The science of making friends as an adult
We search for soul mates, why not best friends?
I hit my social peak at 5 years old. Kindergarten was the bomb, let me tell you.
I was double-booked for play dates. I frequently had three, yes three birthday parties in the same weekend. During lunch, I had a system to hang out with all of my friends. I would eat my sandwich at the blue table, eat my carrots at the green table and eat dessert with the red table (where the best swapping was).
At recess, it was agony trying to decide if I should play tag, do the monkey bars or trade stickers at the big oak in the corner of the playground—often panting while trying to do all three. When the end of school bell rung, I would skip along the line of waiting mothers in their parked cars and high-five all of my friends as they pulled away. Sometimes I cried before “having” to go away on school break.
And then…middle school. It went downhill from there.
Why is it so hard to make friends as an adult? Am I the only one who struggles with this?! I want to teach you how to make friends as an adult.
I was waiting to board a plane at an airport the other day and overheard two little boys have this incredible interaction:
Hi, I like trucks.
I like trucks, too. This is my dinosaur.
Cool! Can I be your friend?
Yes! Let’s play with dinosaurs on trucks.
I wish I could walk up to someone nice, tell them something I liked and then ask them to be my friend. If only it were that easy! For some reason, adult friends become much trickier. Here’s why:
– We meet fewer new people. We no longer have new classes every semester like in college, an infinite number of high school clubs or sports or summer camps to attend.
– Our priorities have changed. As kids, priority No. 1 is fun. You want to play, you have recess, school vacations, after school play dates and camp. As adults, we work, we have responsibilities to family and bills. Often times, play, fun and relaxation take a backseat.
– We’re too cool. Let’s be honest, asking someone to be your friend sounds lame. Why? Because it’s terrifying! They might say “No.” So we act like we’re too busy for friends, like we’re too old for play dates, like we don’t need anyone, anyway.
It’s also scary.
– We’re afraid of being rejected, so we don’t put ourselves out there.
– We’re worried that someone might be secretly toxic, so we hold back.
– We’re worried about being taken advantage of, so we pull away.
But here’s the thing. Friends matter. Money will come and go and career success will fade in later years, but friends only make you richer. I believe that finding, building and maintaining fulfilling friendships is one of the most important things we do in our lifetime. I know it’s hard. But I have a big idea. I want to give you a different approach to making friends: Friendship is the new romance.
I feel incredibly blessed to have found the most amazing group of friends after many, many years of awkward searching. They love to dress up in crazy costumes, are willing to participate in my science experiments (usually) and put up with my weird antics (like asking to be blindfolded and seeing if I can recognize each of them by scent). We attempt to play soccer together. We have weird theme parties. We do adventures.
Looking back, I realized we had gone through a courtship process of sorts. (They are going to tease me mercilessly for writing this, I am sure of it.) It made me begin to look into the process of making friends. I was fortunate enough to talk to readers all around the world who have found their “best friends.” Except for the lucky few who had friends from childhood, those who had found adult friends had remarkably similar experiences to me. They had to “date their friends” first.
So, I want you to court your companions. Flirt with friends. Date your peers. I want you to think about making friends like dating, but without the heartbreak.
We search for soul mates, why not best friends?
It’s totally OK to make a New Year’s resolution about finding your soul mate and spending time and money on dates wooing the perfect romantic one, but for some reason it’s weird to say that your goal is to find a best friend.
Let’s change that. I want to show you how you can search for your best friend. Whatever this means to you—build your buddy system, hone your homies, meet your mates:
– How to find the right kind of friends
– How to transition from acquaintance to confidante
– How to build solid friendships
Warning: I know it feels a little weird to be talking about the science of making friends—to break friendship down into steps. But unfortunately, the art of building friendships often gets lost in childhood. I think friendships are important and worth the effort, so I have broken the process down into steps so we can relearn this essential skill.
Go through the following list of steps—just like you would court a new date, you are going to court your new friends.
Choose Your Own Friendship Adventure:
– If you want to make a totally new group of friends start with Step 1
– If you have someone in your life who you think would make a good friend, but aren’t sure, skip to Step 2
– If you have someone in your life who you would like to get closer to, but aren’t sure how, skip to Step 3
– If you want to “make it official” with a friend you have, skip to Step 4
Step 1: Courtship
Let’s say you’re newly single and ready to mingle. What’s the first thing you do? Most people think about the kind of person they want to meet. If you’re a woman, you probably made a list. Something like this perhaps?
