DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I desperately need your help. I’m in my 30s and I can’t seem to move out of the “acquaintance zone” when it comes to making friends.
Growing up, I never had to exercise my friendship making muscles. In high school, I met my best friend immediately and since everyone loved them and we were a package deal, I had a large social circle. Even though we went our separate ways after graduation, I met a classmate on my first day of college who already had a tight-knit group of friends at the school and through my connection with them, I had a close circle of friends for four years. Right after that, I entered a long-term relationship where we spent every weekend with my partner’s friends, so I never felt the need to meet people on my own. My partner and I eventually split up and when they left, so did all “our” friends.
I came to find out that my partner’s friends never liked me very much because of my attitude. In trying to be funny and relatable, I ended up being a very mean and judgmental person with a negative attitude and a nasty habit of talking badly about everyone behind their backs. I was initially hurt by the feedback, but I came to realize that their feedback was a gift and I needed to work on myself or be friendless forever. I worked very hard on making myself a better person, entering therapy, getting proper medication for my issues, picking up new hobbies and an exercise routine and reading lots of advice on how to make friends as an adult.
Eventually, I felt ready to put myself back out there and started joining some clubs and teams that aligned with my interest. I also became more extroverted at work, leaving my desk to spend time with co-workers and coming early to meetings to socialize. Throughout all of this, I’ve been very conscious of not being the jerk I was in my 20s. I find now that I’m able to connect with people on a surface level where they spend time with me at group outings, comment on my social media and act interested in my life, but when there’s a small group going to lunch or a get together outside of our organization, I’m never invited. If I try to arrange something myself I get a non-committal answer and end up being blown off. I seem to be great at making acquaintances, but I can’t cross that threshold into friendship.
To make things more confusing, I have no trouble finding romantic relationships. I’m not particularly attractive or otherwise outstanding as a romantic partner, yet somehow, I find it easy to attract healthy, fulfilling and long-lasting relationship. I’m grateful for this, but I don’t know why I can’t do the same with platonic friendships.
My hygiene is good, I am outgoing, I am interested in what other people have to say, I’m considerate, I’m laid back and I have a wide variety of interests. I feel like I’m the total friend package. What am I doing wrong, Doctor?
– I Want To Be In the “Friend Zone”
DEAR I WANT TO BE IN THE “FRIEND ZONE”: You have a common issue, IWTBITFZ. We as a society are dealing with an epidemic of loneliness — one that has only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. We’ve been living increasingly isolated and solitary lives, more so than previous generations, and that takes its toll. Beyond the obvious psychological and mental health implications, loneliness is as bad, if not worse for us as smoking and heart disease. Men, in particular, are hit the hardest by chronic loneliness; after we turn 12, we start to be deluged with the messages that equate emotional intimacy with romantic and sexual intimacy. As a result, we pull back from our guy friends and have less intimate, more activity-based friendships. Our friendships become less about getting together to talk and spend time with one another; we need an activity or excuse that gives us permission in order to do so. And for straight men especially, our partners often take the role of social secretary, shouldering the responsibility of not just arranging get-togethers but managing friendships and relationships. If our partners leave or those relationships end, our friendships tend to wither away at the same time.
As a consequence of this, those social muscles tend to atrophy due to lack of use. That makes it more daunting to make new friends, especially as an adult out of college.
In your case, IWTBITFZ, you gave yourself an extra layer of difficulty. Like a lot of guys, you mistook being sardonic for being clever, cruel for being smart and snark for a personality. House and Rick Sanchez are only appealing on TV; nobody would tolerate them for longer than a hot minute in the real world. So on top of having to rebuild those social muscles, you are having to dig yourself out of a self-imposed hole and rebuild a personality more or less from the ground up.
And hey, you’ve been doing exactly that! That’s awesome, and that’s something you should be proud of. But what that means is that you’re now playing a lot of catch up in order to build a new social circle and move from acquaintances to friends.
