How to make friends as an adult – an expert’s guide tested
New to London, writer Parisa Hashempour wanted to know how to make friends as an adult – it’s not as easy as it was in school, after all – so she followed psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber’s advice
Sat on the floor of my bedroom on a Friday night eating dinner solo whilst First Dates played in the background, I felt deflated. I’d moved to London a few months earlier and still hadn’t made any friends. It can be hard to meet people as a fully grown woman in a big city and I know that it’s not just me feeling that way. Perhaps owing to our famous aloofness, the Office of National Statistics recently revealed that Britain is the loneliest country in Europe. And if the Time Out Index and the funny looks I get from trying to chat to strangers on the Tube (crazy, I know) is anything to go by, London is the epicentre of Britain’s pit of loneliness.
Taking advice from psychologist, confidence coach and friendship-making-pro Charlotte Fox Weber UKCP registered and MBACP psychotherapist and head of psychotherapy at The School of Life (and in a desperate bid to make friends) I tried it all – from reconnecting with people I met once a few years ago to swiping through match making apps. Almost a year into my move to the big smoke and now almost having something that resembles a social life I’m about to impart Weber’s pearls of wisdom on you and tell you what worked in the real world I learned in the process.
Don’t worry about awkwardness
First, Fox Weber explained the most important thing we can do when meeting new people is ‘Having self-trust. The confidence to be able to fumble along in a new conversation is not about getting it totally right conversationally, but being able to tolerate your flaws and mistakes.’
It’s okay to grope for words or ask something in an awkward way when speaking to a new person, and to ‘tolerate those self-conscious moments,’ she explained. From speaking to the cool woman at the party to finding common ground with a co-worker, trust yourself enough to have that conversation and not shy away from it – it’s okay if it goes wrong. ‘I know it seems like a massive abstract concept to say ‘have self-trust’. In some ways that can make you even more anxious… If you’re really struggling with this kind of social anxiety, therapy can help. The therapy room is a microcosm – a laboratory for testing out ways of relating.’
What I learned…
While I’m by no means a shrinking violet, I do often worry about whether I’m saying the right thing and I fear the dreaded too-long pause in a conversation. Nattering with strangers can be awkward but as per Weber’s advice, I decided to have a little self-trust and throw myself in. When I saw that one of my Facebook friends (a person whose relationship with me had been mostly confined to nods in the street at University) had moved to London, I took the plunge and dropped her a personal message. I told her that I’d seen she was in London, asked what she was up to and offered to meet her for a coffee. It was a classic friend of a friend of a friend type situation. I had no idea whether we’d hit it off and I was 100 percent sure there would be awkward silences and I would fumble up my words at some point.
We met for a drink in an edgy coffee shop in Brixton and I awkwardly sat waiting for her to turn up. The first thing to conquer (and most difficult) was the greeting. A handshake is way too formal and as a northern gal, I’m really not comfortable with the typical London kiss on the cheek. Luckily she went in for a hug (a fellow northerner as it turns out) and the following conversation went from flowing easily (as we chatted at about yoga and our failed attempts to be vegan) to awkward and stilted moments of staring into our americanos. But this friend date taught me an invaluable lesson – awkward pauses and fumbled words are bound to happen and that is completely fine. I had a lovely time, saw a new part of London and connected with someone that I’d always wanted to have a proper conversation with. While I didn’t see her again it gave me the confidence to contact a few more Facebook friends.
Try, try and try again
If you don’t make friends straight away – that’s totally fine. ‘It’s so important to have resilience and perseverance and to be able to just continue even when there are setbacks, even when you feel like a disaster or a failure,’ Says Fox Weber. As an adult, it can often be easier to form a romantic relationship than it can to build a friendship. It’s socially acceptable to go up to someone in a bar if you’re chatting them up but we worry that if we’re looking for a friend date, we might come across as strange. Weber explained that forming friendships isn’t always easy and that understanding this and persevering anyway is a crucial part of the friendship-making process.
‘Be open to meeting new people but at the same time, don’t expect too much. These things don’t happen overnight… it’s completely okay to find it difficult and realising this helps with the challenge itself. I know it’s irritating to hear when you’re in a big hurry to solve problems but move slowly and be patient.’