– Stable Job
Then you look at the list and think about where you might find this type of person. You either join the most relevant online dating website or join a local group or class to find this “type” of person. A list like this also makes you more attuned to spot this person when you see them.
If you know who you’re looking for, it becomes easier to find them.
Go through the following prompts:
What kind of person do you love hanging out with?
What made a childhood friendship so special?
What kind of person fits well with your personality?
What activities would you love to have a partner for?
Look at the list above and see if anyone you already know pops into your head. It could even be a distant relative or a friend of a friend or a spouse of a colleague. If no one pops into your head, that’s OK, you are starting from scratch. Make a list of places, groups, clubs, classes and social networks where you might meet the kind of person above.
Step 2: Flirting
This is the most important step for making adult friendships. Flirting. There are two mistakes that adults make that get them all mucked up when it comes to making friends:
– They go too fast. Just like in a romantic relationship, if you go too fast in a friendship you might end up being friends with the wrong kind of person. All of a sudden you find out something you don’t like, they become clingy, you pull away, awkwardness all around.
– They never ask. This is just like having a crush on someone, but never asking them out. Many adults think or hope someone might be a good friend, but they never pursue it because they are afraid of rejection, aren’t sure how or have convinced themselves they don’t have enough time.
Flirting helps with both. Flirting is how you test the waters, how you get to know someone to see if there’s chemistry and how you stave off rejection. Whether you already have someone in mind or you are going to go to a few events and meeting new people, here are three ways you can friendship flirt:
– Fun Tease: Friends are for fun for play and for relaxation. One of the easiest ways you can see friendship compatibility is to see if you are into the same things. Just like on a date, you want to float things you enjoy and see if they do, too. You can mention a concert you went to last month. Ask what they are up to this weekend. Talk about your favorite sports team. Bring up a new sport, class or book you have been wanting to dive into and see what they say.
– Value Tease: Besides being a companion for activities, the best of friends also need to provide emotional support. This is often where friends and best friends divide. As you get to know someone, you want to know if they have the same values as you. For example, I had a great friend who thought it was extravagant to spend money on travel. She loved being home and didn’t see the point of going elsewhere. We got along in almost every other dimension, but I love to travel. I do it all the time for work and pleasure. Every time I had a trip coming up (always) we would get into the same argument about it. In the end, it drove us both nuts about the other. This sounds small and silly, but it matters in terms of you have to respect your friends and their opinions and their decisions even if they aren’t the same as your own. You don’t have to have the same values, but you have to be able to understand your friend’s point of view and respect them for it.
– Feeling: Most importantly, as you are interacting with a potential friend, tap into how they make you feel. Do you laugh with them? Do they make you feel excited? Intrigued? Engaged? You want people who make you feel good. And, of course, it has to go both ways. That’s called wooing…
Step 3: Wooing
By this point, you have someone (or a few people) in your life who you think might make a great friend. You want to pursue them, go on some dates, spend more time together. How? Here we borrow a saying from weddings. In the U.S., most brides who are getting married wear four unique items on their wedding day for luck (or just for fun). Something old like a vintage ring, something new like a new wedding dress, something borrowed like a mother’s veil and something blue like a blue garter. I find this is an easy way to think about different types of wooing. Here are four different ways to easily “ask someone out”:
– Something old: Do you have an old favorite? Favorite movie? Favorite restaurant? Favorite dancing spot? This is a great way to have an excuse to hang out. For example, just recently I was talking about my favorite (and the only, in my opinion) genuine Mexican restaurant in Portland to a new potential friend. “Oh wow! I love Mexican food,” she said. Bingo: fun tease. It was then easy to say, “Cool, I was planning to go on Friday, you free?”
– Something new: I made friends with my friend Stephanie because we both had been dying to try something new: dance classes. We were both bemoaning how awful the gym was when she said she heard about a cool Bollywood Dance class. It was then easy for me to ask if she wanted a partner in crime to try it out. We have also tried a cardio drumming class and a cook-around-the-world night. She is amazing. Want to try something new? Bring it up and see if they are interested in joining. This is both a fun tease and a woo.
