Making friends in your 20s is so awkward; but here’s what you can do about it
By Greg Owens
Leaving uni can be a lonely time; you go from sharing a house with your closest mates to sending the occasional WhatsApp. So, what can you do to build new friendships after graduating?
The thought of leaving uni and becoming an “adult” is a horrible one. It means having a job, becoming organised with money, taking care of yourself sensibly and having a bedtime again. As I approached graduation day, I decided that one of the key things I was determined to hold on to, no matter what, was my social life. I had a great group and we were inseparable. We spent most of our time hanging out, playing video games and drinking. I had a vision that we’d simply move to a new city and be able to continue the student dream into our twenties. Sadly, the reality has been a little trickier and lonelier.
Predictably, my friendship group, like many others in my year, disbanded after uni. Some moved back home (which I wouldn’t recommend if you can avoid it), my more industrious friends followed their career ambitions to other cities, my friends who were less career-focused concentrated on their relationships and some went travelling. I was left floating around, working service jobs and playing video games alone.
When this happens, what follows can be an unexpectedly rough time. I’ve seen a few people knocked sideways by this sudden change from intense contact - living across the landing from your closest friends - to a few infrequent WhatsApps.
Over the last few years I’ve had to figure out ways to strike up conversations and seek out relationships with new people. I hope that my experience, which I have distilled into four principles of making friends as an adult (even though it feels really awkward), might help you to build a new social life when your uni friends are scattered to the winds.
1. Having actually meaningful conversations AKA ask questions and listen to the answers.
I’ve listened to lots of conversations over the past few years that weren’t really conversations at all. Instead, they were two or more people giving speeches to each other and impatiently waiting for others to finish talking so that they could start speaking, tell their own story or make another point.
People tend to be much more responsive and willing to share their time with you if you take a genuine interest in their lives. Put simply: people like being listened to, so this is a pretty quick-fire way to get into someone’s good books.
There’s a whole landscape of exploration that comes with each answer you get from a person, and if you aren’t really listening, you might not notice it. For example, I went out last weekend with a girl I’ve recently started dating and she challenged me by leaving me with one of her friends for a few minutes in a really loud, crowded underground bar. The brief that her friend was left with was to “interview me” (for approval) because apparently she was a good interviewer! I asked why, and she told me it was because she was pursuing journalism. As soon as I asked why she was interested in pursuing journalism (and I did genuinely want to know) the conversation began to flow, and she told me about her interest in giving a voice to the voiceless, and why this was an important goal for her.
2. Follow your interests & you’ll find like-minded friends.
If you feel as though you had far more friends during your childhood and are having a kind of personality crisis now because you’re struggling to find friends, go easy on yourself. The conditions for making friends as a kid are far easier; you’re taken to places by adults and left there with other kids, who were also taken there by adults. You barely had to make any effort to find other people. As an adult you have to go about the whole thing far more proactively. You have to make yourself do things and go to places when you have no inclination to do so, and when there is little incentive because nothing is at risk if you don’t.
Worse still is the fact that adults are far more developed than children and have nuanced, niche personalities and interests, and that can make gelling with people far less straightforward. A good starting point to overcome this is to go somewhere that sparks a little nervous excitement. If you’re a musician, you might consider an open mic night or a jam night. If you’re a crazy blockhead who likes outdoor challenges and doesn’t mind getting dirty, something like Tough Mudder might be a good starting point. The basic principle here is that if you pursue things that you’re really into, other people who are also really into it will have done the same, so you’ll run into a load of people who are like you. Pretty straightforward really!
My own personal experience of this was when I’d ended up jobless, single and living with my parents in my early 20s, I saw an advert for a week-long workshop at Manchester Central Library learning how to produce records using sampling techniques. That’s where I started talking to Hamdi Hassan, who goes by the stage name HMD and is now a rising star on the Manchester music scene. After a few years of creative collaboration, we now perform live together. So the trajectory of my life was altered in a significant and positive way because I chased something that sounded interesting and found a friend in it.
3. Don’t be a flake, be reliable.
If you’re trying to convince people that you’re worth hanging out with, it’s good to turn up on time
and do the things you say you’ll do. When I started working at a pub in my hometown after
graduating, I latched onto this guy called Tom because he was pretty well put together. He always had a positive mindset, pursued his out-of-work goals relentlessly and was in very good shape. I asked him what it takes to be in good physical shape the way he was and he offered to take me training with him so he could show me, rather than just describing what he did to me. He introduced me to HIIT (high-intensity interval training), which in this case was running to the
top of a hill in our town and sprinting to the peak ten times with a light jog back down in between. It was hard work but an amazing feeling when it was over!
This experience proved to me that there is yet another benefit in asking people about themselves and listening to what they have to offer, because Tom helped me shift the weight I gained at uni, and I’ve kept on top of it ever since.
However, because I hadn’t learned to be reliable, our training sessions tapered off pretty quickly. We finished a shift at one in the morning and I still promised that I’d be at the hill at 08:30AM the following day. When I woke in the morning I seriously wasn’t up for it and just stayed in bed without letting Tom know. He was more than happy to train alone as that was his normal practice, but we didn’t train together too much after that.
4. Friendships don’t always breakdown because someone else is “toxic”; you might need to work on yourself too.
In writing all of this, I’ve had a quote from Mad Men ringing in my ears. It left quite an impression on me when I first heard it. In the finale of Season 3, Creative Director Don Draper has lost multiple friends and relationships as a result of behaving like a lone wolf who needs no assistance. When reconciling with his team, his boss and account director Roger Sterling blasts him: “you’re no good at relationships because you don’t value them!”.
If you’re struggling to make (or keep) friends, consider why you want them in the first place. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. People aren’t there for your benefit alone, they should matter to you as much as you want to matter to them. I was in a little group at one point - there were three of us - and it dissolved because one guy never tried to contact you if you didn’t contact him first. It felt like we had to work for the privilege of his attention, so we just stopped indulging it and he never came back.
There’s a lot of noise online right now about not hanging around people who don’t act as if you matter (“toxic” people is the popular jargon), but in my opinion it’s more important to keep an eye on yourself and how you behave towards others. If people don’t want to hang out with you and you don’t understand why, you might not be the person you think you are. When I was younger, in my head, I was a pleasant, gifted but victimised person. However, the way I acted was entitled and superior (“Why isn’t the world laying itself out in front of me? I’m really great and talented!”). In fact I actually had staff complain about me to my boss when I was 23 because I pulled rank and claimed that they couldn’t criticise my lateness because I was their superior. It’s absolutely no surprise that I didn’t make any lasting friends there.
So treat people in a way that you’d want them to treat you. Ask them about their life and experiences and really try to listen to the answer; show them that you’ve heard them! If you say you’ll do something for or with them, make sure you do it so they stick with you in the future. If there’s no one around for you to practice these techniques with, go somewhere that catches your attention and you’ll find them there.