One of the issues you’re dealing with is that you’re having to undo a lot of damage that you did before you realized just how much of an asshole you were being. If your coworkers knew you before you and your partner broke up and you started going into therapy, then they already have a solid mental image of who you are as a person. It can be incredibly difficult to shift a negative first impression, in no small part because it becomes the filter through which people see your every move. If you were already a snarky jerk at work, then even being coming back around and trying to be a good guy is going to set off people’s Spidey-Sense. They’re — quite understandably — going to feel like there’s a trap they can’t quite see. Are you being genuine, or are you being nice to their face just so that you can talk s--t about them behind their backs?
The only way you can change that impression is to show that it was wrong or no longer valid… and the longer you were the snarky asshole, the harder it is to demonstrate that change.
The other issue is that friendships are slow to develop. Part of why it’s so easy to make friends in high-school and college is that you are surrounded by people who are similar to you, in similar places in life, who you see every day… often for hours at a time. It’s a perfect storm of circumstances that we almost never see in life again. Once we leave college, we rarely have the same amount of free time to devote purely to socializing. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, life has a tendency to get in the way, especially as our lives change and responsibilities mount up. Work, relationships, children… all of these take up our day, leaving less and less time to spend with friends or to make friends.
Now the good news is that you can solve both of these issues at approximately the same time.
The bad news is that the way you solve them is through time and consistency. Even under the best of circumstances, it takes between 40 – 60 hours together to go from acquaintances to casual friends, between 80 – 100 hours to go from casual friends to friends and about 200 hours to go from friends to close friends. This is why it felt so effortless while you were in school; since you and your peers were together all day, five days a week minimum, you burned through those hours before you even realized it. Now, it’s much harder to get together with your good friends once a week, nevermind people you’re only just starting to get to know. As the joke goes: the real fantasy of Dungeons and Dragons is the idea that six people in their 30s can get together every week for hours at a time.
To be sure: you have made a start, and that’s good. You’re making inroads with co-worker, you’ve joined clubs and met people who share similar interests. Finding your tribe, your team, your people is a critical part of laying the foundation for making new friends.
But it’s important to realize that this is just how the whole process starts. What you need to do now is make sure that you keep building on those connections. One of the things that you may want to consider — especially if you’re still trying to overcome a reputation as That Asshole At Work — is to focus on people on an individual level, not just the group. One of the most valuable things a person can have — whether they’re looking for a romantic partner, a job, or just making new friends — is social proof; that is, people who will vouch for you to others. Just as being friends with women makes it easier to meet women who want to date you, having folks at work who can say “yeah, IWTBITFZ was a s--thead but he’s really made a change” goes a long way towards shifting those initial impressions of you. And even if that wasn’t your at-work reputation, having a solid connection with one person makes it easier to start connecting with others. The first adopter or first follower is often the most important because they’re the ones that inspire others to join in. Once people see that Jay or Neilson or Caroline like spending time with you, they’re much more likely to also spend time with you. That makes it easier to plan group events that people will actually show up for.
Another thing to remember is that you’re going to need to not just build those connections, but to maintain them. This is where repetition and consistency come into play. Sociologists say that it takes getting together at least once every couple of weeks in order to maintain a friendship. Having regularly scheduled get-togethers makes it much easier to keep friendships going. If you’re springing a Friday night get together on folks on Wednesday or Thursday, you run the risk of their already having made plans. When people know that there’s a poker night every other Friday, they’re more likely to carve out the time in their schedule to ensure they show up. And if they can’t make it that time, knowing that there’ll be another makes them more likely to show up for the next. Plus, having those regular events and get-togethers gives you something to invite new folks to, or to tell your casual acquaintances to bring some of their friends. That, in turn, helps you make a stronger, more positive first impression with the new folks and cement a reputation as The Guy That Holds Cool Parties or what-have-you.
Most importantly, however, is that you want to be the friend that you want to have. Whether you’re dealing with people on a one-on-one basis or as a group, you want to model the sort of friendship that you’re looking for. Humans are pack animals after all, and we take our cues from the people around us. When you act like the friend that you want to have, you’re demonstrating to them the sort of behavior you would like to see and, in turn, giving them permission to act the same way. The more you can show folks who you are now and what you are looking for, the more likely you are to find the people who are looking for the same thing… and who are willing to follow your lead.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org