– Something borrowed: Friends lend us ideas, books, clothes, suitcases and time. This is another great way to feel out a new friendship. Have a book you love? Offer to loan it to them. My friend Samantha was wearing the most beautiful shawl—it looked so warm and fuzzy! I brought it up to her, and she so kindly said, “you must borrow it—I have two!” You can also borrow ideas. If you know something that might help someone else, offer to teach them. Are you a whiz with resumes? Offer to edit it for your new friend. Are you a great cook? Have a cooking day with a new friend if they are trying to learn their way around a kitchen. I started a Spanish vegetarian cooking club exactly this way. Seven of us got together because we were all trying to practice our high school Spanish and learn to cook more vegetarian. It’s easy to make friends over a steaming tray of homemade tamales.
– Something blue: I don’t mean actual blue, I mean sad blue. We all go through hard times. It might be you, it might be your new friend. You want foul weather and fair weather friends—those who are with you through the good times and the bad. In the beginning of the wooing process, it’s important to be honest. If you’re going through something, bring it up and see how they can help. This is a great way to know the depth of your potential friendship. I will never forget a time with my friend Lacy in the beginning of our friendship. Speaking of weddings, I was having a momentary freak out about my wedding dress. I was sure I had picked the wrong one (I hear this is normal). Anyway, I called her in the middle of the day and asked her if she would be willing to come with me to try it on one last time. She took the workday afternoon off, schlepped across town with me and sat with me so incredibly supportive as I made her examine it from every which angle. Yes, it was the right one. Yes, I couldn’t have done it without her. Yes, she is my best friend today.
Try one or all of these with a potential friend to get a “date” on the calendar to see if they might be a good fit.
Step 4: Dating
Now comes the serious part. You have someone you like and have been slowly courting them. You’ve been doing a few things here and there and you feel they have bestie potential (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Now what? It’s time to see if the relationship has staying power. Most importantly, you want to know if you are good for each other.
Over the next few weeks, go through more of the wooing steps and ask yourself these essential three questions:
– Could you be locked in an elevator with this person?
– Are they genuinely happy for you when something good happens to you?
– Do you truly want the best for them even if it isn’t convenient for you?
Toxic relationships happen when we secretly have ill-wishes for someone or they have them for us. This happens a lot with “frenemies” or friends who don’t actually support you wholeheartedly. They get jealous, they get judgy, they get controlling.
It’s extremely important to be on the lookout for these kinds of toxic indicators early on. Just like in a relationship, “red flags” rarely tend to go away. However, unlike a relationship, you don’t have to marry this person. So: You can be different, but you have to love each other for your differences.
Step 5: Love
Congratulations! You’re in love. This is the most amazing, fulfilling, mushy-gushy part of friendships (yes, that’s a good thing). I think this is the part of the friendship where investment really pays off. What do I mean by investment? Emotional investment, time investment, energy investment. Even the best romantic relationships require tune-ups and energy. And this isn’t bad or hard. I think it is beautiful—yes, I am getting mushy. Here’s how you keep your friendships running on high:
– Tabs: When your friend cares about something, you care about it by proxy. Know what’s going on in your friend’s life. Do they have a big work project? A sick parent? A busy week? Check-in. One of the best feelings in the world is having a friend check-in on something that is important to you and not them—because you know they are doing it purely to be supportive. My friend Ana-Lauren always texts me when I get home from travels, my friend Stephen always texts me after speaking events (how does he always remember?!) and my friend Lacy has a sixth sense for when I’m stressed—she has hidden cameras in my mind, I swear. I try to do the same for the things that matter in their life. And it is my pleasure, because their success is my success too.
– Wishes: What does your friend wish for? What are their goals and dreams? I love to ask my friends about their New Year resolutions and birthday wishes; of course I want to help, but I also want to be emotionally supportive and provide accountability. It feels so good to know someone is on your team. Friends are your teammates and your supporters for life.
– Growth: Sometimes friends have to deliver hard news, call you on your issues and challenge you to be better. I love and hate it when my friends do this. My friend Margo is amazing at calling me out on stuff I need to change. She does this with so much love, advice and support that sometimes I mistake her rebukes for praise (or maybe I just wish it so). True friends are willing to say the hard thing if they know it is right. You can debate and argue healthily with good friends and that makes us better people together.
Friendships are our greatest asset. Not all of us are lucky enough to have best friends from childhood, and that’s OK. We can make amazing friendships as adults—it just takes a little bit of courage and a little bit of romance.