Ask Dr. Nerdlove

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I am a recent college graduate who is struggling to make new friends, and was hoping to hear your thoughts on this issue.

I currently have a small but solid group of friends left over from college, who I would describe as eccentric nerds and would-be intellectuals, as well as a SO. But, my SO and I will be moving out of state in the near future to a place where neither of us have any preexisting connections. In the past, I’ve met most of my friends through other friends, but now I’ll have to almost completely start over socially, and I really don’t know what I am going to do.

I’ve wanted to make new friends since graduating – if nothing else to practice before the big move – but even after reading your articles on the topic I’m still feeling at a loss as to how to do it. I’ve tried going out to bars and local events, but people at these places attend with their preexisting friends and don’t show much interest in talking to new people. I’ve also tried attending a few MeetUps related to my interests, but at these most of the attendees are regulars mostly interested in socializing with other regulars.

To make things more difficult, I just don’t seem to click with the new people I do manage to interact with, even at events related to my interests. When I start talking to new people, the conversations mostly consist of awkward small talk, leading to me and the other person feeling awkward and causing the conversation to fizzle out. I just don’t feel like I have much in common with most people out in “the real world”, and I’m not sure where to find people that I do have more in common with. I did find (a few) people that I had more in common with in college, but after college it seems like they have become a lot harder to find.

I just don’t understand how people make new friends when they move to a new city and have to start over. Any advice would be much appreciated.

– At A Loss

DEAR AT A LOSS: You’re dealing with an incredibly common problem, AAL. College is a time – the last time, really – when it is incredibly easy to meet people and make new friends. It’s a perfect storm of what you need to make friends: a large pool of people approximately in the same stages in life, with similar interests and relatively few demands on one’s time. You’re in a setting where socialization is not just accepted but encouraged, and where you have enough in common to bridge the gaps between what you don’t share.

Once we graduate… we almost never find a place where those same conditions all fall together. So instead, we have to improvise.

A lot.

Now, the general formula for making friends is commonalities + intentionality + time spent together. This is one of the reasons why a lot of people find their social circles often revolve around work and/or church; they’re places where you see the same folks over and over again. You have two of the three things you need for friendships to bloom. But friendships don’t happen spontaneously; that stops happening once you’re out of grade school. If you want to make new friends, you have to make them happen.

Let’s take what you’ve been doing, AAL. You’ve actually been doing many of the right things already. Leveraging your interests to meet people is one of the best ways to find folks you’re compatible with, whether you’re looking for a friend or a relationship. So going to MeetUps and joining groups that revolve around the things you’re passionate about is a great start.

The problem is that this is only one part of the formula. You can’t just roll up and expect things to click into place for you. Sure, this happens on occasion… but more often than not, you’re going to have to put in more effort than that. As I said: one of the core components of the “meet new people” formula is time. You even said it yourself: most of the people you encountered at these MeetUps want to talk to other regulars.

You know what this means?

You need to become a regular.

Right now, you’re the New Guy… and depending on a lot of dynamics, new people may come and go on a weekly basis. It’s a little hard to want to invest the time in someone who may just never show up again.  The more that people see you at these events, the more likely they are to talk with you too because, hey, you’re part of the group.

But you also need intentionality. This means that you don’t just join a new group and wait for the bonds of friendship to magically appear. You have to be putting in the work. This includes being the one to make the first move. Yeah, it’d be great if every MeetUp was filled with people who are eager to greet and befriend the new members. But honestly? Most of the time, people prefer what’s easy and familiar. It’s easier to fall into old patterns with the people you already know than to create a new groove with someone else. So you’re going to have to make a point of being the guy who is actively seeking out new friends. This means making a point of introducing yourself to the regulars and joining in the conversations. While this can feel intimidating, it’s not that different from navigating a party. You’re in a social space, where mingling and meeting new people is part of the social contract.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t have to be Mr. Hyper-Social, going around and introducing yourself to literally everyone and forcing your way into conversations, but you are going to have to be willing to take the initiative. Otherwise, you’re going to run the risk of being the wallflower, and that’s just not a great way to meet people.

But another part of intentionality is bridging the gap between small talk and real talk. Part of what builds strong friendships is the willingness to get real with someone and not just talk about polite, easy topics. Now I don’t mean that you have to suddenly FEELINGSDUMP on someone you just met about the time your hamster died and how sad it made you, but you are going to have to learn how to use small talk as the on-ramp to deeper, more meaningful conversations.

Part of why small talk can be awkward is because people feel like it’s a weird formality and treat it like “God, I guess we’re doing this.” Instead, treat it as a way to get to know someone. Think of it less as a polite necessity and more as how you find out what you two have in common. Treat it almost like a game: what is interesting about this person and how can you relate to it? By showing actual interest, you’re showing them warmth and consideration… and people respond to that. And don’t forget: we like people who show interest in us. We are all our own favorite topics, and letting someone know that you want to get to know more about them and what they think is giving them a gift. There’s a reason why we say “interested is interesting.”

