A short handbook from someone who is awful at making friends
When I originally wrote this, I had no intention of publishing it. Instead, my goal was to structure some of these important ideas as a guide for myself to get better at making friends.
But, thanks to the pandemic, many of us feel our social skills have become rusty, and our bank of friends is depleted. I hope that this will help others in the same way that writing it has helped me.
Find your niche
Here there’s an important piece of business advice that, strangely, applies here: niche down.
The idea in business goes something like this: if you are trying to be everything to everybody, you will end up being nothing to nobody.
Ignoring the slightly confusing double negative at the end there, you get the idea. You have a special tiny subset of the population who are compatible with you in a way that will create great friendships. If you are unclear about who your tiny subset of the population is, you will never find them, and they will never find you.
Ironically, the thing we all think about making friends, “be nice, don’t create conflict, be friendly and easy-going,” is probably actually the wrong thing to do. Our niche people are those that share our likes but also our dislikes. If we don’t let those dislikes live out in the open, we never have the opportunity to bond over them.
Be the connector
To a good first-order approximation, everyone is shy. Sure, there’s the occasional high-powered extrovert, but those are rare. Even more so after a year of letting our social skills rust.
I’ve often been told that when someone first met me, I seemed standoffish. Thinking back to that occasion, what was going on in my head was that I didn’t want to force my presence on anyone — I was trying to be nice and respectful.
I suspect this is a huge problem in meeting people. The default of polite in our society is to not “bother people”.
You can be the solution to this by being a connector. Even if you don’t know anyone well, try introducing new people to the people you do know. Leverage the small number of connections you have to build communities. Network effects from these kinds of links will make it far more likely you will build friendships with some of these people.
Embrace rejection and fire fast
If someone doesn’t like your opinion, your annoying voice, or your creepy basement full of vintage dolls, cool. That’s not the person for you. If you and that person are incompatible — or just aren’t “hell yes” compatible — then the friendship would have eventually either fizzled anyway or become a zombie acquaintance. And if you’re reading an article about making friends, you probably aren’t looking for more passable acquaintances so you can have more conversations about the weather and say things like “how’ve you been.”
That shit is boring. And getting rejected keeps you out of friendships like that that will just be boring and polite. To build real, substantial friendships, you have to be fully yourself: flaws and all.
Again, there’s an analogy here from business/startups: fire fast. Startups tend to grow quickly, and as a result, they hire people quickly. But often, they will find that a new hire isn’t working out. Startups can succeed or fail based on how long they allow themselves to keep those early bad-fit employees. Hence the adage to fire fast. Your company gets to move on, and so does that person. Rather than linger and hope that that employee will become the employee you want them to be, cut them loose and move on. In the long run, this will be better for them and for you.
The same applies here to friendships. If a budding friendship isn’t working out or if you don’t find that you look forward to spending time with that new person, cut them loose and put that time into continuing the search. Finding friends is a lot like hiring employees — it requires some real effort to find the ones that are the right fit.
Find a nexus
For me, the best place to meet new friends has been dog parks. But even if you don’t have a dog, a lot of the principles here apply to any good nexus.
What’s a nexus? It’s the term I’m arbitrarily giving to places that check all the boxes for making new friends. Here are the rough criteria — with the dog park example used to flesh them out.
Criterion 1: Must create the opportunity to encounter the same people repeatedly
Remember college? Making friends in classes was the most natural thing in the world. It’s because you saw those people repeatedly. Same is true of dog parks and of all good nexus locations.
Criterion 2: Must also have a regular influx of new people
For example, new people bringing their dogs to the park. People who just moved to the area. Or people who are exploring new dog parks.
This is a great opportunity for you to practice being a connector. Walk over and talk to the new people who are awkwardly standing on the fringes. Introduce them to the people you know. Help them get involved in the group. They will most likely be super happy you did.
Criterion 3: Must have an external focus
This is why I think friend-making meetup groups don’t work. In those groups the only focus is on making friends. It’s like speed dating. There’s no interesting thing for you to comment on other than doing your personal elevator pitch about why you shouldn’t be lonely anymore. It’s creepy.
In college classes, you have a lecture that you are all watching and a shared experience around homework, exams, and just college life in general. At dog parks, you watch your dogs play and interact.
The external focus even creates natural conversation points:
“What breed is your dog?”
“How old is your dog?”
“Have you been to such-and-such dog park?”
It removes a huge amount of burden around starting new interactions with people.
You know that you’re starting to advance into friend territory when you hang out at a second location other than the nexus where you met. You can wait for this to happen organically, or you can suggest it.
In the dog park example, you can invite them to join you for a dog walk at your regular hiking spot. In college, you might plan to study together in the library.
Ideally, the second location/activity is related to the primary nexus and activity.