How to make friends as an adult
I recently gave an interview to Pick Me Up with tips to make friends as an adult. As someone who has also had the pleasure of maintaining old friendships, as well as making deep new ones - along with, you know, psychology - here are my thoughts:
PMU: Why do some people struggle making friends as adults?
AT: Children seem naturally adept to making friends – many seem to be able to find ways to play no matter what the social context. What they struggle with, and often need to learn in their “tweenage” years is the value and quality of friendships. And this concept is something that remains with us adults. So in some cases, we may struggle to form new friendships in adulthood because we are out of practice (especially if friendships have endured), but we will often (at the very least unconsciously) appraise potential friendships with the lens of whether they will add quality and value to our lives.
Aristotle would offer additional analysis as he defined friendships into types:
- Friendships of UTILITY
- Friendships of PLEASURE
- Friendships of the GOOD
Utility (Friends for a reason)
These friendships are those that are formed because of a reason. In other words, you may be friends because you benefit each other in some way. This may be work friendship, a neighbour whose plants you water, or in my case the friends I make during shows. These are not unusual, after all people are generally nice, and have a tendency to seek company. If you are going to spend some time some where, then you (both) may as well make it as enjoyable as possible. These tend to end when the thing you have in common ends unless extra effort is made on both sides to maintain it.
Pleasure (Friends for a season)
These friendships exist because you like the qualities of the friend and you may enjoy doing more activities with them outside the ones you are committed to attend. They may be the person you like to have a coffee with, or share a hobby or interest with. Perhaps they may include "friends with benefits" - but I'd argue that “FWB” are more likely a friendship of utility!
Friends for pleasure may be the friends you’d go to the pub with on occasion, but are less likely to invite to your home or to personal events. They may even be formed as a “mid-stage” in the crossover between utility and good.
Good (Friends for life)
These are friendships which are formed – and maintained – because of shared values. Aristotle also adds that you are likely to have a mutual admiration for each other, support each other, know each other's vulnerabilities, and stand by each other anyway.
Friendships of utility or pleasure can be easily made and as easily ended, and friendships of the good tend to be those formed in childhood as they have had the time to take root, or else need an intense connection and work from both sides, especially as such a friendship may need to enter an already established network. That is not to say that friendships which begin in the first two categories cannot form into the third, AND it is certainly it is very possible to nurture friendships of the good at any point in your life – but it can be challenging to want to put in that time and effort especially if we’re trying to maintain what we’ve got.
Other reasons for the struggle
Other reasons for struggling to make friends can be personal – perhaps someone is painfully shy, or perhaps they are at a loss for what to say. Some very basic tips here can include:
1. Deciding if you want to converse
It's ok if you'd rather not - you do not have to give more time to others than you choose. Try the following to politely continue:
- Active positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, why/what/how did you do that…?
...or close a conversation:
- Passive positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, thanks for sharing.
Try to avoid an active destructive response such as "That's a really stupid question, why did you ask that?" (unless you are calling someone out in which case "what did you mean by that?" can be a helpful non-confrontational approach that gets people a bit more self aware.) And a passive destructive one eg a shrug can also be damaging if your aim is to build rapport.
2. Learning to listen
There are 4 levels of listening - Hearing (where we are thinking about something else - very little goes in); Listening (where we can probably repeat a few words by may not understand the true meaning of what was conveyed; Active listening (where we interact with the information - and thus can take in much more); Deep listening (almost like listening between the lines and we may get a very full sense of what is happening in doing so...this level is usually reserved for professionals such as coaches or teachers or the medical and legal professions.)
There are 3 key mistakes we make when listening - try to avoid those:
i) Rehearsing what you are going to say rather than listening. In this case, try to listen and see if you can then springboard off where the other person stops rather than bringing it back round if you thought of your response early on in the story!!
ii) Evaluating - listening only to critique the speaker. This can include fault-finding which is listening in order to catch the speaker out. Ask yourself why you are needing to be critical and what that might be doing to the relationship. If you are only spending time with that person to wind them up, is it really the best use of your energies!?
iii) Derailing - making it about you - either by "topping" their experience with your own, or making a big deal about if YOU were in that situation, or a "what about me" approach. Again, this might need some soul searching to think about why you need that validation in someone else's experience, as well as why you are reluctant to let others have their moment
Instead try to practice ACTIVE LISTENING. This is where you interact with what is being said by asking open questions, writing things down, or paraphrasing back to the speaker what they said, just to make sure you have received the information accurately. If asking questions ask open questions to learn more - those which begin with "Who", "What", "Why", "Where", "When" or "How". These elicit more detail than close questions which often only need a one word answer eg:
OPEN: How are you?
CLOSED: Are you well?
PMU: Why are some people often reluctant to want to make other friends?
AT: It might be that so much of our time and energy is going into maintaining our current friendship group whom we might adore and feel very comfortable with, that we do not see the need to make other friends.
While “Good” friendships endure (hence “friends for life”) they still take effort. They require people staying in touch as lives diverge and change, which means making time and making the effort. They need to travel distance, they need to keep realigning with life changes, and to do so, they need input from both parties.
There is an exception to this, however, and that is a friendship that is so deep that you can go without seeing each other for ages, yet “pick up where you left off”. However, even then, I would probably say that there will be some sort of intermittent contact – the odd “Thinking of you” text, or in my case funny “WhatsApp meme”, and without fail an update on major life events, as they happen and not via a public forum. The sort of friendships where you can count on someone and rely on them in a time of need, are not the same as those you might connect with online after a party.