What I learned…
As an impatient person, waiting for friendships to happen was not easy. But Weber was right. The more I went to the same gym and bumped into the same people, the more I got to know my new work colleagues and the more frequently I forced casual acquaintances to meet me for cups of coffee the less lonely I felt. I bonded with the woman that always took the floor space next to me over Kayla Itsines BBG programme (the fitness programme we were both at the same week on) and with the woman who always sat at the mirror next to me over her seemingly endless Mary Poppins bag of beauty products, I was starting to feel a little less miserable about being new to the city.
Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerable side
‘Showing a bit of vulnerability can be really helpful for making friends,’ revealed Weber. Explaining that this doesn’t mean imposing on other people or saying something you might regret as this will backfire, she said ‘it’s really about managing how much you reveal but allowing yourself to be human and showing vulnerability can help to win someone over,’ she said.
This might mean fumbling over our words, saying something that makes no sense, opening up about an emotional difficulty. It can take a lot of different formats. ‘I think that vulnerability is a really big part of connecting, especially for women. Women can be very empathic and interested in looking after each other – there is a real nurturing quality to many female friendships. But vulnerability can also be a shared sense of camaraderie as well. It makes people more relatable.’
What I learned…
When I took Weber’s expert advice on this, people really did respond positively to me showing a little bit of weakness. Rather than repel people, accidentally tripping up on the way into a room, being awful at a fitness class or forgetting to take off my chipped nail varnish might make me cringe but laughing over the fall, explaining that I’ve got as much strength in my arms as a noodle or pointing out the terrible state of my nails surprisingly seemed to make me more friends.
That’s not to say that I entered every room on a negative note but allowing myself to be more vulnerable actually ended up winning me some popularity points. Telling the woman next to me that I was uncoordinated in a trampolining class meant she confided in me that she was the exact same. We had something in common and laughed our way through our uncoordinated bounces. The next time we bumped into each other we remembered that connection and nattered away with ease.
Take a genuine interest in other people
Curiosity might have killed the cat but according to Weber, it may also have kindled the friendship. ‘Curiosity is a huge ingredient for connecting. Wanting to find out about another person, wanting to open up your world and showing that you don’t already know everything you need to know is a great recipe for kindling a friendship,’ the psychologist explained. As we all well know, it can be pretty tough engaging with people when they don’t ask any questions. But Weber explains that it goes beyond this. When we show an interest in other people and we’re curious about them we’re more likely to find out the things we have in common.
‘It doesn’t have to be concrete things like favourite pastimes although that obviously can happen. But just do enough research conversationally to connect and relate on some level. That could also mean offering up your own stories or finding some common ground. Curiosity and enquiring go a really long way for engaging.’
What I learned…
Organising to meet up with another friend of a friend, I was nervous. This woman was the epitome of cool, she was confident and beautiful and I was terrified that we wouldn’t have anything in common. But the more we chatted, the more we listened and opened up to one another the closer we got.
This turned out to be the best friend date I’ve had since moving down to London and she immediately became one of my closest friends in the city. When I asked her questions and she opened up to me, I found that she was nowhere near as intimidating as I’d first thought and that in fact, we had a hell of a lot in common. Starting with the usual ‘what do you do?’ and ‘where do you live?’, the conversation really kicked off when we discovered a shared love of Thai food, Chance the Rapper and Orange is the new black. First, we stuck to safe, not-too-personal topics of conversation but this particular woman was Somalian and I was curious to know more about Somali culture. I asked her about her family, what Somalia is like and what kinds of food they like to eat and she was more than happy to explain – I learned a heck of a lot during the space of the evening. As the topic moved from pop culture to politics, we nattered away five extra stops before realising we’d gone too far down the line. We stayed out for as late as seemed reasonable on a work night and I didn’t want the evening to end.
In the words of Abba, ‘take a chance’
Weber explained how there is often an idea among people that you should already have your friends and this can be one of the things that makes meeting new people much harder. ‘This taps into the discomfort and shame we still have around loneliness. So many of us are lonely but it can be incredibly embarrassing to actually say that you are lonely.’
‘Take chances and recognise that a conversation is not always going to go well… you might even find that you don’t want to connect with the person you’re talking to.’ We all have a strong urge to be liked but Weber explained that we shouldn’t let the fear of rejection, the fear of seeming insecure or seeming like we need to make new friends hold us back. She stressed that we should take safe chances and risks – basically, we should be open to approaching people. This can be crucial to nurturing our happiness and preventing feelings of loneliness. ‘Obviously, when I say take risks I mean emotionally and not anything bigger than that but I think it can be really helpful to put yourself out there.’
