Ask Polly: How Am I Supposed to Make Friends in My Late 20s?

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Photo: Joel Simon/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I'm in my late 20s. I live with a great boyfriend in a great city and have a great job in a field I am passionate about. I have a good relationship with my family and have had many happy connections with all sorts of folks over my lifetime. And yet, somehow I find myself at this moment practically friendless.

It's so embarrassing even admitting it. Like I have some kind of disease. I somehow feel the need to defend myself by listing all the friends I've had to show I'm capable of forming friendships and am not a psychopath or a social pariah. But instead I'll list the many reasons why I'm currently in the pickle I'm in:

I moved a lot as a child. Because of this, I had to start over socially every time and didn't grow up alongside my extended family. (When one of my grandparents got sick recently, I even felt awkward calling to wish them well because I knew my aunt, uncle, and cousins were so much more qualified to offer comfort since they live nearby.) Though my reserved nature made this hard on me, I still found tight-knit groups of friends all the way until the end of college. And then, adulthood struck.

Suddenly my friends were dispersed across the entire U.S. and I found myself with nobody to go get a coffee with. And despite many close calls, that's pretty much how it's been for the past five years.

Rationally, I know the answer is to take initiative. But my temperament lends itself to forming friendships like the way water might slowly bubble up from a dry creek bed. Over time and with little fanfare my connection to a person grows until we are bonded in that mysterious way people bond. Maybe modern life doesn't lend itself to this attachment style. After all, every time, without fail, as soon as something begins to slowly take shape, one of us moves away and all that potential energy goes "poof."

For a while I coasted (perhaps too much) in the comfort of long-distance calls and Skyping. But my closest friend from college is now deeply involved in restarting her life on the opposite side of the country. And despite all those wonderful things I mentioned at the beginning of this letter, I am so, so, so deeply lonely. To the point where I question everything I ever hoped for from adulthood. If this is really what being an adult means, I don't think I want it anymore. Sure, I can pay my bills, but what I really want is someone to go get Arby's curly fries at 2 a.m. with. All my co-workers grew up and went to school and college in the area, meaning they all have extended networks of family and friends built up over a lifetime. God, I want that. I want that friend of the family who's practically a second mother, that uncle who shows up unannounced, that pack of girlfriends you've never celebrated a birthday without.

So in lieu of that lifetime of network-building, I'm trying that whole initiative thing in the most pathetic way possible. I made a giant list of "Ways to Make Friends." It's an unwieldy beast and includes meet-ups, running groups, classes, exercise groups, Twitter, etc. But against all this desperate trying pushes the grim reality: Making friends is hard work and everyone is so busy and not interested. Finding people with common ground is suddenly like climbing a mountain, and most of the things I'm interested in seem to attract the retired, recently divorced, or new moms, all of whom are lovely people but who are themselves just looking for other retired, recently divorced, or new-mom types who have things in common with them. And to everyone else I either come on as too desperate or too reserved. Suddenly that thing that used to come so naturally is broken and trying to fix it is just making things worse. And when I burn out from all the effort, it hits me hard. I stop trying and I just wallow. I'm in one of those spells right now, recuperating and miserable.

I'm not sure if I need advice or reassurance or what. I feel like Quasimodo in the bell tower. But without a hump, what's my excuse? 

Friendless

 

Dear Friendless,

Someone should really poll women in their late 20s who live in great cities with great boyfriends and have great careers, because I'll bet a lot of them are nearly friendless. This is the downside of living in a gigantic country like the U.S.: You move away for college, you move away for work, you move away because you meet a great guy or girl, and one day you wake up and you're 2,000 miles away from anyone who knows you really well. For someone who's faintly allergic to small talk, who can never quite hit that lowest common denominator of casual chattiness, who can never quite manage to burble happily about the weather and the news and those cute shoes and the new restaurant down the block, making brand-new friends sounds about as appealing as a trip to the podiatrist. (If you've never been to a podiatrist, please remain in that blissfully ignorant state for as long as you can.)

And if you moved a lot as a kid, you learned to appear satisfied in a crowd, because wandering around asking people to talk to you or play with you is a one-way ticket to landing at the bottom of the social totem pole. "They already have their friends," you told yourself, and fiddled "contentedly" with something in the corner instead. This might be adaptive as a child, but as an adult it just means you're throwing up a protective "I DON'T NEED ANYONE, I'M FINE" face to the world.

So the first thing you have to do is accept that, despite appearances, you're not all that different than most people your age. The mid- to late-20s are often an apex of friendless desperation. To make matters worse, people feel very self-conscious about their friendlessness at that age, as if everything should've fallen into place a long time ago. Considering how often urban, career-focused Americans move around and turn their lives upside down in their 20s, you'd think most of us would know better.

