Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Make New Friends During The Pandemic?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: How do I make friends during this time of COVID-19?

So, in 2018 I (male, 30) moved to a new country for work and met my then GF (we will call V) only 3 months after moving. I had zero connections in the city, and where I work either people are very socially isolated (Not negatively, can’t think of an appropriate word) or were in very strong cliques to begin with. This makes it hard to get in with people and even then I am not a person who invests in people. I’m trying to work on this although it is hard to change nature.

I met my girlfriend though Bumble, where we hit it off right away. I was very invested in her, which is something I don’t normally do. The real rub of this was that she was my first GF that lasted more than 3 dates. From there, it was very typical until the Big C came. One day the stress got too much, and an argument erupted and this time I let slip that I would like a family. Even to this day I have no idea why I said it. I had decided to take up counseling and try and make repairs to my mental health. After that argument, 2 weeks had passed and she returned from seeing friends and family . Then that is when we split up. We both agreed that this was best for us and it went by a well as a break up can be.

However, I had no choice but to live with V, as I had nowhere to go absolutely nowhere. This made realized that I f--ked up big time and I felt so guilty and ashamed that I had to stay at her place until I could find my own.

I’m all settled into a new place, the pain is still lingering from time to time but it is a scar I’m glad to have. However, I need to build a much stronger support network for myself if I am to ever survive during this COVID-19 time. I have family and a best friend back home, but they are 8+ hours ahead of me. How can I make more friends if I can’t go out or do social activities?

Best Wishes,

Love In The Time Of COVID

DEAR LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID: First of all, LITC, good on you for going in for counseling. One of the things that tends to get overlooked is just how much the stress all of us are living with during the pandemic. Even if you’ve got a stable living situation and relative financial security, the fact that all of life has been put on an indefinite pause is incredibly hard to live with. Fear of contracting the disease, fear of our friends and family catching it, the economic damage, even the question of how long we’re going to be living like this is part of the background radiation of our lives right now. This is is going to weigh on a person, even if they’re not necessarily aware of it. As I’ve said elsewhere: all of our feelings are much larger and much louder and closer to the surface. We’ve got far less emotional bandwidth than we would normally, and that’s going to come spilling out in all kinds of unexpected ways. So the fact that you’re taking care of yourself and your emotional health is a very good thing.

Of course, part of what helps us through the hards times — whether it’s a global pandemic, or just a rough couple of months — is having a solid social network of friends. Loneliness is a literal killer — it’s actually worse for us than smoking or heart disease, and men in particular are dealing with an epidemic of loneliness. And while it can seem daunting to make friends under the best of circumstances… it’s even more difficult during a global pandemic that’s left us all in quarantine. After all, so much of male friendship is based on shared activities, and we can’t exactly have poker nights or hit up the pub and catch the game right now.

But difficult isn’t the same as impossible. We’re living in an unprecedented situation, which requires some outside-the-box thinking. It is also going to require some initiative on your part.

Friendships take time to build; it’s estimated that it takes approximately 50 hours to become casual friends, about 90 hours to become good friends, and close to 200 hours to become close friends. That can seem intimidating at first, but it can actually go much faster than you realize… if you understand what you’re doing. This is why one of the best places to start when you’re trying to make new friends is to embrace weak ties —  the people who are casual acquaintances, folks you’ve met through other activities and shared interests. Your coworkers are an obvious starting point, but they’re not the only people you can reach out to. Finding people who share your interests and passions are another natural starting point to build the initial social ties that can lead to friendship. Start looking for social events in your city, especially ones that may have transitioned to Zoom or other online communities. Whether you check out MeetUp, hit up the subreddits for your city, or seeing if the local gaming store has a “find a D&D campaign” service, look for the people who’re into the things you enjoy as well. Join the groups and start getting to know people.

But while that’ll help give you the weak ties that serve as a starting point, you’re going to have to do the work to turn those ties into friendships. The key to making that leap is simple: repetition and regularity. It’s much easier to reach those 50, 90, 200 hour marks when you are regularly spending time together; that’s part of why it was so much easier to make friends in high-school and college. You were seeing all those people five days a week, minimum… more if you were hanging out on the weekends. But since you’re no longer in school, having regular events helps make up the difference. So you want to start hosting events that you can invite people to take part in… virtually, in this case.

The nice thing about planning virtual events is that it requires you to get creative. One group of men started a Bromance Novel Club, reading and discussing romance novels with their friends. Several clients I’ve worked with have found success in having a weekly cooking challenge; they get together over Zoom to choose a particular dish or ingredient and then cook a meal using that week’s dish as a focal point. Then the next week they share how things came out, discuss what they did, trade recipes and even see about putting their spin on things — how would they make this for someone who’s gluten-intolerant, or who’s vegan or has an allergy?

You can even have more “traditional” activities. You can set up group calls to watch sporting events, play various multiplayer games together, host board game nights via TableTopia or Tabletop Simulator or just a weekly Zoom cocktail hour.

But regardless of what you choose, you want to make a point of hosting those events regularly. Trying to freestyle it and just have get-togethers when either the mood strikes or when everyone’s schedules line up means that you’ll end up having one, maybe two events and then… nothing. Life just gets in the way, people stop coming and you end up in the same place you were before. Having regularly scheduled events — ones that happen on the same day, at the same time — makes it much easier to keep the emotional momentum going. When people know that the cocktail hour is every Friday at 6:30, they’re able to reserve space in their schedule; if they miss it this week, they know they can see everyone the next time. Short, regular get-togethers are better in the long run; small bursts of company helps keep a steady pace, instead of brief, intense bursts of companionship followed by weeks or months between, bleeding away any progress you all might have made toward becoming closer.

The great thing about planning these events is that they translate easily to meeting up in person as well. When it’s safe to meet up again, you can shift from Zoom to getting together at the pub, meeting up for cookouts or what-have-you and keep the same vibe going. Plus: having those regular get-togethers gives you something you can invite people to, helping to build your social circle further.

Of course, to solidify a friendship is going to take more than just getting together for cards. Close friendships are built through openness, emotional intimacy and vulnerability. Being willing to open up and talk about issues that go deeper than sports, booze, broads and beers is core to making friendships that last. And, especially when you’re dealing with men, that often means modeling the kind of behavior you want to see and the kinds of friendship you want to have. That can take some courage on your end, but it’s worth it.

Good luck.

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