DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 20-year-old who has always struggled to make meaningful connections with others. I wouldn’t say that I’m socially anxious or awkward, but I find myself holding back when it comes to making friends. I often feel like I’m stuck in the phase of casual acquaintanceship and don’t know how to move past it.
I’m afraid of overstepping boundaries and mistaking being friendly and polite for something more than casual acquaintanceship. I only speak when spoken to and don’t know how to initiate conversations or invite people to hang out without feeling like I’m imposing.
The problem is that I haven’t had anyone that I can call a friend. All the people in my life were mere acquaintances, and nobody ever called me unless they wanted something from me. I’m tired of feeling lonely and want to learn how to make genuine connections with people
I see many people especially the males in subreddits like these complain about their inability to find a romantic partner, I am here worried about never finding a genuine connection, not even a platonic one. I am not particularly interested in Romance, and have no plans on getting married and starting a family. Sure, having a romantic partner without the burden of kids and marriage would be a cool thing, but it isn’t at the top of my priority list.
I would also like to add that I am not socially anxious or anything of that sort, I am also not the stereotypical NEET gamer who stays in his mom’s basement jerking off to hentai and munching Cheetos, while gulping down Mountain Dew that comes to mind when thinking of problems such as these. I study data science at a fairly reputable university and am optimistic about my career prospects.
So, I’m reaching out to you all for advice. How do I make friends and move past the casual acquaintanceship stage? What are some tips for initiating conversations and inviting people to hang out without feeling like I’m imposing? And most importantly, how do I know if someone is interested in being more than just a casual acquaintance?
I appreciate any that you can share. Thank you!
Looking For Group
DEAR LOOKING FOR GROUP: First things first, LFG: I hope you read what I just wrote to The Mute Dancer yesterday. You’re going to need to do is start getting used to being social and to take the initiative, rather than waiting for other people to do so for you.
Part of connecting with people, whether for friendship or romance, is giving them the chance to know you. That can’t happen if you aren’t willing to open up and show that you’re friendly. While I understand why you tend to be withdrawn – you’re worried about bothering other people – the fact of the matter is that folks can’t learn who you are if you don’t show them. So the first key is often giving them that chance. Being willing to make the first move by starting the conversation shows that you’re actually interested in getting to know them, and that invites reciprocation.
The first thing I would recommend for anyone who wants to be more social is simply to be curious about people. Who are they, what brought them here, what’re they into, what makes them tick? The phrase “interested is interesting” may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. We rarely meet people who genuinely want to get to know us. Think of how good it would feel for someone who wanted to know more about you, for no reason other than they think you’re interesting. That feels pretty damn good, and if you make folks feel good, they’re going to want to spend more time with you.
The next thing I recommend is to simply practice being social. I’ve written a lot about how you can build your social skills, but looking for opportunities to initiate brief, surface-level conversations is going to be a big part of that. You don’t need to overthink the conversation starter; you can start a conversation with literally anything. Kids understand this; they see someone’s wearing a Minecraft shirt or carrying a backpack with a Creeper on it, say “hey, you play Minecraft” and they’re off to the races. That doesn’t have to end, just because you’re in your 20s. Even just saying “hey, is that a Spider Gwen hoodie? That’s really cool!” is an opening bid for a conversation.
This, incidentally, is where learning how to be comfortable with small-talk can be important; small-talk is effectively a bid for commonality; you’re looking for those minor points of commonality that make it easier to transition to the deeper, more meaningful conversations most folks want to have.
But working on your social skills and being more talkative in general is the start. After all, you can’t make friends without talking to them first. The next part requires more investment. See, there’re three factors that affect whether or not you develop a relationship with someone, romantic or platonic.
The first are common interests; we like people who are like us. Opposites attract, but not for very long. Similarities make people stay.
The second is time. Friendships are built over time. I’m sure you’ve seen the various studies that say it takes 30 or so hours to become acquaintances, 50 to become friends and 300 to become best friends. There’s a lot of wiggle room in the exact amount of time, but this is correct overall; the more time you spend with someone, the more connected you feel to them. You get to know them, you see them repeatedly and a sense of connection and affection builds. Part of the reason why it’s so easy to make friends when we’re kids is because we have nothing but time. We make friends at school precisely because we’re spending 8+ hours a day there; that 300 hours passes very quickly under those circumstances.
