To set the stage for this post, I’d like to quote Helen Keller:
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
Although no amount of money or insurance policies can buy us true security, I will say the closest thing we can have to security on earth is our ties with fellow human beings.
You might think the best person to write an article about how to make friends would be someone who has a ton of followers, and is never seen hanging out by themselves, and was born with great social skills. Which would pretty much be the total opposite of me! Not being falsely modest or anything; it’s just reality. I was not born with social skills, and did not develop any to speak of until relatively late in life. I was one of those kids who were really not good with people. (I will spare you the details, but trust me, it ain’t pretty.)
And even after developing social skills, I’m still an introvert and not the easiest person to get along with. I can have a short fuse. And I can be extremely mission-driven, to the point that I sometimes just plain forget to be social. I still tend to hog the conversation too much even though this is something I continue to work on. And that is precisely why I’m writing this post. Despite all these flaws, I manage to make friends. Having against all odds succeeded in forming many great friendships, I’m well-qualified to tell you anyone can make friends. If I can, anyone can. Is it always easy? No. But anyone can.
One of the Facebook groups I follow closely is Socially Conscious FIRE. It’s for people who want to achieve “Financial Independence, Retire Early” but without exploiting fellow human beings or trashing the planet. (In contrast, the regular FIRE group, from what I have heard former members say, doesn’t generally discuss the environmental or social/humanitarian dimension of things; it’s just about amassing that pile of money.)
Why am I bringing up retirement in a post about friendship? Bear with me; there is a connection.
A lot of people’s attention, particularly in USAmerican culture, is devoted to this urge to make a bunch of money so they can then retire and never have to work again. People don’t feel secure til they’ve amassed a million or two. Maybe not even then. In mainstream American culture, it actually feels scary and precarious to not be saving up for retirement. It’s a message that’s been drummed into us.
I will say that if you can find a way to ethically build a financial cushion for yourself and your family, that’s not a bad thing. I just don’t like seeing people amass that financial cushion at the expense of their moral values or their current personal happiness, for the purpose of being happy and enjoying leisure at some hypothetical time far in the future (which may never come if they die before retirement or soon after, which happens far too often).
Anyway, the reason I’m bringing up retirement in a post about friendship is that I realized that while people are extremely preoccupied with the risk of not having enough money for retirement, there’s another, far worse risk most people in our culture don’t even consider when contemplating their old age. And that is … the risk of facing one’s old age without any friends. This happens all the time, not because most of us are un-friend-able, but because we simply don’t devote enough energy to making friends and nurturing friendships.
To riff on an old saying from the 70s, “Friends will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no friends.”
Many people have a pretty deep-rooted belief that making friends is much harder as we get older. This actually isn’t true, as David at Raptitude.com points out. David has written the best article I’ve ever read about how to make friends at any age, by doing one simple thing that most of us shrink from doing. That simple thing is taking the step of inviting a new acquaintance to do something together. You can find the link to David’s article in the Further Reading section at the end of this post.
Since David has written such an excellent article about taking a passing “hello acquaintance” to the next stage, I’ll talk about another critical juncture in every friendship, the stage that comes after that initial coffee or other first planned meetup.
Where friendships can get stuck at this stage is when the two people end up having different expectations. One person might have more free time than the other, for example, so they want to get together more often than the other person does. Or some other differing expectation. And then hurt feelings arise. Many friendships don’t get beyond this stage, and probably most people think “Well, that friendship wasn’t meant to be.” But recently I started questioning that idea. What if, instead, two people could acknowledge that they were operating from different expectations, and then find the overlap?
Now, this may not always be possible. For example, if I meet someone and I’m super physically attracted to them but the feeling isn’t mutual, that can be awkward and difficult for either person to compromise on. Not that it’s impossible, just that it’s challenging.
