we live far apart now and it’s a bit of logistical nightmare to meet, I was fully on board for the whole effort thing. And I was willing to travel farther to meet old friends I’d fallen out of touch with than I was to meet strangers from an app. I also thought of a few people I’d met through a group for writers I used to organize. I had a bit in common with one person I met there, so she was on my hit list.
Asking my acquaintances if they wanted to meet up was admittedly awkward; it felt a lot like asking someone out on a date, hoping they don’t laugh in your face/block you/ask who you even are. As I’m a big chicken, I opted for texting as it allows for the obsessive composing-and-deleting of words normally reserved for the writing of classic novels. In the end, I feigned spontaneity and nonchalance with inspired openers, such as, “Hey, you free on Saturday?” and “Want to grab a coffee next week?” I await my Pulitzer nomination.
“Asking my acquaintances if they wanted to
meet up was admittedly awkward; it felt a lot like asking someone out on a date.”
Thankfully, I got a full house of yes-es from both the would-be-friends andthe was-be-friends. Just like that, my social life became almost alarmingly busy: coffees, drinks, and lunches soon filled my Google calendar—I’m surprised I didn’t get an email from Google asking if my phone had been stolen. I was going out so often, the week involved a lot less wearing of pajamas than is normal for me.
Despite my initial anticipations, none of these “friend dates” were remotely awkward—perhaps because we already knew each other, although with varying levels of knowledge. One friend date begat another. I’ve met up with a few people several times and I text with them often; I’d even go as far as to call them friends. Maybe there’s an internal sensor inside us that can sense when someone would make a good friend but for whatever reason we left it as “acquaintances.” An in-real-life “Friend Suggestion,” if you will.
As the calendar closes on my month-long quest for friends, I feel pretty optimistic. I also feel kind of tired; there’s a surprising amount of admin involved in finding friends. Much like dating, though, you have to put in the dreaded E-word to find what you’re looking for. I’d estimate I clocked at least 20 hours in a month between swiping, chatting, and going on meet ups.
Is the expenditure of effort worth it? Most definitely. Can I say for certain at this stage that I’ve made lifelong friends? No, probably not. I have made friends, but lifelongis, well, a long time. Maybe some of the people I’ve met will just be added to a long list of acquaintances, and others will be people I’ll only ever meet in person once.
That’s the thing about friendship: it isn’t so easily defined. If you only ever interact with someone by liking each other’s lunch photos online, is that still a friendship? I’m not sure. But I do know that almost everyone I met over the past month is feeling the same sense of modern-day online isolation and disconnectedness as I am. And that’s something we can all connect with.
By Elcie Claire
Illustrated by Cindy Echevarria
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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