My eldest child just got what I refer to as her first “big girl” job. What’s a big girl job? She was working for one company and was recruited, apparently heavily, by one of her vendors. This in and of itself isn’t surprising, this is how the world operates. Well I say it’s not surprising, it is kind of shocking to me. Mostly because I still think of her as the girl who, one time, put the cheese sauce in the mac and cheese without draining the boiling water from the pasta. But kids do grow up even if we parent’s sometimes can’t see it. So apparently she grew up and got good at her job. So good in fact that someone wants to hire her and is almost doubling her salary. The negative of this is that my girl has to move to another state. From a timing perspective, it was a good time in her life for her to do something like this. But she’s going to a place where she barely knows anyone. Beyond her job, she’s going to need to make friends, and make them quickly or the big opportunity will become a nightmare. I know this because I did the same thing at her age.
In my early twenties I decided to move to North Carolina. For me, I believe it was a similar situation to my daughter. It was a good opportunity to achieve what I thought was a golden ticket in my career. There were also several other reasons to make the move. I deeply desired a change in my, at the time, unfulfilling life. In a misguided decision, I chose not to go to South Carolina and live near my on again, off again, girlfriend. Instead, I chose to do what I deemed was in the best interest of the company so I moved to Raleigh. This put me in a position where I was traveling during the week, and home on the weekends. Being that it was a traveling sales position, I got to listen to a ton of good audio books but I didn’t have office mates to make friends with. Not only that because I was on the road during the week I lost a great deal of time that could have been used in activities which would allow me to make friends or better myself.
Looking back I recall how incredibly lonely that part of my life was. I didn’t take advantage of my weekends to start a social network because I was more of a “sit at home and watch TV” type of person versus the type of guy who likes going out to a bar to catch a game. The local watering hole can be a good place to jump start a social life. Although as I get into later, my dislike of sports and sports bars may actually have been a good thing longer term. It took what seemed like years before I made some friends with my neighbors and got absorbed into their circle. Eventually I got a girlfriend who would become my wife and then our friend group started growing, mostly accelerated by children.
My daughters move, and knowing the social challenges she’ll face starting over in a new town, got me thinking. I was a chunky, awkward and somewhat introverted kid. Thankfully my daughter is pretty and has a great personality. I don’t think she’ll have as hard a time as I did, but she will still struggle a bit. My thoughts started to coalesce around the question of what are the best ways to make friends? There is no exact science to this, but there are definitely some things to keep in mind. Well I say there isn’t an exact science but there are some best practices to be sure. Anyone who’s read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People knows some of the best techniques for interpersonal communication and building friendships. But beyond the one to one interactions there are some other big things you can consider to help the process along.
If you can make just one friend, then try to make it a “bug light” friend. Anyone who’s ever had one of those outdoor bug lights knows how they work. A bright bluish purple light attracts bugs which have to travel through an electrified mesh screen. As soon as the bugs touch the screen they get zapped and die. These lights are handy little tools to have in any outdoor setting. There is a personality type who is like that light. They have this uncanny ability to drive social interactions across an ever changing group. There are many reasons why these people exist and act the way they do. A deep dive into their motivations goes well beyond the scope of this article. The important thing is that they are people magnets. They’re always having a party or some kind of gathering. They are continually engaging as many people as possible, usually with themselves at the center. I’ve noticed through the years that they usually have their own personality quirks and have a tendency to burn through friends relatively quickly. But often, they act as a catalyst for other friendships in their group. The best part about bug light friends is that it’s pretty easy to get into their circle. It’ll be the person who’s talking about the next big party or group trip and encouraging you to take part. My recommendation: Go to the parties and go on the trips. Through the network effect, you’ll probably make several casual friends in the group before you’ve had enough of the personality quirks inherent in the bug light friend. By the time you decide to distance yourself from them you’ll have a few closer friends you can take with you from that experience.
Another trick, a more important one, and one that could potentially lead you two lots of opportunities, is the simple act of activity. When I was going through my lonely years, as I said, I didn’t really do much outside the apartment. Looking back on it, there were actually a couple of periods In my life where I was sort of starting from scratch. In one of those times I had a part-time job. In theory it was supposed to help me pay off my bills at the time. In reality it worked much better as a way to make friends. In fact, the person who I started hanging out with ultimately introduced me to the person who would become my wife. It wasn’t a glamorous job, it was waiting tables at a crappy pizza place. Most of the people there were either young and/or had issues. But even out of that mess of wacky personalities there was one who was a good fit as a friend.