But otherwise, differing expectations don’t have to kill a new friendship. The key lies in whether both of the people are willing (and able) to talk about the differing expectations and adjust to a mutually acceptable level. Sometimes you can, sometimes not. But it’s worth trying, and that’s something I only just recently realized. My usual modus operandi was always to simply conclude it was necessary to bail when the expectations felt really different. But then I realized there’s nothing to lose by trying to talk through the differences. The worst that could happen is you walk away without a friendship — but that was going to happen anyway!
Putting yourself out there to make friends feels risky. You could get rejected right off the bat. Or mismatched expectations can come up. Or worse, you get deep into a friendship and somewhere down the road there’s a hideous blowout. All of these things can be traumatic in their own way, and probably most of us have experienced them. Some people decide the trauma isn’t worth the risk. But when you measure the risk of hurt against the risk of ending up with no friends at all, it takes on a different light.
I don’t know how people endure middle age, let alone old age, without friends. I’m pretty sure that friendlessness has sent many people to an early grave.
About rejection: I notice that the people who seem to take it most in stride are the people who’ve actually experienced it more. Me, I’ve been rejected about a bajillion times. It gets easier to recover, it really does. Then I know people who’ve been rejected like once or twice in their life, and in reaction to that, they decide not to risk getting close to people anymore. They become Fortress Impenetrable. They never make jackasses of themselves though, by golly!
Another problem we have in this culture is putting all of our eggs in one relationship-basket, by expecting to get all our needs met through our “significant other” relationship. That’s a prescription for disaster, the older you get. It’s a fragile state of affairs and it’s how a lot of people end up living alone and friendless in their old age (because their spouse died and they never put any effort into any other relationships).
You don’t have to be an extrovert to make friends. It’s possible to be an introvert and want/need lots of solitude, yet still have a number of deep friendships.
For many people in this culture, money seems to have become a replacement for friendship. I’m not talking about a spiritual replacement (as in using money and material possessions to fill the void left by lack of human connection). That’s definitely a big problem but it’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, I’m talking about something more literal: people needing a lot of money because they’re using money for things that traditionally used to be covered by friends, neighbors, or family. If a mother doesn’t have a friend she can share child-care duties with, she has to pay for childcare. If a person doesn’t like or trust anyone enough to live together, they have to pay the entire expenses of a rent or mortgage alone instead of being able to split it with a friend or two. If a person has lived in the same neighborhood for decades but not formed a friendship tie with even one neighbor, they end up having to pay someone lots of money to watch their house or feed their cat when they go on vacation. (Not that we shouldn’t be willing to pay friends, too, when asking them to do something that involves work “above and beyond” the call of friendship-duty.) Those are just a couple of basic examples; you can probably think of more.
“Saving for retirement”; needing (or at least feeling the need) to amass a certain large amount of money for retirement — adds a lot of financial overhead to our lives. It also takes a lot of joy and fun out of the present day. There are people in some conventional FIRE groups who won’t even treat themselves to one coffee-house beverage or a dinner out, because some FIRE guru became a billionaire by always brewing coffee at home instead of spending $6 a day at Starbucks, and never went out to dinner.
We can’t very well spend money like we’re going to die tomorrow (unless we find out we’re going to die tomorrow — in which case, I would say absolutely have at it, and tell the barista to put extra whipped cream on that fancy $6 coffee!), but by the same token, we can’t assume we’re going to live forever either.
There’s no denying that money can make life easier and increase a person’s freedom, particularly at a certain level of income. I’ve lived at the ultra-low income levels, where a person feels like they can barely move or breathe. Obviously I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. At the level between not having enough to eat and having enough to eat (and a roof over one’s head), money makes a huge difference in peace of mind and quality of life. After a point though, it doesn’t, much. The thing that does make a difference in one’s peace of mind and quality of life is relationships with people.
I know a lot of really good, loveable, friend-able people who don’t really have friends they can count on. This can be because they’re super busy working to make money. It can also be — this sounds dumb, but it’s true — simply that they don’t give enough priority in their lives to making and keeping friends. Some people might not want friends; I’m not talking about those people here. I’m talking about people who actually want friends, but they don’t invest enough time or energy into making friendships happen.