It's also crucial to remember that even when people "already have their friends" and everything has fallen into place, it can easily fall out of place at any time. Not to mention the many people who look at their existing friendships in their 20s and say, "What the fuck? WHO ARE THESE TERRIBLE PEOPLE?" In fact, my guess is that MOST people your age are in the same boat, even if it doesn't look that way from the outside.

Age 28 was a real low point in my friendship trajectory. I had just moved to L.A. with my boyfriend — we lived down the block from each other. I was living alone for the first time, which was amazing, but I tended to revel in this solitude to the point of rarely leaving my apartment. I washed the wood floors a lot, and grew nice houseplants. I also worked from home; see also: no work friends to speak of. My boyfriend worked in film production and was sometimes away for weeks at a time. We knew one other couple, and then my boyfriend's friendship with one of them fell apart. And then a few months later, I broke up with him.

I can handle isolation. I don't mind it. I can be alone for a stretch. I can call old friends on the phone. But this was crazy. I was basically living and working alone, and I had NO ONE in the entire city of L.A. to hang out with. Just going to the corner store felt like an epic journey. I got all bugged out and self-conscious. Like you, I wanted friendships to grow slowly and naturally, and I had no patience for people who seemed too different from me. I was a cross between Winona Ryder in Heathers and E.T. — a jumpy, bug-eyed alien life force with a shitty attitude about everyone and everything.

Aww. Poor me! But even though I was a socially-paralyzed shut-in, my standards were way too fucking high. No one was smart enough or interesting enough for me. No one was perfectly equipped to understand every inch of my tortured soul.

Is there any creature alive with higher, more impossible standards than a 28-year-old? The only difference between a 28-year-old woman and a 38-year-old woman is that one of them tries to hide how few friends she has, and the other will email you out of the blue and demand to hang out after meeting you for exactly four seconds in a room full of retired people and divorced people and new moms. The late-30s woman knows that it's no big deal to want to make new friends. Maybe it won't be a life-changing time, or maybe you'll be acquaintances, or maybe you'll be vacationing together down the road. It's worth a shot.

And people past 40? If we get along over the course of an hour's conversation, we practically move in together. We've long since abandoned the dream of 2 a.m. curly fries, as well as the luxury of holding out for the exact perfect person to spend time with. We long ago learned to talk to our closest friends on the phone, because they live in Seattle or New York City or fucking Berlin. The rest of the friends we might have in town have kids (if we don't have kids) or they're married (if we're single) or their kids are friends with different kids (if we do have kids), so we have to hang out with whichever motherfuckers happen to have kids in our neighborhood. Our standards are pretty low. Can you carry on a conversation? Is your kid maybe not a complete asshole? COME SIT NEXT TO ME, YOU ARE MY BUDDY.

So the second thing I want you to know is that, in order to make very close friends in a natural, organic way, you have to cast a wide net and be accepting and give it time. You can't use the aggressive, early twentysomething's tactics, because it poisons the whole process to believe that you're trying to hunt and trap the perfect BFF. Scrape those curly fries out of your mind. Some of your closest, lifelong friends may not seem like close, lifelong friends for the first five or six years you know them. Seriously. It takes time to figure out who matters, who listens, who tells the truth, who comes through in a pinch, who's down to earth, who appreciates you and accepts your flaws, who says the right thing at the right time, and who makes sense all around.

I get that, in your 20s, friendships are intertwined with identity. It can be dangerous to befriend people who are aggressively different from you, honestly, if your boundaries are pretty permeable. It's natural to want to stay away from people who, when you speak honestly about your experiences, look totally confused or annoyed.

But as you get a little older, you know who you are and you don't mind knowing people who don't necessarily get you. Knowing people who don't get you is actually good for you. You're exposed to new things and you prepare yourself to be a better, more accepting friend, partner, parent, kid, co-worker, everything. I used to limit myself to people who were a lot like me. These days, though, I have friends who are completely different from me. I have a friend who reads only romance novels. I have a friend who's a homicide detective for the LAPD. And I just made a brand-new friend, a razor-sharp, unapologetically opinionated French woman who doesn't eat meat or dairy. I mean, what a waste of Frenchness, to shun aged cheeses!

I met these people because one friend moved across town, one friend had a baby, and one friend got too busy with work, so I rarely saw them. One day I woke up and realized that unless I wanted to be a shut-in, I needed to get out there and fucking make it work. I stuck my neck out and struck up conversations and invited people over. Sometimes I felt sort of pathetic doing it, but I did it anyway.

But the more I made new friends, the clearer it was to me that no one is ever really done making new friends, and very few people are averse to it. I used to assume that people ALREADY HAD THEIR FRIENDS, but that's almost never the case. Even when people seem to be busy and social, they're often very open to getting to know someone new.

And people don't stick to their own categories as much as you'd think. You throw a party or start a book club and people show up, they're curious, they're into it. You go sing karaoke at a bar or go bowling and everyone is ready to strike up a conversation. They don't necessarily care if you're exactly like them. People are always friendlier than they seem. It's strange how I didn't understand (or care to recognize) that when I was younger. Interesting people know that interesting people come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.

