How have I got to my mid-30s and have so few friends? Lockdown seems to have made my already small social group practically nonexistent. I try to message people to strike up conversation and get very limited responses, and no follow-ups showing interest in me. If I don’t initiate contact then it doesn’t happen.
I have now decided that I must take the hints I’ve been given and just leave these people alone but now I have no one. Since the only common denominator is me …what am I doing wrong? How can I make it better once lockdown is over and I can try to find new friends?
Eleanor says: I don’t think you’re alone in this. Unchecked, the forces of modern life tend to buffet people towards isolation: by the time you’ve moved city a few times, or your school friends have, and everyone’s got kids and debt and partners and pets, friendships start to require real energy and time – two things most people are low on.
So don’t be too quick to think your friends want to be left alone. Some people aren’t good planners, or texters, or it might not occur to them to reach out first – that doesn’t mean they lack fondness or regard for you, or that they dislike the time you spend together. You might have to be the project manager of the friendship but, for the time being, perhaps that’s a price worth paying to keep it.
You asked how to make new friends going forward. I’ll tell you the three things that really help me when I move cities. First, look for interactions that are low cost to initiate and low social pressure. An invitation to “grab coffee”, for instance, scores terribly on both counts: it’s high cost of initiation because one person has to keep reaching out with keenness to see the other, and it’s high social pressure, because sitting face to face trading facts leaves little cover for the odd lull. It’s nice instead to see so-and-so because it’s Tuesday and you play rugby then, or because you go to the cheap movie on the first week of the month together: look for interactions that give you a ritual, a routine, and something to look at besides each other.
Second, within reasonable limits, try to act as though you’re already friends. Don’t project or endorse your status as the nervous newcomer to a person’s life – when you suggest plans or ask how the thing you talked about last time turned out, do it with ease, as though it goes without saying.
Third, try to pivot from thinking about how you’d like a friend to how you can be a friend. It’s easy to get into a hole of Eeyorish thoughts like “nobody likes me” or “nobody texted me back”. These might be true, and their sting is very real, but a true thought is not necessarily a useful thought. When you feel the Eeyores creeping in, try to look outwards – to ways you can improve other people’s days, or make them feel connected and cared for. It’s worth doing that for benevolence’s sake alone but, between you and me, it also works: reciprocity is a big predictor in social psychology and, if you’re cheerful, reliable and inclined to make attentive gestures, other people are far more likely to do the same for you.
It would be surprising if you didn’t feel lonely right now. Our usual ways of creating and maintaining friendships have been impossible or illegal for more than a year. You didn’t create this problem and it isn’t a referendum on your value – with patience and optimism I think you can fix it.
* * *
Ask us a question
Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.