When you’re a gifted adult, how do you find friends? Even if you found your tribe in college, what do you do when they’re far away and you suddenly have a busy work schedule and no idea how to find people off-campus? Here are some practical things and some bigger-picture ideas to keep in mind, both of which may help you along the way to finding new friends.
I have never been particularly adept at befriending people my age. As a child, many of my friends were older than me. In high school, many of my friends were at least a year older or younger than me. The first time I really clicked with a group of peers was at a young writers’ group during a summer of high school, but we were from all over the country. In college, I finally found a group of people who were close friends, lived nearby, and were my age peers.
I went to a small college with a high percentage of smart, geeky students. We had a storytellers group and a swing dance club, and I felt almost social (by my standards, but I’m pretty far on the introverted side of the scale). I attended activities a couple of nights per week, and during my senior year my roommate and I hosted gatherings in our on-campus apartment. Friends were nearby, so we’d chat in the dining hall or as we walked to class. I knew that if I missed an event because of homework or some other obligation, I would still see my friends within the next day or two.
When I graduated, I spent a few years on boats, where I had my crew—a built-in social group. I wilted for lack of friends. Contracts were usually no longer than six months, so I’d have to get used to an entirely new group of people at least twice a year. I always had a group ready if I wanted to go to the bar, but by the time I started considering someone a close friend, it would be time for both of us to move on to new ships. After that, I lived with my parents for a while and did some swing dancing and D&D, but mostly felt lonely until I moved to a small city and started to make friends in earnest.
I’ve had some pretty solid successes over the last year. As I write this, I’m sitting in my new friends’ house, taking care of their cat while they’re away at an event. Typical to my usual pattern, most of my new friends are older than me (12+ years older), but I have also recently made a few friends who are closer to my age. The following advice comes with a huge disclaimer—I’m only a year into the current round of making friends. That said, I think that the past year has gone very well, so here’s my take on the stuff that worked for me.
First off: it’s not easy. Ok, maybe it’s easy for some people, but they’re probably not reading this article. The short version of this is: yeah, making friends can feel awkward as hell, especially at the start. Usually, you can’t just go up to someone, say, “Hi, want to be friends?” and have it move on perfectly from there. I get along fine with most of the people I encounter on a daily basis and can have a nice little chat with them. Few of these people have enough in common with me to support a friendship. On the other hand, some of my closer friendships started out with a few highly awkward interactions—these don’t doom relationships!
The rest of this post covers some logistics of looking for friends and other things to keep in mind during the process.
Some things to do:
What are some things you like to do? Write out a basic list and scan local newspapers and your local Meetup page to find activities that appeal to you. Do you like music? (Performing or just listening?) Find a place where you can listen to local musicians, or an open-mic night where you can perform. Like talking about books? Check in with your local library to see if they have any book discussion groups. If there aren’t any groups going, or if there is a group but it doesn’t cover your preferred genre(s), consider starting a group yourself – the librarians will probably have some great advice on how to go about doing so. If you like making things, is there a local makerspace (or someone who has some spare garage space and wants to collaborate on projects)? The SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) can be wonderful for people who are interested in history and/or fighting, archery, crafting, etc., and they have groups all over the place. It has something for (almost) everyone and can be a great way to get an introduction to fun things you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
One of my friends walked me through this part of the process. (Not literally—in an online conversation.) I was stuck in a cycle of not knowing what to do, not reaching out, and then feeling lonely and isolated. By showing me some options, my friend helped be start thinking about ways to find people and deal with my loneliness. I hope that some of these suggestions are useful to you or at least get you thinking about other things that might work. If you get stuck, try brainstorming with someone; a local acquaintance might know of nearby opportunities, while a faraway friend might help you think of other activities to investigate.
If you’re not in an urban area, it can be harder to reach the critical mass of people needed to get these activities going – but it might be easier to query the local grapevine to find out who might be interested. If you know someone local who is interested in some of the same things, you might be able to carpool.
This is one of the things that’s been hardest for me to accept. I just don’t spend as much time with friends post-college as I did during college. I count myself lucky if I see friends once a week (and usually that only happens if we both attend some regular activity together). As far as I can tell, this is just a reality of having a working schedule and living further apart – it’s easier to spend lots of time together when your friends’ dorms are only a five-minute walk away.