The ultimate goal is not necessarily to make a bunch of friends who are nothing like you, but to get out there and try. You can't be too picky. Open your mind and your heart. Don't stigmatize yourself for having zero friends now. Everyone I know has gone through what you're going through a few times over. Even the perfect social life can evaporate into thin air. The greatest friend group can scatter to the winds overnight. People move and get married and die. Sad, but true.

You've got to get out of that Alone in My Dorm Room, Listening to Other People Laughing on a Saturday Night mentality. I think you're idealizing other people's lives and friendships because you feel lonely. But the truth is, not that many people are grabbing curly fries at 2 a.m., even if they're besties who live together. Other women's lives aren't just like an episode of Broad City.

Do you honestly want an uncle who shows up unannounced? Come on. That guy always drops by at dinnertime, and his perpetual-bachelor shtick is no excuse. And have you ever actually met a pack of girlfriends who someone has never celebrated a single birthday without? Because those are the kinds of women who insist that you wear a tiara out to a bar, demand that you unwrap your birthday presents in front of 32 grown adults, and plan painful baby-shower activities involving sucking on binkies or wearing adult diapers. Maybe these herds make things magical for the birthday girl/bride/pregnant lady, but everyone else in the room is in agony.

You can't get a BFF overnight, and you shouldn't be in the market for that right now anyway. You just need a few people to hang out with occasionally. Mostly, though, you need to practice the art of coming out of your shell, of listening, of making a connection. You can do this with a retiree or a new mom. Maybe it won't amount to anything, but it's still good for you. You can simply exchange a few words, learn something. You can simply show up, hold your own space, feel alive, take in the atmosphere, and be prepared to talk if that situation arises.

You can also invite an awkward ensemble of work friends out for dinner. You can call it "Sushi Thursdays" or "Nacho Night" and fucking dork it out, and people will gobble that shit up. You can start a book club that has one shy work friend, one divorced woman from your knitting group, and one friend of your boyfriend's co-worker in it. You can throw a monthly dinner party and invite people you don't even love that much, just to get back into the practice of listening and getting to know people and putting yourself out there.

I get that these things sound wrong and stupid and maybe not even possible. But you can choose one thing and do it. The weight of the world doesn’t have to rest on this one thing. When I was your age and I had zero friends in L.A., I started running six miles once a week with a doctor friend of my sister's who'd just moved to L.A. and didn't know anyone either. The first time he came by my apartment to run, he spotted a copy of Vanity Fair with Matt Damon on the cover and said, without irony, "Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — wouldn't you just love to know those guys? I'll bet they'd be really cool to hang out with!"

What could I possibly say to that? I think I went into the kitchen and punched my fist into the wall.

He was a nice guy, though, and after hours of running and talking, we got to be casual friends. He didn't end up being a lifelong friend, but he reminded me that sometimes just being around people, no matter how different they are, feels good. Sometimes it feels good BECAUSE they're totally different from you.

And I think he might've even been right about Damon and Affleck. Who knew?

You will not pull a mother figure or an amazing first cousin or a roomful of lifelong girlfriends out of thin air. Most people don't have these things, actually. We have to fucking make it work instead.

The more you try — without skyrocketing expectations, without circular thoughts that say YOU ARE A FRIENDLESS FREAK — the easier it'll be. The more you do it, the happier you'll be, even if no lifelong friends emerge immediately. You should do it now in order to prepare you for doing it 20 years from now, because you'll ALWAYS have to do it. You don't just get the big group of buddies and then sleepwalk through the rest of your life. Life isn't like that.

You have a great life already. You're not starting from zero. You just have to get out of this ashamed, protective place and know that, if you work hard to get your head in the right place, people will be drawn to you. You can't get discouraged when great friendships don't appear immediately. You have to keep the faith and keep trying and recognize that it's good for you, and good for everybody else, too. The world is not filled with favorite uncles dropping by packed birthday parties. A lot of people are all alone.

As you get older, you notice that some people do eventually shut the world out, and other people, the ones who really know how to live, open themselves up and keep meeting new people. My mother, who is 72, has always had a small handful of close friends, and she never went out of her way to meet new people. But then she retired, and her boyfriend died, and one of her lifelong friends died, and after that her dog died. Can you fucking imagine? Being old is a motherfucker.

But then, one day, she made two new friends in her neighborhood. Now they go walking together every morning. Sometimes one of them says outrageous, unbelievable things. Sometimes the other one repeats herself. They are not perfect. But they walk and check up on each other and make dinner for each other, drinking cocktails on the back patio together on a warm late-summer evening.

This life is not perfect. This world is not a perfect place. Sometimes it's nice to sip a drink, and repeat yourself, among people who aren't perfect, and don't expect you to be perfect either. Aim low, open your heart, and let them in.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.