Proximity is difficult, now more than ever.
I have always had an average time making friends. To my parents, I am sure I looked like the short, round-spectacled life of the party. I brought one or two friends home often in high school, got close with my roommates, and found my lifelong partner in college. In grad school, I thoroughly enjoyed my classmates and professors and made an effort to connect with them off campus when possible and appropriate.
After reading Alicia Menendez’s The Likeability Trap, I realized how much I viewed my humble number of friends and ability to hold onto these friendships as rocky and highly temporary. This insecurity had little to do with the people with whom I surrounded myself, however, and more to do with my fixation on wanting, no, needing to be wanted and liked.
Always the extrovert, I enjoyed learning as much as I could about my friends’ aspirations and interests. I have to acknowledge that I believe so much of that was authentic caring and compassion, but I know some of my mental health suffered from always wondering if I was listening enough, talking too much, or if my friends would choose me to live with them on a desert island if only given a handful of options. I wanted to be the map, compass, or water-bottle filter.
This natural craving for friendship with the added (in my case, unhealthy) desire to be liked by others has only been compounded by the pandemic. My partner does as much as he can to satisfy my unceasing desire for conversation, but he’s a brilliant introvert, and I decided that I needed an outlet that wasn’t dependent solely upon his energy level on any given day.
I’m in my mid-twenties, out of school, unable to socialize in a safe way (I will not step into a bar right now — the disrespectful selfies of party-goers have thoroughly freaked any hope of a distanced friend date out of me), and am working for myself. I have no scheduled social hours. No study dates. No fun, concert bathroom introductions after slipping another woman toilet-paper under the stall and realizing she and I share the same sad but effective pop-punk music nostalgia.
Making new friends is hard. I grew up hearing the young adults around me discuss this dilemma, but I’d successfully avoided the necessity of deliberate friend-finding throughout my twenties until now.
Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at NYU who has studied friendship for over thirty years has stated that, despite the pandemic and the restrictions on gatherings, 2020 saw an “explosion of friendships.”
In this 2021 weirdness and discomfort, I have discovered some methods to meet new people and intertwine them with my existing friends in engaging, albeit unconventional ways.
Adopt a couple of dogs and welcome their friend-making superpowers.
My partner and I rescued two dogs in May of 2020, and we quickly made a handful of acquaintances simply by taking these fluff balls, masked up and ready for a mildly frustrating session of potty training, to our apartment building’s dog walk. Luckily, we lived in a building with many not-quite-millennials like us.
Asking for phone numbers was mildly awkward, but we strategically asked our favorite dog parents if they’d like to be added to a group text for playtime coordination. The two little nugget-heads we adopted made us go outside more often and led us to friendly strangers.
When we moved out of the apartment building into our own house that August, we had a distanced housewarming more meant for the dogs than for ourselves. We invited all of their best puppy pals over and chatted with the other humans for hours over mocktails. I remember thinking it was the most party-esque experience I’d had in months up to that point and it satisfied my aching extroversion.
Download Among Us and use the chat function.
It’s kind of like Clue but with more violence and fewer hints. You’re either really good at sneaking around and stabbing astronaut beings or bad at surreptitiously “venting,” displaying your guilt before your opponents. I place myself, unarguably, in the latter category.
If you have experienced this game, you’ll know that it can be highly entertaining to play in a group of friends you already know, but I was surprised to see how many random players would pop into the game when my family selected the public game option.
Along with the predictable (though still irritating) trolls and sorry individuals jumping from game to game trying (unsuccessfully) to type expletives, we met a kind woman who we affectionately called “Tater,” based on her username.
Her jokes were funny and she was a valuable player. We asked if she’d be comfortable hopping on a Discord call (so we could strategize verbally without needing to share real phone numbers) and had a ridiculous, murder-filled evening with a new friend. We haven’t scheduled another evening to play, but I find some comfort in knowing that simultaneously valuable and silly connections can be made through this viral murder game.
Block time to be present on Slack and Discord channels.
Like playing online games and initiating alternate avenues of contact, I actually utilized the Slack and Discord channels I joined pre-pandemic. This made a world of difference in my knowledge of pop culture discussions, potential group virtual hangouts, and content worth consuming.
I’m on Slack channels for my freelance clientele, but I nearly overlooked the invitations I received from joining email newsletters to channels for LGBTQIA+ activists, maker-space enthusiasts, people from my Master’s university, and more.
My favorite channel belongs to the ambassador community for my Passion Planner (this is a referral link). We have individuals groups for authors, entrepreneurs, graphic artists, musicians, bloggers, and more. It’s so easy for me to direct-message someone who said something I enjoyed, and more people have reached out directly to me than I anticipated as well.
People on these channels tend to stay on topic but do so in a broad way. This means that I get a flurry of relevant content ideas and can ask for feedback efficiently. I have also joined sticker clubs and Zoom productivity hours with these creators, and I don’t think I would have made the time to be active in these channels had it not been for my lack of outside social activities. My planner and virtual social life are both far more colorful than they had been previously, and I have communities I was already included within but had been ignoring to thank for this improvement.
Join an Instagram book club.
I went to my first Queerly book club meeting last week and it was as refreshing and thought-provoking as attending reading circles in person. We discussed Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and found we’d highlighted many of the same pages, saved the same images for discussion, and had more in common than our sexual and gender identities.
There is another artist, a photographer, in the group. I got to gush about their upcoming gallery show. A handful of the people from the club are going to see the exhibit in a safe way in Chicago. They may even Skype me in for the tour from my house in Tennessee!
Since this was my first meeting, I spent some of the time on the call studying the relationships of the other folks. I wasn’t sure how familiar everyone was with one another and whether I was the only new face in the group or not. I wasn’t the only newbie, and the group was both welcoming and close.
At the end of the call, one member surprised another with two hundred dollars she had raised for the club host’s classroom. Apparently, the meeting prior, the group had discussed the difficulties of teaching virtually when students couldn’t access proper textbooks. Now, thanks to the group, the host’s students will be gifted full-color PDFs. These relationships, formed by a small, monthly connection, can make a huge impact on our daily lives. I cannot wait until this month’s meeting.
Utilize the Facebook and Patreon groups made by the content creators you love.
Supporting writers, musicians, poets, podcasters, YouTubers, artists, and teachers on Patreon has obvious perks that I make a point to use weekly. Before intentionally setting out to make new friends, however, I had avoided becoming active in the included Facebook groups and question threads.
I had convinced myself that engaging in the conversations within these groups wouldn’t be worth the notifications on my phone. It was as if the little red flags on my Facebook and Patreon phone icons were somehow going to single-handedly stress me out enough to warrant complete isolation from these apps. I switched off notifications and found a handful of incredible confidants.
We’ve discussed topics from imposter syndrome to combating internalized biases. I’ve advised on sourdough baking and received guidance on documentary film topics worth exploring safely from home. It stands to reason that people who love the same creators I do would have connecting traits and interests, but I had been nervous to spread myself too thinly in multiple communities.
The beauty of the online friend is that evaluating the quality of a friendship rather than only building up quantities of people can be much easier through a screen than in person. When I was in college, for example, I worried a lot about what my friends’ friends thought of me. This meant that I wasn’t only trying to thoughtfully listen to and understand my friends, but I was also trying to convince people I wasn’t authentically invested in to like me.
This does not mean that those people weren’t amazing individuals, but that I was exhausting myself trying to be too much for too many of them. The internet does not necessitate this same kind of networking balance.
I adore and aspire to make content like Leena Norms’s thoughtful video essays. Her Patreon and attached Facebook group have brought me into many one-on-one conversations with her other supporters, none of which carried any expectation that these individuals’ roommates would also need to approve of my personality and conversational style. It wasn’t until I formed these relationships that I registered how much I prioritized my likeability even into my mid-twenties, and I am thrilled that this is now an aspect of myself that I can put into words.
Someday these digital friendships may turn into something more, but I am surprisingly content with the social outlet they’ve provided in my life, even without physical hugs and wine glass clinks.
Recognize the outliers in the back of your mind who you can still reach.
Especially in these strange years, dormant ties can be safely reconnected, resurfacing a residue “of previously attained common understandings and feelings.” Nostalgia for the way life was pre-quarantine is unavoidable, and I have taken comfort in rekindling friendships that make up aspects of my autobiographical memory as a way, at least in part, to give myself hope that things will return to “normal.”
Autobiographical memory is “a broad category of memories related to a person’s own life.” These memories form a person’s internal life story and our view of the narrative that we value, the one about ourselves and our relationships with others, is critical to our happiness. Seeking out those who made me feel positive or creative in the past and connecting over FaceTime and text has been a productive experiment that has not only helped me feel less friend-isolated (with a loving partner and dogs, I luckily never feel point-blank isolated) but has also taught me the importance of letting go of the discomfort that prevented me from dipping back into my past.
Chatting with friends from high-school for example, reminded me how much I used to love going to drive-in movies with homemade snacks and a liter of soda, red solo cups filled with the bubbly sugar water, and car trunks stacked with pillows and blankets. There is potential to do this in a distanced manner. We could all take separate cars and mask up when actively chatting with one another. Even safer, we can use tools like Houseparty to mimic the drive-in experience at home.
Of course, some of the old friends with whom I’d lost contact weren’t immediately responsive. It’s hard to ask for the energy of a conversation from someone I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. I haven’t taken any lack of response personally, but have thought about who I wanted to have actively in my life. I’m learning to understand that sometimes the person on the other end of that text may not view me as part of that rekindling group.
Those old friends who do respond with enthusiasm, however, remind me of why we were in or floating near each other’s circles all those years ago. One friend with whom I had written a one-act comedy my senior year of high school is now putting on Zoom theatrical showcases. They’re witty and relevant to the odd space we are all in now in a way that makes me proud to have known her in her early writing years. Some friendships may have fizzled out for reasons outside of overwhelm and laziness, but this one suffered those specific perils and I am excited to breathe some life back into it. I’m sure she won’t be the only person I’ll rediscover during this time.
Work to make these friendships stick.
After these initial conversations, book club meetings, outdoor get-togethers, and intrigued inquiries, I know I will need to make plans to continue communication regularly. Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of the forthcoming book Friendship in the Age of Loneliness said, “Ritual is really important when it comes to connection, especially friendship.”
I’ve attached many of these new relationships to shared interests and goals that we have together, at home. My theater friend, for example, is going to be the first person I reach out to when I have a draft of a TV show pitch that’s been living rent-free in my brain for months. The people I met through the Leena Norms group watch movies together a couple of times a month and my monthly book club is not set to end with quarantine.
Regardless of what 2020 and 2021 have looked like so far, forging new friendships in my mid-twenties would have been a challenge. By making myself available to existing opportunities and deliberately seeking out new connections, I have a renewed sense of camaraderie and believe I am truly socializing for the benefit of myself and those with whom I am interacting, not just to prove that I can be liked.