That’s harder when you’re a grown-ass adult, with adult responsibilities. This is where regularity and repetition become key. If you’re trying to connect with folks, it’s a lot easier when you see them on a regular basis; this is part of why work has become the default source for many people’s social lives. But if you can find other opportunities to see folks on a regular basis – a weekly open mic at a coffeeshop, a regularly scheduled game night, a class – the easier it is to build and maintain a relationship.
The third factor is openness and vulnerability. If you want to make genuine friends, you have to let them in. That means being willing to get real with them. This part can be scary; being open and vulnerable runs the risk of oversharing if you’re not used to it, and it means risking rejection or showing someone the places where you’re most easily hurt. But that’s going to be true about any close relationship. Closeness can’t exist without trust and openness. When folks feel like you’re holding them at arm’s length, they don’t feel like you trust or like them and they’re going to pull back too. It needs to be a two-way street.
So how can you put this into practice in your circumstances? First, the same thing I tell folks looking for romantic relationships: find out where your people hang out and spend time there. Find ways to do the things you love or are passionate about with other people and make that a regular part of how you spend your time.
Next, get curious about the other people in the group. Have those minor conversations – hey, how’s your week going, what’ve you been up to, etc. Being curious is good; if you want to be great, be curious and remember the little things. Part of what makes Tom Cruise more magnetic than an unshielded MRI is that he always made people feel like they were the most fascinating people on Earth. Part of Bill Clinton’s charm was that he remembered all the seemingly insignificant things about the people he met. He’d ask about people’s kids or inquire about something they mentioned once before; the idea that he was paying attention even to those minor details made people feel valued and validated.
Next: be the planner. Organize activities – things that you would want to do anyway – and invite folks to them. This could be anything from getting folks together to watch the UFC match at a bar to a cookout at the pool at your apartment, a tabletop gaming night… the point is to get people together and spend time doing fun things. Don’t worry about the number of people who show up; just focus on enjoying yourself and helping the people who do come have fun.
You can also invite folks to stuff on a one-on-one basis. The easiest and lowest risk ask tends to be “hey, want to grab a beer after?” and just hang out. A mix of group events and one-on-one hang outs is a good way to cultivate and build relationships with a lot of people and figure out who you click the most with. Don’t forget: chemistry is important for friends, too.
Don’t worry too much about impositions. Asking folks to hang out isn’t a big deal. You’re hardly asking them for a hundred dollars or a kidney or something. If they’re not available or interested, they’ll say no. If they’re interested but can’t make it or would rather hang out another time or place, they’ll likely tell you. But simply saying “hey, would you like to do $COOL_THING isn’t going to make anyone think you’re an asshole or whatever. That’s just your own anxieties getting in the way.
As you talk with your new potential buds, let yourself be real with them. You don’t want to drop your deepest secrets on them or open up about your long dark nights of the soul, but letting yourself be genuine will go a long way towards fostering a stronger, more meaningful connection with them. Even a “honestly? Work’s been kicking my ass and I’m kinda burned out and wondering about quitting” as a reply to “how’s it been going?” can be a level of openness that many people wouldn’t expect.
In fact, this can be a way of leveraging the Ben Franklin effect. You can ask for advice or a suggestion about something that your potential friends would be able to help with. Since we do favors for our friends, getting a favor from someone can help foster a friendship. It’s almost like a Jedi mind trick; if you’re doing a favor for this person, you must like them.
But remember that this takes time. This is why regularly scheduled events are helpful for moving through the stages of friendship; a structure of when and how you’re going to spend time together makes it much easier, rather than trying hoping the Gods of Scheduling will smile upon you this day.
Oh, and one more thing: much like romantic relationships, not all friendships are going to be life-long ones. Some friendships are temporary, and that’s ok. Some people are only in our lives for a little while; that doesn’t mean that this time is worth less or that their impact on us doesn’t mean as much. So don’t worry about duration or quantity when it comes to your friendships. Look for quality – of both people and of the time you spend together – and you’ll be much happier.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org