A short guide to making friends in a new city

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Let me start this post by saying that I truly believe there is no more humbling experience than being plopped into a city where you have exactly zero friends. It doesn't even matter if you weren't that popular to begin with, even going from one friend to zero has got to be just as terrible. Suddenly finding yourself in a situation where you are utterly friendless is a unique brand of loneliness that I will attempt to describe by sharing this excerpt from a birthday card my friend Michelle sent me after I moved to Washington, DC all by myself at age 23: "Dear Colleen, happy birthday! I hope you don't have to use the pink grenade this year."

Earlier that year, I'd called Michelle from the local hardware store on in my neighborhood to describe a run-in I'd had with the checkout clerk. My first floor one bedroom apartment was in a neighborhood I'd randomly selected in order to cut short a stressful apartment hunt with a particularly irritating relocation specialist, and I'd spent a few too many sleepless nights wondering how long it would take for someone to find me if I was murdered in my sleep. (Morbid, I know. I landed on three days.)

Deciding to beef up on security, I walked to the hardware store and stuffed my shopping cart with dozens of those magnet alarms meant to be used on windows and doors to scare off burglars when they opened them. To be extra safe, I sprinkled in some pepper spray and a rape whistle. When I got to the counter, the clerk looked at the contents of my cart, asked if I was new to the neighborhood, then told me that I didn't need all the stuff I was trying to buy. 

Instead, he said, reaching underneath the counter, "you need a pink grenade." He handed me a small pink device that did look just like a grenade, with a pin and everything. He told me to keep it next to my bed and pull the pin if anyone tried to break in, promising that it would be so loud they'd run away. So I bought it, put it in my nightstand, and started sleeping soundly with my newfound sense of security. For the record, I never had to use it.

While sleeping alone in a one bedroom apartment without a friend for hundreds of square miles is certainly lonely, it's not so bad on the weeknights for someone who loves solitary activities like reading and journaling and going to bed at 9:30 p.m. The weekends, however, are a different story.

There are only so many workout classes, Whole Foods trips and Target runs you can do in a 65-hour timeframe before you start to lose your mind. We're hardwired for social connection, and wanting to be part of a community is a survival instinct. One Sunday morning,  I walked to Whole Foods to get supplies for a new recipe I planned to cook and eat by myself that night, and passed a group of girls laughing over drinks on a patio. It immediately made me wonder if I would ever have friends again, and then consider how uncomfortable it would be if I invited myself to join them. I continued my walk in silence, slowly picked out the best leeks and onions in the entire store after examining every option, and made my way back home in deep thought about how I was going to muster up a group of friends from scratch.

And muster them I did, but before I dig in to the basic steps to making friends as an adult in a new city you wouldn't have chosen for yourself, I want to also mention that the same challenges exist even if you're moving with a partner. Moving from Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC after I got married was really tough, even though Wes was with me.  I dragged my feet in agreeing to move there, thinking that living to the south meant I'd be pressured to wear pastel paisley outfits and monogram my initials in pink curlicue script onto all of my monogrammable belongings in order to fit in. (This turned out to be only partially true.)

Wes was the reason we'd moved in the first place and he had close friends from college living in the area, which was great fuel for the pity parties I threw for myself on Saturday nights for the first couple of months. Wes felt guilty and tried to help by inviting me to events with his friends, hoping I'd warm up to the wives and girlfriends who tagged along.

One day, I agreed to attend a barbeque and found myself sitting in a group of at least ten potential new friends. After a few minutes of casual conversation, I mentioned that I had friends visiting from DC and asked the group to recommend some cool activities that I could do with them besides brunch and shopping. It was silent for a solid 60 seconds, until someone finally chimed in: "I heard the first lady's pin collection is on display at the Mint Museum." My immediate reaction was to spit out my wine, start laughing uncontrollably, and leave the party early with my angry husband in tow while unsuccessfully trying to explain the absurdity of the situation.

Anyway, my point is that moving to a new place is hard either way, and it's especially challenging when you have a full time job and limited time on your hands. The last thing you want to do is go out on a Tuesday night to talk to strangers, but investing some time up front to meet a few friends who you click with will pay dividends in terms of your long term happiness and popularity in your adopted home.

Without further ado, here's a list of the basic guidelines to improving your social capital:

#1 Get comfortable doing things by yourself

While this should seem obvious, you're going to have to learn to love your own company and start doing things by yourself while you're just getting started. "Doing things" does not include sitting on your couch with a bottle of pinot noir, as tempting as that sounds. It means attending events and visiting places where other people hang out all by yourself. Keep an eye out for community events, volunteer opportunities, museum exhibits, art classes, etc. and force yourself to show up with an open mind and a willingness to test your conversational skills.

#2 Accept that you're desperate

One of the hardest things to accept was that no one was going to come hunting me down to be their friend. As a person with exactly no friends, it's on you to make the effort. Accepting that you're desperate means admitting that you need help. Reach out to your geographically undesirable network and ask if anyone has friends, friends-of-friends, cousins or colleagues who live in your new town and ask them to make the connection for you. Admit to other people that you're new in town and looking to make connections, and ask them for advice and suggestions for getting plugged in to the community.

