Buddy System Error

Photo: Zohar Lazar

The horrors of dating in New York are well documented and universally maligned, but newcomers to this city often learn that making friends can be a lot harder than getting laid. In the world of friendships, as in the world of relationships, new acquaintances are expected to have something going for them—an “in,” a résumé, a killer sense of humor or style. If the newcomer is nice but nothing more, it can take him years just to make one new friend. Though social-networking services have sprung up seeking to help the lonely become social, they can cost over a grand to join—far more than most dating sites. Like nearly everything else in this city, friendship comes with a price.

Thom, 32, is a British lawyer who moved to Manhattan in May for a new job. Though he had a lot of European friends here, he wanted to meet Americans, so he posted an ad on a Website and checked only the box for “friendship”: “The ad said, ‘What are you looking for?’ I checked ‘men’ and ‘women,’ thinking that would be completely acceptable. No. What happened was that people thought I was pitching for both teams. I got a lot of e-mails from hunky-looking chaps without shirts saying, ‘You’ve got a cute smile. Let’s meet up.’ I wanted to meet new people, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.”

A quick glance at his ad reveals several obvious problems—his hair, short and spiky, reads as chic in Europe but Chelsea-boy in New York. His shirt is long-sleeved and just a little too well-fitting, his jeans clean and far too dark, and in one photo, he is standing next to … a moped.

After a co-worker pointed out the flaws in his ad, Thom unchecked the “men” box, even though he wants friends of both sexes. “Now what I’ve gotten is women who are definitely interested in committed relationships, children, and marriage,” he says.

He’s tried socializing offline, in bars, but though he’s hooked up several times, he’s made few new friends, male or female. Part of it is due to cultural differences. In England, if you start a conversation with a woman in a pub, it doesn’t mean anything. “With New York women,” he says, “it becomes ‘I’m attracted to you for x, y, zed—let’s see what else you have to say for yourself.’ They don’t want to just have a chat and enjoy the evening. If people here spent more time getting to know someone instead of breaking them into categories, then things would be a lot easier.”

“People don’t want to give you any time if they don’t have an immediate need for you. They’re not mean, just opportunistic.”

On the few occasions when people have made friendly overtures to him, he’s discovered that they’re not always genuine. Last summer, Thom was visiting a friend during the blackout. They were sitting outside her building drinking beer and eating wasabi peas—that was all she had—when a neighbor of hers came down and invited them to a barbecue he was having on the roof. “I said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to come.’ My friend said, ‘Maybe we should think about it.’ I said, ‘I don’t have to think about it. It’s a great idea.’ The guy said, ‘Yeah, maybe you guys do want to think about it,’ and went upstairs. I looked at my friend and said, ‘What was that all about? We were disinvited.’ She said we were never really invited, that he was just being polite. It was a blackout and we were eating wasabi peas. That’s not polite. Under the circumstances, it’s almost torturous.”

Jenn, a 35-year-old marketing executive who moved here in 2001 from Chicago, has felt similarly isolated. “I thought it would be easier to make friends here than in Chicago,” she says. “I was completely wrong. Now I go back home and when people ask how it is, I say, ‘Love New York. Have no friends.’ And I’m not even shy.”

She says it boils down to opportunism: “People are so stretched for time that they don’t want to give you any time if they don’t have an immediate need for you. They’re not mean or nasty. They’re just opportunistic.”

Romance hasn’t been a problem—she’s had a six-month relationship, and a two-month relationship with a guy she met on the Activity Partners board of Craigslist who wanted someone to accompany him to the U.S. Open. But making male friends has been tough. “I met some really nice guys on Match.com. I’d go out with them, and at the end of the date I’d say, ‘This was a lot of fun, but I don’t think we have any chemistry. But we should be friends. Let’s get a beer and watch some football sometime.’ ” The response? “ ‘No, thanks. I don’t need any new friends. If you want to date, fine. If not, no.’ ”

Befriending women has been just as difficult: “It’s easy to strike immediate bonds with women. You can commiserate about the dating scene, you can chat each other up about your strappy sandals. But it’s hard to sustain quality friendships over time.” Many women aren’t looking for real companionship, she says; they just want other women to be their partners in husband hunting. “If that’s not your m.o., women don’t have a need for you to be their friend. I’ve walked away from potential friendships because it’s all these women want to do. Why can’t we just go out and have a rock-star time by ourselves?”

Hoping it might help, she joined a church group, went to wine and beer tastings, and tried organized parties. The only group she had success with was Socialcircles.com, which has a $1,275 initiation fee that doesn’t even include the cost of the events. Eventually she made two friends, but “they cost me more than $600 each, and I’m not even in touch with them anymore.”

To be fair, she says, the friendship challenge may have a lot to do with her age. Married people in their thirties spend most of their time with family, while single women in their thirties spend much of their free time going on dates. “When I was 25,” she says, “people weren’t so focused on finding that soul mate, getting married. It was more open. You’d say, ‘Let’s go out and grab beers,’ and the next thing you know, you’re all best buds. As you get older, it’s harder to make friends of both genders because everyone wants to cut to the chase.”

Buddy System Error