Anyone can get a job like I did at a crappy pizza place. The benefit is you’ll meet lots of people there. If you are upwardly mobile minded, then food service isn’t ideal as you tend not to get a large population of accomplished professionals to interact with. That being said, if you’re like my daughter, or me a few decades ago, it’s a great start. Other options include volunteering at a hospital or some other population-heavy non-profit. I like the idea of the part-time job, because even if it’s menial labor, you’re still bringing in a few bucks. You also are forced to be around people who are there quite regularly. That increased interaction helps with friendship building.
Now there is a pitfall you want to avoid. It may seem counterintuitive, but I think you should avoid organizations structured as affinity groups. I’m thinking of Churches, bar’s, and social organizations and most organizations designed from the start to attract people. What I mean by social and Civic would be something like the Kiwanis club or a local political party. It could even be an adult fraternity or sorority. If your doors are always open with a “come on in” sign, challenged personalities will walk through more frequently then those who are more stable. By default these people can be challenging to have as friends. Also, Affinity groups like the rotary or the local church have a tendency to be so mission-oriented, they can try to stomp out your uniqueness. In the worst types of cases they can even be a little bit like a stalker if you decide the group’s dynamic is not for you.
The social groups that develop at bars and nightclubs are unique themselves. The best friendships are built around shared interests. Over time those interests are augmented by shared life experiences. Rarely do I see friendships grow out of something that starts where the thing that people have in common is drinking. It’s that simple. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasant way to spend the night, and often you can have good conversation in these types of situations. Unfortunately, if your life can benefit from the type of friend who you can share common interests with, who can enrich your life and who can ultimately help you become a better person, these places are usually less beneficial than getting a job waiting tables at the local Pizza Hut.
You’ll notice that I did not focus on kids at first. Kids are natural friendship catalysts. Because they often need assistance from their parents to facilitate their own friendships, by default, the parents typically benefit from an expanded social circle. It’s easier for the parents as well because they have something in common. They have children the same age. The parents build their friendship because they have to work together. For example it’s easier if parents pool resources, like carpooling or even vacationing together. Most parents will tell you that vacationing is just more enjoyable if the kids get to have friends. Unfortunately when the kids become independent the parental relationship often ends. The challenge with kids is that the situation is temporary. Parental friendships are based on friendly working relationships. Like most friends at work when you leave the company, when you don’t have to interface with them anymore, the friendship fades. Also, kids are related to a very specific period in your life. You never want to tell somebody like me when I was in my twenties or my daughter, “hey if you want to make friends then go have a kid.”
The biggest thing with friendships, and really all relationships, is proximity. Quite often over the years I’ve found that the close friends I have in my working hours never turn into ‘outside of work’ friends because they live far from the office and there is no opportunity to get together other than work. Once one of us leaves the shared employer, then the friendship mostly ends. It’s a similar experience to our social circle friends. Yes, we can remain friendly with people you may have to move away from, but it’s hard to become or remain close friends when there is physical distance. Interestingly this is quantifiable. I’ve found that almost anything over a twenty minute drive, in my experience, becomes a major barrier to maintaining a close friendship. Yes we live in a connected world, but we can’t forget that the human animal is a pack animal. Close friendships require physical interactions. This barrier can actually become a very powerful tool in your life. Take my daughter for example, if she clicks with some people at her job and they become close work friends, she can choose a place to live that’s close to the new friends. Also, if she makes friends with a bug light friend, who over time, pardon the pun, starts to really bug her, then she can simply move to another part of town that’s closer to some of the other friends she’s made in the bug light friend’s group.
Making friends, good friends, is hard. There is the mechanics of it, which is covered by many sources, not the least of which is the famous Carnegie book I’ve already cited. Then there are the broader strategic actions of who you associate with and where you live. All of these things need to be continually practiced as there’s a life cycle to friendships. I’ve always said that they’re like the tide. They come, they go, and sometimes, after a long while they come back in. Everyone should always be actively building more friendships. It’s easy to do when you have kids. It’s a lot harder when you’re in other periods of your life like just moving to a new city or, when your kids are out of the house. That’s where all these tips came in. Speaking of tips, I have one last tip for you. If you do decide to go the route of the part time job at the pizza place, try and avoid the temptation of bringing home all the leftover pizza. Free food is almost always good, especially when you are at the part of your career where the cost of a pizza is significant to you. Unfortunately, I can tell you from experience, wolfing down pizza every night will probably result in having to get new clothing that fits better. I guess even that has a silver lining in that shopping is a great way to spend down time, especially with all your new friends!
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