#3 Lower your standards

This sounds harsh, but bear with me for a moment. Let's assume you have a gaggle of girlfriends 1,000 miles away who know everything about you, can make you die laughing on a moment's notice, and are the most fabulous people to ever walk the earth. Holding any potential new friends to that kind of standard just isn't going to work. You need to cast a wide net. There are benefits to doing this, including the opportunity to find really interesting people who stretch and challenge you in new ways and would never cross your path otherwise. Some of my closest friends to this day are those who I might not have met if I hadn't been motivated to open my social circle.

#4 Take the initiative

As in, ask people to hang out with you after you meet them, regardless of where you met. This requires you to be a bit aggressive, meaning asking for phone numbers and quickly following up with a proposed date, time and place. Because you're comfortable doing things alone, you should have a short list of activities to invite people to join you in attending. Be persistent, and generous with reschedule requests. I found one of my very best friends in DC (hi, Karena!) at an alumni association happy hour and insisted on exchanging business cards, emailed her the next day and basically didn't stop until we made our date.

#5 Commit to saying yes

Related to the above, anyone who offers to set you up on a friend date or asks you to hang out will get a yes.* Every. Single. Time. You may meet some weirdos, some people who you may never want to see again, and some keepers. Making friends from scratch is a numbers game, after all. And you'll get momentum from filling up your social calendar as much as you possibly can.

#6 Join group activities

Even if you lack hobbies and hand-eye coordination, I guarantee there are several group activities that you can join to pick up some pals. The concept of "sports" these days has expanded to include many things that hardly qualify as exercise and they'll take anyone (think shuffleboard, kickball, etc.). There's an entire website devoted to organizing interest-based meet ups and even has meet ups for those with no interests beyond "new in town." Check out alumni associations, book clubs, professional organizations and not-for-profits. Keep joining and trying new activities until you find something that sticks, or until you meet a good number of new pals and don't feel the need to keep trying. I met one of my very best friends in Charlotte (hi, Pam!) at a meetup and never went back


Ok, that's the end of the list. In my experience, once you've made one or two great connections, it gets a lot easier to make friends because you'll have company in your quest. In Charlotte, my first friend (hi, Ashley!) and I met at a neighborhood party and realized we were both friendless. We decided that there was no reason we couldn't be the coolest, most popular people in town and crafted a recruiting strategy for friends that involved inviting every girl who seemed remotely interesting to a weekly wine night. We swelled to numbers we couldn't possibly keep up with, then pared it back to a group of girls who were truly wonderful. They made it really hard to move away from Charlotte and I still miss them!

There are probably other strategies and ideas for making friends that I haven't listed here, or you may have some anecdotes of your own about being alone in a new city. I would love to hear your thoughts - let me know in the comments!


*With the exception of romantic advances. Remind me to tell you about the time that a cab driver asked me to dinner.
4 comments on "A short guide to making friends in a new city"
  1. Hi Colleen!

    Sorry I have not been leaving comments for your last few articles, but I did read all of them! I enjoy them and it's part of my routine now. So Please! don't stop :)

    I really felt for you when I read how alone you were in a new city, it must been very hard. But you are such a positive and thoughtful person I am not surprised that you've made great new friends soon!

    I am not sure if I am the minority here, I have always enjoyed being alone, I prefer doing most things(shopping, especially)by myself. I had a normal childhood and loving parents, but I remember I never liked group activities much since I was very young. I do have good friends but not a lot, but I can say the few good friends I have, I can totally trust :)

    That being said, I think your advice are so sound and helpful. Especially #1. We all need to learn how to enjoy being alone. It's not easy to make friends nowadays, even though it might seem the opposite. I want to add that we also want to have an open mind. People might not have the same ideals or opinions, but it's interesting to listen and to find out their reasons, and people always appreciate it when we listen.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful input on so many aspects of life! and yes, do tell! about the time that a cab driver asked you out!!

    Enjoy the weekend my friend :)

    echo

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    1. Echo! Thank you so much for your nice comment - I have missed hearing from you, glad to hear you've been reading along and enjoying it (vs. getting scared off by all my self-helping ha!) So funny that you make the point about wanting to do things along - I am like you where I can do many activities alone (including shopping - I hate shopping with other people!) and love it. It's something that I think more people need to learn how to do, even if it doesn't come naturally.

      And YES, people so appreciate it when we listen. It also helps us to learn. One of the best things I ever did was move far away from where I grew up to learn other people's worldviews and perspectives. Definitely good life experience.

      Hope you're having a good weekend and thank you as always for your support :)

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  2. Well said, all of it. I think that a combination of a few of your points has worked the best for me -- lower your standards and say yes to everything...but then, once you've widened your social circle, be protective of your time and relationship energy and choose the "right" people to really invest in. After having made a few too many social promises to the wrong types of acquaintances -- those who drain me, ask too much of me, aren't my type of person -- I've been wary of being too open. But it's imperative to stay open to make those new relationships!

    I'm preparing for a big move and have been thinking about this very issue recently, so this post is so timely! Thank you, Colleen :)

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    1. Hey Erin! Thanks for sharing your thoughts - and SO agree that once you've widened your circle enough, you have to pare back to the relationships with the "right" people who add value versus drain you or sap your energy. Happy to hear this is relevant to your life right now - are you leaving Hawaii?! Give me the updates!

      Colleen

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