For those of you who fall into that last category, a few tips on how to make friends:
• Consciously decide that friendships are a top priority in your life. This by itself is hugely important.
• Say Yes when a new acquaintance invites you to meet up for a cup of coffee or a walk or whatever. The meetup may not end up becoming a gateway to deeper friendship, but that’s no problem as long as you do this step with a lot of different people. By the sheer law of averages, some will turn into friends. This happened to me the other day. A woman who sounded nice made a post on NextDoor, saying she was interested in meeting up with people to walk on the beach. Several women, including me, took her up on her invitation. She and I ended up really feeling like kindred spirits, and will pursue a friendship.
• Initiate an invitation to a new acquaintance. Even if they accept, your meetup may not end up becoming a gateway to deeper friendship. No problem — just keep doing this with different cool-seeming people you meet. Myself, I have VERY OFTEN initiated these invitations. Sometimes the get-together never happens; sometimes it happens but doesn’t pan out into actual friendship. More times than I can count, both of those scenarios have happened. And yet, many of my friendships would never have come to be if I hadn’t issued the initial invite. So I will always keep doing that when I feel called to do so.
For the next set of tips, we get into more challenging terrain.
• Say you met up with someone, and it went OK but you realized you had differing levels of expectation, as I mentioned previously. Instead of running away, make an effort to talk with the person about the differing levels of expectations and see if they are negotiable; see if there’s any overlap between the two of you. There may not end up being any way to meet in the middle, but at least give the other person a chance. I recently had the “mismatched expectation” thing in a new friendship, and it brought up painful feelings on both sides. But because the person and I were willing and able to acknowledge that we had differing expectations, and talk about it, and give each other a chance, we were able to agree that we want to build a friendship. If I’d gone off just the initial mismatched expectations, I’d just have bailed out on the possibility of a friendship, and in this case it would have been a real loss. Looking back, I wonder how many friendships I concluded were not in the cards, which might actually have been viable if we’d just been willing/able to talk things out.
• Even longterm friendships, once you develop them, aren’t immune to problems. A longterm friendship can stagnate, or even seem to go backwards. This can happen for lots of reasons. You can find yourselves moving in different directions in life. Or you can simply lose touch with each other when one of you moves to a different geographic location. Some people find it easier than others to maintain the same depth and richness in long-distance friendships as they do when the person lived closer. (This can be true of family members too.) My tip here would be to really make an effort to deepen a longtime friendship. No friendship should be static. I noticed with a very longtime close friend the other day that I was feeling out of touch with them, and not feeling much hope that the connection was going to get any deeper. But we ended up having a long phone conversation that blew me away. As close as I had felt to this person for almost 40 years, I felt a quantum leap in our closeness from just that one long conversation. So I would say: Make the time and effort to work on longterm friendships; never take them for granted and never assume they can’t get any deeper.
And of course sometimes a longterm friendship can just explode or implode over some sudden difference of opinion or other disagreement. It may be salvageable; may not be.
All of those uncertainties notwithstanding, the biggest risk in life isn’t that you might get hurt. You’re going to get hurt in life no matter what. It’s just part of life. The biggest risk is the friendships you’ll miss out on if you don’t at least try.
One of my sideline gigs is helping with house clean-outs. The homeowners tend to be retired elderly people who have died or gone into nursing homes; the people hiring me are their legal representatives. The most persistent pattern I see is how much stuff people have. Piles and piles of stuff that’s still in its packaging; never opened. There are some houses you can’t even walk into at first because they’re crammed with stuff three or four feet high or even from floor to ceiling. Everything from 100 toothbrushes still in their plastic packages to entire closets full of clothing with the tags still on. On a recent such gig, where both the man and wife had gone into a nursing home, one of our sub-tasks was to find a certain important legal document. It involved sifting through piles and piles of mail. In our search, I came upon a solitary card. It was not the searched-for document, but a Christmas card. Inside, the sender had written, “Thank you for being such a great friend.”
This house was packed to the gills with trophies and other expensive memorabilia; clothing; furniture; firearms. Some rooms were packed floor-to-ceiling so you couldn’t open the door at first. Entire layers of stuff had been chewed by rats. Amidst it all, occasionally there’d be a gold coin or a bottle of expensive liquor or something. This couple had both worked at “good jobs,” the kind where you get a steady paycheck and retire with a pension. They probably did all the right things and saved for retirement. Yet when I found that card, somehow I felt I had stumbled on the only thing of real value in the house, and I was able to breathe a little easier on the couple’s behalf.
I don’t mean to disparage people for wanting to save for a rainy day, or enjoy material comfort in their old age, or have a reasonable amount of backup supplies. And obviously our culture has engendered some really warped reflexes in all of us. Certainly I am not immune from the compulsion to hoard.
I know this post is rambling, but it’s been a big fat tangled ball of yarn in my consciousness for awhile and finally I just have to put it out there. I might edit it later, or even delete it. But if this helps even one person it’ll be worth it.
Back to friendship.
In my experience, pretty much ANYONE can make friends. And the barriers to friendship might not be what you think.
Things I used to think were insurmountable barriers, but are not, include: rough edges; lack of social skills; mental-health issues; being sloppy, messy, not well-groomed; being self-centered; being never on time. You can have all these issues and still have genuinely good, deep friendships. How? Because the urge to form friendships is a strong human drive, and as long as the friendship “affinity pull” between any given two people is strong enough to override the barriers, friendship can happen.
Though I have no scientific proof for the existence of such “affinity glue,” it appears to be a very strong barrier-overriding force; it explains how I was able to have real friends even during phases of my life when I was decidedly not easy to interact with or be around. People have a deep-seated need for likeminded companionship that goes beyond superficial levels, and we seem to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of “personality junk” to have it. Of course if the “personality junk” persists or gets worse, it can end up eroding or overriding the friendship glue.
The tolerance does seem to be greater if the difficult person seems to be trying to evolve. (Maybe that’s why friends stuck with me; they could feel on some level that I was genuinely aspiring to work through my personality junk.)
Things that are serious barriers, that most people don’t realize how serious a barrier they are: limited thinking; low self-esteem; insecurity. Those things can kill a friendship before it starts.
Also here is one very common very huge barrier: Many people are so focused on finding a romantic relationship that they don’t make any effort to develop friendships. And then the hollow loneliness that comes from not having friends makes them more and more desperate to find a romantic partner. It’s a vicious circle. I see this all the time, to the point that it’s almost a defining characteristic of the USAmerican cultural landscape. Very sad, but it’s almost impossible to talk people down from this; they have to come to the realization themselves somehow.
My final tip for making friends: Read David’s article linked below. It’s deeply insightful.
In closing, I’ll share with you another of my favorite quotes. This one is from Alan Watts:
“When a cat falls out of a tree, it lets go of itself. The cat becomes completely relaxed, and lands lightly on the ground. But if a cat were about to fall out of a tree and suddenly make up its mind that it didn’t want to fall, it would become tense and rigid, and would be just a bag of broken bones upon landing.In the same way, it is the philosophy of the Tao that we are all falling off a tree, at every moment of our lives. As a matter of fact, the moment we were born we were kicked off a precipice and we are falling, and there is nothing that can stop it. So instead of living in a state of chronic tension, and clinging to all sorts of things that are actually falling with us because the whole world is impermanent, be like a cat.”
“How To Make Friends As An Adult” (David at Raptitude.com). “I have two aims for this post: to dispel one of our most harmful cultural myths, and to help make you at least one lifelong friend. It’s worth saying again that good friends are the best thing in the world. They make the good times great and the bad times not so bad. They make you wiser, kinder, smarter, and more interesting. They help you develop your strengths and survive your weaknesses. Nothing else I know of does all of those things. Friendship is precious, but it doesn’t have to be rare or elusive. …”