According to new research, more than half of UK adults haven’t made a new friend in a long time. But it is possible to expand your social circle as a grown-up – you just have to learn how to friend-date.
How did your friends become your friends?
Most of the relationships we form throughout our childhood, teens and early twenties are circumstantial. In all likelihood, most of your friends are your friends because you caught the bus to school together, or shared a kitchen in your university halls, or sat next to each other in an office once upon a time. You probably won’t remember the moment you ‘decided’ to become friends, because it didn’t involve a conscious choice at all. It just sort of… happened.
But sometimes, building friendships requires a little more effort. Perhaps you find yourself living in a new city, miles away from your old gang, and suddenly your diary looks frighteningly empty every weekend, and you realise you’re going to have to take decisive action if you don’t want to drown in all that blank space.
Or maybe you end up talking to a woman you’ve never met before at a party, a woman who seems kind and cool and wise and funny and is wearing great shoes, and you walk away thinking in a small, playground voice: “I would really like to be friends with her.”
The problem is, most of us are so used to our friendships evolving ‘naturally’ that the thought of actively pursuing new platonic relationships can feel terrifyingly daunting. If you haven’t expanded your social circle in years, you’re far from alone: a new study by the Campaign to End Loneliness shows that 54% of UK adults feel it’s been a long time since they made a new friend, with almost half (49%) saying their busy lives stop them connecting with others.
There’s also the fact that seeking out new friends can seem excruciating to socially-awkward Brits. Even if we desperately want to form new connections, we have, somewhere deep within our cultural DNA, a hereditary terror of ‘coming on too strong’.
But we need to conquer this fear, because research suggests it could be risky to rely entirely on our old friendships. One study, conducted by sociologists at Utrecht University, found that we lose half of our close mates every seven years. And just think of everything that could be gained if, every time we crossed paths with a woman we thought could be pretty special, we were brave enough to say: “Hey, we should totally hang out sometime!”
This, in a nutshell, is the art of ‘friend dating’. The premise of friend dating is this: if we like the thought of being mates with someone, we should actively pursue and nurture a relationship with them, much in the same way we might treat a potential romantic partner.
A quick, unscientific poll of my female friends revealed many women who are vocal advocates of friend dating. “Being assertive about friendships has definitely become a topic of discussion among the women I hang out with,” says Rhiannon, 26. “I guess it’s because most of my mates are ceasing to give a f**k about being seen as the stereotypical ‘overbearing’ woman, and just want to meet other cool girls.”
“These days you have to be a real social butterfly if you’re going to meet new friends out of your current circle,” agrees Leanna, 29. “Everyone’s so infatuated with their phones that when you walk into a bar, no one looks up. But I’m a big fan of meeting people when I’m out, and I also always try and make a point of seeing them again.”
If the prospect of actively pursuing new female friendships seems alluring but intimidating, worry not. Here’s how to do it…
Just get on with it
Asking another woman if she wants to hang out can be nerve-wracking, especially if you haven’t had to ‘practice’ making friends for a while. (My friend Christina becomes wistful when she thinks of all the women she’s befriended on nights out, only to never see them again: “I feel like I’ve missed out on countless potential besties because I’m too shy to pursue it in the cold light of day.”)
It doesn’t help that there’s a pervasive stigma attached to the idea of loneliness – particularly in the age of social media, when we’re constantly bombarded with evidence of other people’s thriving social lives.
But consider this: most people will be just as keen to make new mates as you are. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that Brits aged 18 to 34 are more likely to feel lonely, worry about feeling alone, and feel depressed because of loneliness than the over-55s – which suggests that we should all just get a grip and start inviting each other places.
Discovered common ground? Seize on it
Finding someone with whom you share a genuine interest or passion is a rare and splendid thing. If you find yourself having a really great conversation with someone – about your mutual favourite author, or how you’ve both always wanted to try a particular sport – don’t just let it disappear into the ether.
My friend Tash, 25, has mastered the art of the friendly follow-up. “If I’ve had an interesting conversation with someone I don’t know that well, and I read a good article on the same subject, I’ll always send them a link over Facebook,” she says. “Or if I have a spare ticket for a talk or gig that I think they’d be interested in, I just invite them along.”
This last trick, in particular, is genius. Few people can resist the allure of a fun event – and the ready-made structure gives you something to talk about if you’re anxious about conversation.
Utilise friends of friends
Obvious, maybe, but if you like the same people, you’ll probably like each other. Rhiannon met one of her now-best friends when they were both dating a pair of best friends. “I remember meeting her for the first time and saying, ‘That girl’s going to be my friend’,” she says. “The next time I saw her I just asked for her number, and she said that she’d had exactly the same thought!”
If you’ve met a friend-of-a-friend and liked the cut of their jib, it’s almost laughably easy to orchestrate a ‘group hang’ (for obligatory The O.C. reference, see here). Just invite them round for dinner or out for a drink, with your mutual friends providing familiar padding to the guest list. Hey presto: instant new social circle.
If you’re moving to a new city, scope out whether anyone in your current social circle has friends in the area and ask them to set you up. Few people can resist the chance to meet an intriguing new character – especially if they come with a glowing recommendation (as you surely will).
Join a club
If this suggestion has you rolling your eyes and groaning, it’s time to get over it. Clichés are clichés for a reason, and joining an organisation or society – whether you’re into crochet or coding, socialist politics or salsa dancing – is a guaranteed way to meet like-minded people.
“When I moved into my new flat a few years ago, I joined the netball team that practises at the school down the road,” says Emma, 29. “At first I wondered if it was a bit lame, but I love the sport and I’ve made some brilliant local friends. We go to the pub after practice and it’s just a really nice thing to have in the diary every week.”
Most importantly, if your group meets on a regular basis, it will also provide the repeat exposure that’s essential to forming any significant friendship.
So next time you meet a woman you think could be the one, take the plunge and ask her out.
You never know: it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
An earlier version of this article was first published on 10 August, 2016.
Images: Michael Nunes / Unsplash / Fox Searchlight / iStock / Universal / Getty Images