Over the years I’ve had bigger and smaller birthday gatherings with more and less people at them. I move a lot – often changing cities – so the size of the event is loosely dependent on how soon after moving my birthday occurs and how friendly a set of co-workers I have at any moment. The previous year had been one of the smallest, so this year I was determined to do better.
Starting a whole month before my actual birthday I started plotting out what new friends I was going to invite. I tried to balance old friends and new, and those from my different jobs. It worked great on paper, but the execution of invitation was a lot harder than I thought. It was so hard that I didn’t net a single extra celebratory person.
Weeks after the fact I was sitting at the pub with my old friend Rachel, telling her this story. She nodded sympathetically as I explained the details. “I’d walk up to somebody, say, a co-worker. It would be somebody that I could normally talk to just fine about doing work. I’d try to invite them, I’d open my mouth, and no words would come out. I’d just stand there until they looked up, and then apologize and walk away.”
“I know what you mean,” Rachel said. “It’s like you want to be friends with someone so bad – you find them so funny or charming or whatever – that you just want to walk up to them and say ‘be my friend!’ and instead it comes out like:
Rachel at least put my situation into perspective. And while I felt better not being alone, I felt terrible knowing that there are other fully grown humans out there who, as adults, have lost their ability to make friends! Are we just much better at psyching ourselves out of confrontation, even when the confrontation might yield positive results? Or is it really that much harder these days than when we were on the playground?
Turns out – it is that much harder! A quick search of the internet turned up at least half a dozen articles on this very topic all of which said the same thing: we’re not broken or incapable of friendship, it just gets harder as you get older. Families and jobs become a priority over friends, and the rate of loosing friends when you’ve moved once or twice (or five or six times, as I have) increases exponentially.
How do we fix it? Here’s a short explanation of the situation from this TIME article by Samantha Lee and Drake Baer:
In the 1950’s sociologists discovered three factors that are necessary for making friends.
Proximity – you should be near one another
Unplanned Reactions – you run into each other even when you don’t schedule it
Privacy – you’re in situations where you can confide in each other
Adulthood provides few situations where all three of these are possible.
The key, then, would seem to be to make them possible. And it doesn’t have to start with a situation that’s as major as my birthday invitation. They suggest that just “becoming a regular” somewhere is enough to put you in proximity and create unplanned reactions. Another suggestion is to “make people feel like they matter” by asking for favors or help. This puts you in proximity, causes a future reaction when you get to return the favor, and allows opportunity to share more private information.
Certainly some solid strategy to consider before the next cake and ice cream.