* Long-distance friends
One of the things that kept me same throughout this process was ongoing contact with college friends. They all live far away; I like talking on the phone, so I was able to use occasional phone calls to stay in touch. IMs work, as do emails; use whatever method works for you and your friends. If some of your friends are your age, you can probably commiserate on the travails of finding new friends; share tips and tricks! Just don’t make this your sole source of contact. I love my phone calls with college friends, but I also need to have friends who are physically nearby – people to have a cup of tea with and just sit with. When life gets particularly difficult, it’s good to have people who are physically nearby who can help out (even if all you need is a hug).
And some things to think about:
No, not hoof-and-mouth, and no, it’s not communicable. Well, awkwardness is, a little. Anyway. I have this thing with conversations. I can have a great conversation where I’ve talked with friends about things that I care about, that they care about, and I feel we’ve bonded. Everything’s peachy. And then I get home, I think back on the conversation a little, and then I realize that I said something embarrassing. And then I obsess. I start thinking, “Oh my god, that was awful, they’ll think I’m so stupid/insensitive/etc.”
And then we hang out again, and maybe I bring it up, and usually they (1) didn’t even notice, or (2) remember the comment but were not at all upset by it. Mostly I have learned to recognize that these fears are way out of proportion to the actual danger.
* Overlooking mistakes
These are people who are choosing to spend time with you. Chances are good that they’re doing so because they like you. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re acting rationally (what a huge waste of time to hang out with someone who you dislike). If they shrug off a rude comment, it might not be because they have low standards in their friends—it’s probably just that they understand that people have different tolerance for directness and also that people make mistakes.
So here’s a revolutionary idea: lots of other people also feel a bit awkward in social interaction! You’re not the only one. They probably have their own foot-in-mouth moments. Chances are good that they are often too busy worrying over their own missteps to notice yours—or they noticed but considered their own mistakes worse. Hey, who knows, maybe they were so impressed by some neat thing you said or did that they didn’t notice your less-than-stellar comments.
* Friends for different activities
This is something that I resist – I want to be able to have good conversations with all of my friends. But it is at least worth thinking about. So I have some friends that I go to SCA events with. If I get back into sailing, I might have another friend or two who I mostly only see while I’m sailing. One friend for chats over coffee, another friend for shoe-shopping. I don’t know, it doesn’t quite make sense to me, but it might work for you. But this goes along with the smaller amount of time-per-friend-per-week – if you want to spend time with a friend every day or every other day, you’ll probably have to rotate between people. This is a good way to explore new activities, and, as mentioned above, new activities are a great way to find new friends. A D&D friend might become one of your closest friends.
* Measuring up
One thing that comes up, over and over, in my relationships is this idea of measuring up. Sure, these people like me—but what if they like me because I’m well-read? What happens if they discover some essential thing that I haven’t read yet, and they decide I’m not worth knowing after all? I’m shaking my head a bit as I write because it sounds almost silly, but it is a real fear. Since many of my new friends are much older than me, I’m constantly discovering books, skills, and experiences that they’re familiar with and I’ve never read/learned/encountered. And yet, the age difference really brings this point into relief: they’ve had a lot more time to accumulate those experiences, and they don’t think any less of me because I haven’t had those experiences. So instead of obsessing over the idea that I haven’t read enough yet, I ask them about things they’ve read, and my to-read list grows (and grows and grows).
We each bring our unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, and experiences to relationships. I’m learning to appreciate my friends’ strengths without feeling like I have to have the same strengths in order to be a worthy friend. Maybe it’s a smidge selfish of me—I enjoy teaching, and there’s nothing to teach if everyone knows the same things I do. But I also enjoy learning, and I love having friends who want to teach me about the things they love. So I acknowledge the “oh god I’m inadequate” feeling and then I move on—there’s so much left to learn.
This is really just a description of part of my journey, but I hope that it is helpful for you on your own search. If you have questions to ask or tips to contribute, please let me know in the comments. And always remember that friendship is an ongoing process, not a simple destination—friendships are built out of shared experiences.
Some relevant articles:
As a mid-20s introvert, I feel like I have already encountered many of the problems discussed in this article.
Can you control others’ opinions of you? Nope. Are you perfect in their eyes? Unlikely. Do they like you anyway and choose to spend time with you? Yup.
This article helped me articulate what I’m looking for in friendships and how that ideal is different from the relationship I have with casual acquaintances.
This post is part of Hoagies Gifted Blog Hop – Gifted Friendships