One more thing to keep in mind: odds are that, at the beginning at least, you’re going to have to be the one who’s actively pursuing a friendship with the people you meet. If you leave it for other people to remember to include you or to reach out to you when you’re still new… well, it’s probably not going to happen as often as you’d like. This has nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with how the human brain works. We’re routine-based creatures because, frankly, our brains are lazy. Routines are efficient and easy; we do them on autopilot. Changing those routines can be difficult because you have to make effort. As a result, it’s not unusual for people to fall back into the same old same old. It’s not (always) that they don’t like you, it’s that you’re just not part of the routine that they’re used to. The more that you make yourself known and present, the more that you can disrupt the usual patterns and create room to build a new one… one that includes you.

TL;DR: you’re on the right track, AAL. The key is just that you need to remember to include the rest of the formula. A little more time and a little more intentionality will go a long way towards helping you make new, awesome connections in your new city.

Good luck.

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My ex-wife and I have a wonderful child together. She has primary custody, so the child lives with her. I recently made dating profiles on apps like Coffee Meets Bagel and Bumble, but I don’t have any information about the fact that I’m a father on those profiles. I went on a successful first date for the first time since our divorce, and I’m going to see this woman again. In the back of my head, I felt like I was talking around the fact that I have a son, like I was lying by omission. Should I have included that I’m a dad in my profile or mentioned it on my first date, or is that something that can wait until a second date?

If I didn’t mention it before, how do I share that information without freaking her out on the second date? I know that I should apologize for not mentioning it, but I also don’t feel like I need to broadcast that information about myself to a stranger that I’m meeting for the first time. What’s your guidance?

– Single Dad Dating

DEAR SINGLE DAD DATING: This is one of those topics that comes up a lot in dating advice circles: at what point do you bring up topics about yourself that might be a potential dealbreaker? The exact nature of the dealbreaker can vary wildly. Sometimes it’s a discussion about dating when you have herpes or are  HIV+. Other times it’s about relationship types, such as when one is in an open or non-monogamous relationship. Still other times it’s about lifestyle issues or having children.

And to be perfectly honest, if you ask four different advice columnists, you’ll get five different answers. Some people will tell you that you should disclose immediately – preferably even before you go out on a date with someone – so that they can make an informed choice. Others will tell you that – especially when dealing with issues that carry undue negative stigma – that it can be better to wait until the second or third date, so that your date can get to know you as a person instead of whatever stereotype they may have in their head about that particular dating speed-bump. And still more would say that it’s not something that ever needs to come up until it will directly affect the relationship.

I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I’m a big believer in putting one’s cards out on the table early as a way of filtering out incompatible matches. On the other, there are some issues that carry negative stigma that is wildly disproportionate to the actual impact has. And on the third hand – yes, I have three hands; I spent too much time around toxic waste trying to get super powers – there are also issues that may directly affect one’s personal health and safety if you disclose to the wrong person at the wrong time.

So to me, the question of “when do you tell someone” tends to depend precisely on what it is you need to tell them.

In the case of the fact that you’re a single parent… that’s something that should probably come up sooner, rather than later. Having a child is going to impact your potential relationship with these women pretty quickly. To start with, there’s the question of what this will do to the potential future of your relationship. While there’re women out there who’re looking forward to being mothers, they may not be up for it just yet. And while you aren’t saying “I’m auditioning stepmoms for my son,” some women may feel as though that’s part of what’s happening. They’re going to want to have the option of at least being able to weigh how they feel about this vs. how awesome you are as a person.

The other is how having a child will impact your relationship logistically. The fact that you don’t have primary custody means that you aren’t scheduling your life around your son – not to the extent that your ex-wife does – but it still means that it can affect when and how you can see your potential girlfriends. This will, in turn affect how they may feel. To some women, this will be no biggie; not everyone is going to expect or want someone who’s always instantly available or to spend every free moment with a new partner. To others however, it may mean that there will be too many times when you’re just not able to see them.

So I would suggest at least bringing up that you’re a single dad in your profile. It gives people the ability to weigh how they feel about the logistical issues around dating a single dad before they invest emotionally in a relationship that may not work for them. I know some folks buy into the “easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission” angle, but honestly, it’s better to not be in the position to have to have that awkward conversation in the first place.

As for your current date? Bring it up during the date – not as a “oh god I’m so sorry I kept this shameful secret from you” but as a “hey, I like you and since you seem like someone I’d like to see again, here’s something you should know.” You don’t need to apologize – first dates aren’t court depositions, after all – but, you should explain that you don’t bring it up unless you feel like the other person has potential. After all, you have the right to filter out people who aren’t right for you too. Afterwards, explain just how this might impact things: you don’t have primary custody, here’s how often you see your son, you’re not looking for a mom for him, etc. Again: this isn’t a shameful secret, nor should you treat it like one. It’s part of who you are and what makes you the man you are now. With luck, your date will understand and recognize why you didn’t bring this up immediately.

If not… well, that’s a sign that things weren’t going to work out anyway.

Good luck.

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