“Friend-dating” in a new city is weird but worth it
By Millie Taylor
It’s ok to be desperate for friends in a new town.
We talk a lot about the unrealistic portrayals of romantic relationships in our culture, but what no one really talks about, and what I had to find out for myself when I moved out to Washington D.C., is that making (and keeping) friends looks nothing like how it does in the movies. Just about every book, podcast, film, TV show and blog romanticises friendship. Even the unlikely friend couplings, like Otis and Maeve in “Sex Education, are natural and perfectly imperfect. In actual fact, the reality of making friends is that it is lonely, awkward and weird but, as I’ve discovered after countless “friend-dates” in my new city, thoroughly worth it.
When I moved to D.C, I was in need of a new crowd, and fast. The only movie that came close to reflecting my situation at that time was Paul Rudd dating a series of guys to try and get some friends in “I Love You, Man”. This didn’t exactly make me feel great.
A common misconception that we’ve all internalised about making friends, supported by countless books and shows, is that friendship will just happen organically.
Friendships never seem to be forced or contrived in the movies, and those in search of friends never appear to be desperate. But it’s ok to be desperate for friends; it’s a natural consequence of the shifts our lives undergo as we transition through quarterlife.
My first exposure to this quarterlife rite of passage occurred in my first week in D.C. I was on my first “friend date”. The bar was packed and waiters in all-white outfits slinked between groups of post-college professionals drawn to the nation’s capital. You’d have thought from the music that we were in some sort of Ibiza club lounge, the walls a crimson red and men in open plaid shirts lined the bar. The place had that sort of sad desperation about it that you might overhear someone describing as “vibey”. My phone lit up: “I’m in the pink dress by the bar. I brought my roommate, hope you don’t mind”.
A former president once said, “Washington is a very easy city to forget where you came from and why you went there in the first place”. As I settled in, I too began to wonder why I went there in the first place. I had said goodbye to not only my new flat in London, but also a long-term boyfriend, and even a beloved cat, Trevor, all for a six-month all-expenses-paid secondment.
Everything had been arranged. I had a new apartment, a new office, new colleagues and a new time zone. But one thing I did not have waiting for me were new friends.
I, like the politicians around me, had to do the rounds. Persuade people of my veracity, charm them with safe dad jokes. I didn’t have all my school, sixth form, work friends, and friends of friends to fall back on.
It turns out that, like a work-persona, we have a making-friends-persona, and both must appear authentic despite being, by necessity, completely contrived. To find new friends I had to insert myself into people’s lives, and finding friends became the dating game I had never played.
Dates required a neutral setting, somewhere equidistant from our flats with a high google rating, and I was conscious of drinking too much or too little. I was conscious of my body, my clothes.
The first date turned out to be a little odd; the person remarked on no less than five occasions how happy she was I wasn’t fat. On another, I was not allowed to split the bill or the Uber home so when I received a text for a second date I then wondered, what do they want from me in return?
Aside from these odd encounters, what was most confusing above all, was that friend dating didn’t come with the established codes of behaviour you’d expect in romantic relationships. When you are friend-dating, there’s no acceptable time to have “the conversation”, or to ask, a la Mona to Ross, “so where do you see this going?” You could ask, sure, but you’d inevitably get Ross’s noncommittal, “It’s going...somewhere...fun.” Just hope they don’t panic and give you the only key to their apartment.
Why was I so surprised that making friends invoked the same nervousness and awkwardness as dating?
After those first few weeks I became my own campaign manager, marching forward with a clear agenda. I decided I needed a few people I could call on if I needed a glass of wine after a hard day or a weekend escape from the city. No stone was left unturned, and I was swiping right to everyone, saying “yes” to every party. Handing out my number in smoking areas with slurry promises of coffee. Some of my matches remarked on the fact that there seemed little point in making an effort with me. I was only going to be leaving, just like everyone else. Washington is a transient place, where people come and go - a place no-one really calls home. It is a fact that all relationships, romantic or not, can only survive a certain amount of distance. In time, I would mute the WhatsApp group, stop liking their holiday posts and slowly but surely forget we were ever friends in the first place. We only vote for a candidate that sticks around to deliver what they promised. These were harsh truths, but what I did develop after hearing them time and time again was a thick skin, and an ingrained resistance to jumping into anything too quickly, or expecting too much from an initial few meetings with anyone.
I became so comfortable with the prospect of failure in these friendships that it became a much easier process than dating had ever been for me.
Although it took time, I persevered with my campaign. I kept putting myself out there, unashamedly. I kept meeting people. I must have given my number to half of the district by the time I managed to find those people that made life abroad and alone almost bearable.
I am happy to say that the approach worked, and that I did ultimately find those people I was so desperate to find - those that I could call on when I needed a friend.
Along the way I began to understand that the rules of friend dating appear much the same as those for romantic dating. Desperation is natural; you just have to date enough that it becomes less of a big deal to you. You must actively seek companionship, nurture it, and be thoroughly prepared to fail.
Deep and lasting friendships take years, and not everyone will like you; this was another difficult truth that I had to learn out in Washington. Some may like you in time, some might never. And that is ok. If you have less time and, like I did, a greater and more urgent need to build and nurture friendships, I would say two things. 1) you’ll learn more about relationships than you ever imagined, and 2) you should hope for nothing more than to just enjoy the moment, embracing both the successful encounters, and the less successful ones. Finally, remember to keep up those precious friendships you left at home. They are the proof you can do it after all.
Image by unknown Pinterest artist.