It would be great to meet some new friends, but why is it such a challenge? | Anita Chaudhuri
This is the season when my WhatsApp begins to receive group notifications regarding upcoming social events. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy spending time with old friends. However, I have realized that relying on long-standing social traditions can be comforting in uncertain times, but if the people and places never change, it can start to feel repetitive, like Groundhog Day with alcohol.
I came to this realization while setting up a Doodle poll for my college flatmates in hopes of finding a Saturday night that we could all miraculously be available before December. However, I know deep down that this is a futile attempt and we will most likely end up having dinner at 10pm on the Monday before Christmas at some mediocre bar near a train station. One of us will inevitably show up an hour late with a dazzling excuse that we won’t even mind. Another can always be counted on to order an extra bottle just seconds before last call, which we will all pretend to be upset about the next morning. This tradition has been upheld since the time of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership.
I have a group of old friends who I often have potluck dinners with, as Americans would call them. Every time, I make sure to bring mashed potatoes because they are my specialty. There is always something that goes wrong, such as someone’s oven breaking or a missing ingredient, like merguez sausages from the local butcher. However, these predictable mishaps add to the fun of the evening.
Recently, I realized that it has been a long time since I have made a new friend, and this is concerning to me. It is common for people to become stuck in a social routine during mid-life – research has demonstrated that individuals’ social networks tend to decrease in their 30s and it may feel impossible to reverse this trend. As we age, our priorities shift, our schedules become more demanding, and it becomes increasingly difficult to facilitate the necessary conditions for forming new friendships – such as being in close proximity, having frequent unplanned interactions, and being in an environment that fosters trust and openness among people.
Research has demonstrated that novel experiences, such as interacting with unfamiliar individuals, can cause us to perceive time as moving at a slower pace and to have a stronger impact on our memory.
Motivated to break away from the norm, I pushed myself out of my usual routine and attended a work-related gathering. To my disappointment, upon arrival, I didn’t know anyone except for the host who was occupied with other unfamiliar guests. I mingled, had a sip of wine, and awkwardly smiled at a few unknown faces.
I challenged myself to bravely approach a woman who was alone and initiate a conversation with a clever opening line. “It’s quite warm in here, isn’t it?” The person I approached – I mean, someone who could potentially become a new friend – agreed.
Feeling brave, I inquired: “How did you come to know the host?”
“Oh, I haven’t met him before.”
After having a few unproductive conversations, I choose to end the evening, realizing that the reason I struggle socially is due to my poor small talk skills.
This situation reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s bit on trying to make friends when you’re older. He joked, “Whoever your current group of friends is, that’s who you’re stuck with.” He acknowledged that meeting new people can be nice, but it’s not like hiring for a job. However, while it may have been funny at the time, it may not hold up as well now. This was written before social media, the pandemic, and a widespread feeling of loneliness. I consider myself fortunate to have already established friend groups, but maybe it’s time to expand and welcome new members. Anyone up for some mashed potatoes?