There’s Never Been a Better Time to Make a New Friend (Really)
Early last year, I went on a first friend-date with a woman who lived in my neighborhood. We’d determined a mutual affinity for rude jokes on Twitter, and decided to take our potential friendship to the next level. It was a little awkward, as all first dates tend to be, but we had a rapport. We made loose plans to hang out again soon, and it seemed plausible that we’d follow through on them — though truthfully, it was just as likely that we’d let things fizzle out, the way so many budding potential friendships do.
At any rate, you can guess where this is going. Within a week, the world shut down. As my mental health began to decline in those early days of the pandemic, I knew better than to subject myself to anyone but my partner and a tiny cluster of very old friends, the latter almost exclusively by text. This was not the time for first impressions.
And so that second date never happened. Nearly a year later, my minuscule friend-cluster remains more or less the same.
This year has taken an ongoing toll on casual friendships. The Atlantic writer Amanda Mull recently described feeling a swell of unexpected longing when she watched a scene set in a crowded sports bar, on the widely laughed-at Netflix series Emily in Paris, of people doing something she also loved: watching a game on TV in the company of not-quite-strangers.
“In noticing all the ways the show misunderstood its joys,” Mull wrote, “I realized how much I missed it, and especially how much I missed all of those people I only sort of know.”
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We understand now, in a way we didn’t before, that the people we “only sort of know” more than sort of matter. In a Forge article published way back in March of last year, the writer Kaitlyn Kochany lamented the abrupt absence in her daily routines of “microfriendships” — that is, “lots of friendly little interactions, over and over again, with lots of different people.”
Among the many societal weaknesses drawn out and illuminated by this pandemic, one of the most glaring has been the mass neglect of casual friendship. In our career-obsessed, hustle-driven lives, many of us never gave those relationships their due. Revisiting Kochany’s story, a thousand years later, I’m reminded of a grim statistic I once read that the average person hits their friendship peak at age 29. That’s when a majority of people reach the brief window of overlap between residual school friends and being-young-and-having-fun friends, plus several years’ worth of work friends. And, on average, it’s before the demands of childrearing and/or mounting professional responsibility come to absorb the bulk of one’s time.
After that, the research says it’s all downhill. The nuclear family unit becomes the locus of a person’s extra-professional emotional energy; with everything else on the table, there’s not much room left. Maybe Drake wasn’t a brat, but a pragmatist: Grown-ups are too damn busy to make new friends. And the small circles we’re left with — our partners, immediate families, and a few carefully vetted others — are often lonely ones.
Loneliness can feel like a personal defect, a strike against our individual social skills or likability. It’s easy to forget that in reality, and particularly now, the feeling is circumstantial: It’s lonely to follow the rules of public health ethics when protecting your community means staying away from it. It’s also lonely to live in a society so structured around production that you only have time left over to invest in the community under your roof.
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But there’s reassurance to be found in the loneliness now: Enough of us is currently missing enough people to reevaluate our priorities and change our lives accordingly once this whole contagion situation clears up. I’d wager that a good number of us are accepting applications for more new friendships, or potential friendships, or friendly acquaintances. Sustained eye contact with strangers on the street, even! We’re open in a way we weren’t before, ready to make space for the vast buckets of friendship we’ve finally realized we want. I, for one, have never been so excited to once again share physical space with people I barely know or like, let alone people I do.
Which brings me back to my hot first date. It’s been a year now, just about, and the woman has moved away and published a well-received book. “I know we don’t know each other very well,” I prefaced a recent DM, and went on to say that I’m happy to see her doing well. In New York City, in my experience, this sort of gesture bears mixed results.
But she responded quickly. “I wish we’d gotten to know each other better!” Poor friendship timing, was the conversational gist, and let’s pick this back up post-vaccine. It wasn’t weird and it wasn’t awkward. In fact, the exchange felt normal — or, rather, like a new normal. Her reply wasn’t a euphemism for making do with the way we’d left things. It was a do-over, to make things better. We’re already on our way.