Making friends with others starts with you, first.
If you believe the hype, then millennials are on track to be the loneliest generation ever. I don’t have statistics or polls to offer on the subject, but I think millennials aren’t the only ones suffering from loneliness. A lack of friendships is a modern epidemic that has only recently affected us.
What happened to all the friends?
Simply put, the majority of our social connections in ages past occurred in real space — not “screen” space or social media. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other, only that social media allows us to treat our potential friendships like picks from a catalog. In real life, we can’t “block” someone as easily. This is both good and bad, as it comes with a price.
At the turn of the century, if you wanted to make friends, you joined clubs and often paid dues and memberships to be a part of that club. In return, you could draw on that club for social, moral, or even monetary assistance in times of need. Today, most of these clubs, which often revolved around male friendships, are gone. They’re gone because we became more insulated. They’re gone because we feel no need to leave the house. And the potential for friends is gone with them.
But they weren’t real friends anyway.
Another issue is the matter of definitions and expectations. We form our ideas around friendships separately from a group, so each person has a very unique concept of what they expect a friend to be to them. When these ideas don’t match between friends, frictions erupt and friendships fall apart.
We need to have a greater understanding that no one has an obligation to fulfill our definition of friendship. But we can be a friend to each other regardless if our ideas and values don’t match.
This point is little understood, and usually what I hear in return is that to be a friend to someone whom you don’t agree with is disingenuous — you should just tell ‘em how you feel! And if they don’t like it, they can just deal.
Unfortunately, this mindset is quite limited. You will encounter people who are vastly different from you, from different cultures, with different upbringings. Expecting them to conform to your ideas, or you’ll just set them straight, is a low-conscientious way of thinking. And it represents what’s easiest for us to do, at the expense of others.
Somehow, the modern era gave us the idea that friends should be our emotional caretakers. So much so, that one of the requisites for marriage I see often on dating sites is that the potential spouse also be a “best friend.” If not, then, they were never friends in the first place.
This too, is a flawed way of thinking. If we are lucky enough to find emotional support in a friend, it can be lovely — but you are always and forever the only one in charge of your emotions. We are not, and cannot, be in charge of the emotional lives of others. And it is not our place to assume we should make it someone else’s job to care for us. Only we can do that — and it’s a level of maturity that can be very challenging, and constantly evolving.
In addition to people thinking friends should be emotional caretakers, they sometimes have other ideas about what friends should do. Notice a lot of the time, we are thinking about what people should do for us — less about what we’re doing for them.
If we have a friend who is chronically late, we need to acknowledge that this friend will never honor the value of our time. It’s perfectly reasonable to end a friendship as you see fit, and if chronically late is a deal breaker, so be it. But if we continue the friendship while still expecting this person to be on time, and we are habitually frustrated by this until we explode, that’s our own failure.
People grow into their lives with certain habits and compulsions which they are not capable of changing. They may even try, and try very hard to alter them. Very rarely do people change themselves. While some prefer to “talk it out” and “get it off their chest”, in my experience, people revert to their usual selves and all the talk adds to very little action. The talk, instead, only serves to stall the inevitable choice you must make about how you handle your friendships. You must make your hard choices, and manage your expectations.
So, how do we make friends?
You have to go to where people are. Social media often isn’t enough. And you have to show up regularly. See friendships as marathon events, and go for endurance, not sprints. Over time, you build rapport through familiarity, as though you are growing a plant in a garden. You might leave it alone for a few days, but when you check back in, you find it has still been growing as you went along. Your new friend could be at a meetup group, the library book club, the nearest state park, or at the coffee shop.
The reality is, another reason we have difficulty making friends is we’ve forgotten how to be civil. Civility means being polite and displaying good manners. We want to be in the company of someone who is clean, well dressed, groomed, says “thank you” in return for when you’ve done something for them, and makes you feel comfortable.
The things we do that make us feel comfortable is often rude and off putting to others. Arriving late, not paying your part of the dinner tab, showing up slovenly dressed, talking exclusively about yourself, not asking anyone about who they are, texting on the phone and failing to make eye contact or engage with others, are all behavior that makes us withdraw. You are comfortable — and now you are also common, boring, and uninteresting. Only a cat can get away with this kind of behavior and still be accepted!
Okay, so you told me what I did wrong. What can I do right?
When we’re young, friendships are often easy to form, so we don’t work very hard at them. As you get older — or at any time in your life — you need to consider friendship as something worth working for. I’m not talking about hard work as you do at an office or for an employer, because you will likely be busy with a life of your own. It means that if you reach out to a friend, you’re offering something to them — a chance for a shared event, sharing information, or adding to their life in some fashion. Don’t call them with the expectation that they will make time in their busy schedule because you want to vent about how the neighbor forgot to cut his lawn. Complaints are common and petty. Someone offering something positive, upbeat, and valuable, is rare. Learn how to be that person.
There are 7 billion people on this planet. You are competing for your friend’s attention alongside a large number of people. It’s not a statistic meant to dishearten you, but to put into perspective that the moment you get the idea that the web developer you bumped into at the networking event should be honored to go down to the dive bar and sing karaoke with you and hold your hair while you vomit in the bathroom sink, consider that there are people out there who can offer that person more. It should give you motivation to compete for friends who are worth the time.
That sounds lame
If you find someone who likes karaoke as much as you do, it’s not lame. It’s all about what is good for you, is good for them, and together, you should rise, and make society better as a result. You have to decide for yourself what makes a person a valued friend — and then make an effort to keep them in your life and maintain that connection.
Your friendships will become your foundation, your network.
In our modern day, many people have given their spouse the role of best friend. This is not a good idea. Often, marriages break up, and if they don’t, a spouse often dies before the other. You will need the support of friends to weather future difficulties.
You and your circle of friends are only one small circle in a larger society, but your ability to make and keep friends is an important part of a functioning society, and it effects us all. What’s missing from our society is ultimately you — and all the good you can add to it.