Healthy, long term friendships are mutual. ALL parties shoulder the work. This may be as simple as (working day excepting!!) responding in a timely way to messages; understanding that sometimes you will do a little more to help them through a tough period (and remembering and appreciating those times they did they very same for you); returning favours. Such friendships cannot be bought, they cannot be demanded. These friendships offer love with no condition nor demand, simply because the people making the offer do not need your approval or anything in return. They know their own value. The opinions of these good people are to be heard and held. If you do not, you will find they will soon see you as falling into category one or two and withdraw.
PMU: If we do want to make friends, what are the best ways to go about it?
AT: Open communication without expectation is one of the best ways to start formulating friendships.
- If expectations are low ie – we think we’ll never make friends, we may not bother to try; Expectations can add too much pressure; and we may feel let down when others fail to reach our expectations which can damage relationships.
Consider using the two points outlined earlier:
- Decide if you want to actively seek a conversation (or friendship) with this person and choose to engage actively and positively; and engage with active listening as they interact with you.
BUT I would also suggest that you work out what you want from a friendship because otherwise you may find your already valuable time taken up by people you are trying to make excuses not to see.
Try the following to recognise what you value:
Look carefully at your current relationships. Ask yourself:
- Which ones are reciprocal?
- Which ones bring me joy?
- Which ones encourage honesty?
- Which ones can I rely on?
and most importantly
- Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)
Then contact those people – you might even do it now!!
- Ask yourself - how do you envision a relationship that will make you happy? (Unfortunately, you will not be able to put a specific person there, because their choice is always their own - but you can have an idea of the type of person you seek.)
- Set out what values you want in that person, and what you are not willing to accept.
- Set out what values you want them to recognise in you.
THEN focus on living your values...and make your choices accordingly.
Developing current or new friendships
1. Ask yourself "With whom am I most 'myself'?"
2. Identify why - what is it about those people that you love?
3. Work to spend more time with those people AND to be those things back to them!
Remember though, friendships are not an alternative to loving yourself – don’t seek others solely as a means of making yourself feel better – other people are not there to complete you. It is important that relationships in your life are a bonus rather than replacement for self-love.
PMU: How can we go about finding friends with similar hobbies/interests as us?
AT: If you can identify and engage in what you are passionate about, or what you enjoy, you are likely to meet likeminded people there, and it is certainly possible that chat about the interest can soon turn to spending time together outside the original setting.
If you are worried about not having the finances to go for a coffee/meal, and perhaps do not yet want to invite someone over to your own home, suggest other ways of spending time together such as a walk around the local park or nature trail – bringing your own drink; or doing something like a free tour at a local attraction or attending a public talk or other event.
Sometimes, even building your fitness together – for example, attending Parkrun (you don’t need to run together but you might stop for a chat afterwards), can be a great way to connect over a shared hobby or desire to be fitter.
If you are passionate about a cause, you might also wish to volunteer for something. There you will again meet others on your wavelength. Volunteering can also give you something to enthuse about especially if you are between jobs, or have been furloughed or made redundant – sadly common right now. One of the concerns for people returning to the dating scene was not really knowing what to talk about when asked “what do you like to do/what do you do” - because in some cases, it can easily have felt like “very little.” While not everyone has been in the same boat, they have faced the same storm, and it’s ok to talk about your experiences in the pandemic – and in some ways, this is a shared topic to which everyone can contribute.
PMU: How can we maintain friendships with new people as adults?
AT: Making the effort to call, meet up, or drop an informal text are great ways to maintain friendships, as well as learn more about each other.
In simple terms this may be asking someone for a coffee (and actually planning it*) - or even risking a greater rejection than that for example, lunch. Friendship requires time being made for it. Alternatively it can be sharing a secret...and ensuring it is kept. Friendship is being honest and gracious. It is about saying no when you cannot manage something, yet appreciating the thought. (Good friends respect each other enough to be truthful - they don't have time nor need to play games). It is about connection - and you cannot do that if you are too guarded. It is about saying what needs to be said - because you may be the only person who will say it out of love, and in return, you know that if you do hold out your hand - someone will take it.
*I add "planning" because many people like to drop hints "wouldn't it be nice to..." - if it's really that nice, ARRANGE IT, friends don't wait for the other person to do it!!
BUT Always remember that editing your life is OK!
The statement "The people you start the year with are not always the same ones you end it with" is often met with sadness and regret. Of course the pain of bereavement cannot be ignored within those words, but what is often meant is that friendships and relationships change.
If it turns out that the person you thought you wanted to be friends with is no longer so desirable, one way can be to keep turning down invitations and not bother to get in touch with them and perhaps their interest will subside; or sometimes it can be as easy (and faster as well as more direct) to explain that what they are suggesting really isn’t your thing.
For me personally, I notice actively interacting less on social media has been an unlikely boost to the quality of the relationships I maintain because I’m always engaging in something meaningful with them rather than feeling like I’m shouting into the void for “likes” and no real interaction.
But ultimately, it takes two to put the effort into a relationship. We all have commitments and priorities that we need to attend to, and the time that might have been afforded to us when we were younger now needs to be shared, so sadly, if a friendship falls away it might also be because the other person had other priorities. That’s not your fault. But certainly, reach out again, if you so wish!!
PMU: Are things like Bumble Friends or similar a good way to make friends as adults?
AT: Bumble For Friends or Together Friends (for women) can be a great way to meet people looking for friendship where those parameters are set out clearly from the start.
Another way is to start by joining virtual groups such as a virtual book club, or exercise class, choir or chat group.
Alternatively something like joining a social group on facebook, or looking you your city’s www.meetup.com events may enable you to go to organised social events together, and get to know people in person, from which point you can decide if you want to continue the relationship. This can be great if you are new to the city as well.
With anything online, however, always stay safe, have emergency numbers to hand, and let someone know where you will be until you are familiar with the company.
The main thing to remember is, you are an adult and if you don’t like it – you don’t need to continue to go!!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt