You spend the years from playground to university campus sardine-packed next to a surplus of same-age peers. Making friends is a cinch – everyone is tackling first-day nerves, playground drama, adolescence, new love and university deadlines together.
But the transition from early adulthood leaves this convenient set-up behind. College grads relocate, starting their social life from scratch; full-time jobs and romantic relationships edge out the time you once had to build and maintain friendships; and playground days are behind you. It seems that everyone, naturally, becomes choosier about what constitutes a “great pal.”
Making friends becomes one of life’s great mysteries; good intentions are pitted against perfectly nice colleagues who aren’t on the same page, an epidemic of last-minute rain-checks and an overarching desire to stay in.
An abundance of studies prove what’s obvious: millennials are lonely, time-poor and socially afraid. And while there’s a wealth of advice for tackling these issues – such as: “Join an adult sports league!”, “Reach out to your neighbours!”, “DM people on Instagram!” – there’s very little on how these suggestions pan out in practice. It’s all well and good joining a reading club, but how do you turn said reading club friend into a genuine bond?
Here, four millennials who relocated to new cities tell their stories of drunken encounters, gym buddies, Whatsapp groups and the struggle for true connection.
“Since moving countries and starting with a friend base of zero, I’ve found the whole process of making friends as an adult weirder than it should be.” Cicely, who moved to Sydney for work in 2016, says. “It’s like starting a romantic relationship and struggling to move past the ‘friend zone’. Getting from ‘you’re nice’ to an authentic friendship is hard.”
Rosanna, a brand strategist now based in New York, also found meeting people she struck a genuine connection with difficult. “A lot of people are nice and fun to hang out with, but you never really skip surface chat,” she says. On top of that, cemented friendship groups and busy lives made it difficult for her to find people receptive to new connections.
The process of making friends in adulthood can feel excruciatingly slow. A recent study from the University of Kansas found two people need to spend 90 hours together to become friends and 200 hours to qualify as close friends. Out of playground context, 200 hours is a vast amount of time or, put differently, five weeks’ worth of your nine to five – and that doesn’t account for the time spent failing to find those “clicks”.
But those hours become more manageable if friendships are formed within existing routines, as was the case for Cicely, who struck up a friendship with someone in her gym class. “We instantly bonded due to having similar fitness levels and being able to partner up,” she says. “You know when the instructor shows you what you’re about to do and you exchange that ‘bloody hell’ look with someone who is equally dreading it – that was us.”
Leave judgement at home
Despite professional formalities and the uncomfortable crackle of competition, when it comes to making friends, work is a great place to start, if only for the convenience of proximity. Your colleagues are, after all, the people you spend the most time with. You might have bonded exclusively over complaints about the work toilets but there’s a chance you’ve got more in common than simply sharing the same oxygen for eight hours a day.
For those in higher-intensity jobs, like Vicky, a doctor now based in London, work friends are integral. “Other doctors are uniquely placed to understand the pressures of the job and the need to juggle,” she says. “It comes down to common ground because they work a similar schedule.”
Her advice for turning colleagues into genuine friends? Don’t judge friendship potential at a superficial level. “On the surface, my friend Charlotte and I shouldn’t be friends – I’m into hiking, live in active wear and I’m in the army. Charlotte, by contrast, has never set foot in a gym, only drinks champagne on a night out and is definitely far more graceful in a pair of heels,” shares Vicky.
There’s a shift after university where you’re no longer surrounded by the people with whom you’ve formed your identity alongside, those who are tied to you by an abundance of shared experiences. Making friends as an adult often means connecting with those moulded by totally different experiences.
Venturing outside the well-worn groove of school friends is nerve-racking, to say the least. It’s more difficult to spark a connection when there isn’t an obvious tie but it’s definitely not impossible, according to Sophie, a brand manager from London who forged a seemingly unlikely friendship with a colleague.
“My friend was reserved and her shyness came across like she didn’t like me that much,” Sophie explains. “I felt like we were really different and had nothing in common so I didn’t make any effort. But then I got moved to sit next to her and quickly realised she was hilarious and quick-witted.”
Effort and vulnerability
The click between two people can be instant and obvious, sure, but don’t allow the culture of romanticising “organic” connections to put you off. Some bonds need time to percolate, which means staying open to interaction with people you might have initially written off, and may also mean effort and vulnerability. Given a bit of nurturing, you might be surprised to find first impressions don’t always count for much.
Like-minded doesn’t necessarily mean growing up in the same neighbourhood or enjoying the same things; the common thread may be something more buried or abstract. Adult friendships are less about where you come from or what school you went to, and more about where you’re heading in life.
“Friendships are accessible in more than just a shared childhood. They’re stronger when you can offer something to another person that they can’t give to themselves,” Sophie says. “I judged my colleague completely wrong; she’s ended up being a better friend to me than I could have imagined, helping me with anxiety as a fellow sufferer and leaving notes on my desk when she registered I wasn’t having a great day.”
Similarities are not the only hurdle. Getting over the hump from situational friends to genuine friends is an oft-cited obstacle for adult friendships.
For Rosanna, cementing her newest friendship happened over exchanging numbers and making dinner plans. “We met in a taxi ride on the way to a party,” she says. “It could easily have been a late-night ‘love but never see again’ type friendship, but we made a WhatsApp chat that culminated in dinner.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of chit-chat over the phone or via text, either. Cicely also credits swapping numbers for the move from “gym buddies” to “actual buddies”. The key is to ensure the phone interaction turns into an in-person plan, and better still to organise a meeting outside of your usual context. Invite work friends for dinner or late-night party friends to coffee, for example.
For Cicely, that was organising a recovery breakfast after one class. “I’ve learnt that you just have to bite the bullet and say, ‘Hey, wanna grab a coffee after this?’, or ‘Want to come to this event this weekend?’,” she says.
To put it bluntly, no one is going to make your friendships for you. Although it can feel painful at the time, reaching out can be rewarding. “It doesn’t come off as creepy as you think it does,” says Rosanna, who found the only way to break through existing friendship groups is to initiate meetings and follow up on “soft” invites.
Don’t forget the power of saying yes to every social opportunity, even when the allure of staying home is all-consuming. “Get out there and go out for those drinks with people you hardly know,” says Cicely. “If it’s not your vibe, you can always leave but, more often than not, those strangers become your people.”
Four things you can do to make friends in adulthood:
- Intention is everything. Like most worthwhile things in life, friendships take consistent effort. Go to the event, put in the hours and chase the people who carry the energy you want to be around.
- Sign up to meetup.com to find groups of people with similar interests as you. A shared hobby gives you something to instantly connect over, and everyone is there with the same objective.
- Host a dinner party with a bunch of your acquaintances. You don’t need semi-professional cooking skills or even a dinner table (pizza or cheese and wine will do), it’s the bringing together of people that counts.
- If you’ve moved to a new city, find friends on Facebook who are living close to you and ask them to show you their favourite spots in the city.
Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist based in Sydney, where she writes about a plethora of things women care about – from pasta to politics and everything in between.