If the idea of approaching people makes you feel anxious? ‘Exposure therapy – one thing that can help is going up to strangers on the street in London and asking for directions or asking them what time it is. That’s an almost guarantee for a little bit of failure. Some people might surprise you by being friendly, some people might look at you like you’re crazy, some people might just ignore you and that can be a really useful experiment for demonstrating that you can survive an uneasy encounter. It doesn’t have to go perfectly, you don’t have to get positive reinforcement to trust that you’re good enough.’
Weber also explains that if you’re feeling lonely within your current friendship group that might be a sign you should take a risk too. ‘It feels safer and more secure to stick with what you already know even if it’s stultifying. A lot of people are a little bit bored by their social interactions, say if they aren’t opening up and taking risks in certain ways
What I learned…
While I wasn’t running up to strangers in the street and asking them for directions, I did make a point of speaking to new people whenever I had the chance to. I saw a woman in the street wearing the most beautiful baby blue tea dress I’ve ever seen so I ran to catch her up and told her how gorgeous it was. A huge grin enveloped her face we had a quick natter about the weather – I went on my way feeling uplifted from the positive interaction. If I was packed into a sweaty rush hour tube on central line in the evening, I’d make a joke to the guy next to me about my arm pit hovering right in front of his nose. Weber was right – sometimes people look at you like you’re completely out of your mind but sometimes people were glad for the conversation. And it’s funny how a small social interaction with a stranger has the power to completely transform your day. Author Kio Stark does an entire TED talk on why we should chat to strangers more – watch it here. CLUE: you might learn a thing or two in the process.
Throw yourself into it
It’s all very well and good asking for the time in the street but how do we actually find these future friends of ours? ‘I think that going to classes can be a way of increasing the likelihood of forming friendships. It could be a dance class, it could be a School of Life event, lots of people make friends that way.’ Next time you’re at yoga class – ask someone to go for a matcha latte afterwards. Weber said that while we shouldn’t expecting friendships we should put ourselves in social settings where there is potential for social interaction. ‘It’s really important not to get into a perfectionist mindset where you think that the first time you try to make a friend or go to a place where you should make a friend and it doesn’t happen, that this means it won’t ever happen. You have to expect a lot of experimenting and a lot of trial and error.’
For Weber, it all comes back to being open and curious. ‘Go to art openings, go to places where you’re likely to come across people where there is conversational space but not expecting or demanding that this will be a miraculous friendship finder.’
What I learned…
The gym was a life saver for me on my friendship journey. Going to the same morning class at Gym Box or even turning up to the gym at the same time every day has meant consistently bumping into the same people. While I won’t say they’ve now turned into my best friends, it’s nice to have a little chat with my gym buddies in the morning before I start my workout – one of them has even taking to calling us the ‘early morning crew’. It took a while to move from a silent nod to a real natter. But over time the conversation got longer and longer. It started with ‘hello”s and ‘how are you today?’ but now we chat about the weather, our workouts, Capital FM (which is ALWAYS playing overhead) and whatever big events are rocking the news that week. Starting the day with a pleasant chat with familiar faces really seems to set me up for a great day ahead.
I’ve yet to head to an art gallery on my lonesome but I’ve joined Facebook groups (No, not Friendless Anonymous) like Girl Crew London where people from around the city post about the events they’re heading to solo so that other women can come along. I also signed up to friendship app Bumble (Tip: start every conversation with a compliment and you’ll be friends with the whole city in no time). So at least in cyberspace, I’ve definitely been putting myself out there. It’s made me realise that while every person isn’t going to be my bezzie mate, there are people out there who are in the same boat as me, open to meeting new people and forming friendships.
International Day of Friendship is Sunday, July 30th
Charlotte Fox Weber is a UKCP registered and MBACP psychotherapist. Charlotte is Head of Psychotherapy and started The School of Life in-house psychotherapy service.
She is deeply interested in issues with anxiety and emotional management, relationships, low self-esteem and confidence, family dynamics, feeling stuck or lost, creativity blocks, and loss of meaning.
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