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How to make friends in adulthood

Making meaningful connections as an adult in the 21st-century may be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. And we need it.

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I forgot how to make friends. I’m not talking about casual acquaintances or the daily tête-à-tête with the friendly barista where you buy your morning coffee (even though you don’t know their name). I mean bona fide, call-in-a-crisis, rock-solid friendship. The kind of mate who knows your quirks and shortcomings and loves you all the same.

Of course, we all have plenty of experience with finding friends. By the end of our 20s, most of us have made and lost hundreds, as we’ve unconsciously refined a complex ecosystem of different relationships, from those people we feel closest to, through to less essential connections like old school chums or work colleagues.

But what if you had to start over?

In my case, a move from the UK to Australia brought me face to face with the pitfalls of making friends as an adult. Upping sticks from my hometown of London to take a job in Sydney, I expected to find new relationships quickly. Determined to get a foothold I went to parties, invited people out for coffee, struck up conversations at the gym. But despite my best efforts, after a few months of relative solitude, the reality dawned on me: the art of friendship gets harder with age.

Ironically, it seems I’m in good company in this respect. Adulthood inherently brings with it a natural shift in our personal priorities, even if we’re not aware of it. One way or another, our bravery for social experimentation wanes and our zeal for wild, reckless fun is replaced with a preference for a more sedate lifestyle. Our motivations are deflected away from social bonding, and that vacuum is quickly filled with our careers, our romantic relationships or our children.

In my quest to make new connections as a stranger in a strange land, I realised that there are some unfortunate truths of contemporary adulthood that makes forging friendships particularly tricky. As we grow up, we acquire valuable life experience that helps us function better in the world. But this process also makes us predisposed to suspicion. It means, for example, that an unsolicited social approach from a stranger comes loaded with wary scepticism. A nice, innocuous chap like myself is inevitably tarred by the same brush that protects us from creeps, con artists and weirdos.

But we must persist. Just being a common-or-garden adult may dampen our social generosity, but inarguably: having a sense of belonging, sharing and celebrating our similarities, feeling protected in a group are all things we implicitly recognise as valuable. In fact, it’s a yearning that’s hardwired, thanks to millions of years evolving into a social species. The most primitive parts of our brain drive our need for interpersonal contact with others. Loneliness – an emotion I have experienced profoundly during my time in Australia – isn’t just a useless feeling: it’s our nervous system, screaming at us to get connected. So, while social conservatism may be against me, I at least have biology on my side.

Making friends as an adult in the 21st-century may be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. It’s been a process of trial and error, with some false starts along the way, but one simple realisation has helped me become more at ease with the trials and tribulations of socialising as a grownup: friendship can’t be forced. It may sound defeatist, but what I mean by this is that we cement bonds with others unconsciously. A shared love of contemporary theatre; growing up in a similar sleepy corner of Hertfordshire; a common guilty pleasure for the novels of Jackie Collins and the Eurovision Song Contest: it is impossible to predict what parts of our complex individuality will spark a friendship, but in my experience at least, it’s often rooted in the most unexpected nooks of our personalities.

Making these first tentative in-roads takes time, but this experience has made me grateful for even the smallest patch of common ground with the people I meet. So my mission for mates continues, as I listen to my medulla oblongata and try to make new connections where I can. With that in mind, I asked my barista’s name today. It’s Ruth.

First published 5 Aug 2016, for Dumbo Feather.