Most children have no issue making friends – sharing Barbies or a biscuit is often all it takes to break the ice. As adults though, when we're busy juggling work and family life, it can be harder to meet new people. While some bond quickly, many struggle to put themselves out there.
I'm lucky enough to fall into the fast friends category, even though there are plenty of people far more extrovert than me. But why? To help others get back in the friendship game, I spoke to some experts for tips.
Research by the Campaign to End Loneliness shows that nine million of us in the UK feel lonely right now. In fact, last year it was revealed that Brits have lost an average of four friends since the start of the pandemic, according to a study by LifeSearch.
It’s important to acknowledge how vital friendships are, says Alistair Williams, a coach and founder of A Clear Path Ahead. “Psychologists talk of the importance of ‘relatedness’, ‘affiliation’ or ‘community’ as not only being at the heart of a contented life but also crucial to our physical and mental wellbeing.”
For me, after finally being released from lockdown, I was craving new faces and new experiences and last year I was lucky enough to make a couple of good new friends.
I’m secretly quite shy in big groups but entirely at ease one-to-one. In fact, I often find myself in deep conversation soon after meeting someone and I enjoy the intimacy of sharing experiences.
I still have a wide circle of friends from childhood that I value, but Williams points out that for some it’s important to acknowledge you may also “outgrow" friendships. “I often hear this challenge with clients and encourage them to ask themselves, ‘How is this friendship serving you?’ It’s a chance for the person to reassess what their friendship means to them,” he says.
Throughout adult life, whether you’re single or coupled up, it’s healthy to continue to meet new people who spark fresh ideas and bring out different sides of yourself. Finding someone you have ‘friendship chemistry’ with is exciting, stimulating and enriching. I’m realistic enough to know that much as I love my partner of 24 years, I need a range of different characters around me.
“As we get older our lives can close in on us and feel stale through predictability. A new friend can open the door and lead to eternal youth,” says life coach Nina Grunfeld, founder of LifeClubs.co.uk.
I’ve felt the spark of friendship chemistry twice in the past year: the first connection was an unusual one for me. All my close friends have always been female but I would now count my partner Stuart’s long-standing friend Linus as a mate of my own too.
They’d played football together for years but we’d only ever met once. Whereas Stuart is gregarious with a quick wit and avoids discussing emotions, when my family and I went to stay with Linus at his house by the sea for the weekend last summer, I was amazed to discover Linus talked freely about his feelings as a single man navigating life post-divorce. So refreshing.
Linus is a quietly thoughtful character, into yoga and self-improvement – so we had plenty of common ground. Now we chat and share inspiration over text and I’m popping by for a visit with a female friend of mine soon.
Stuart, Linus and I click as a three too – when he and his son recently came to stay with us, his calmness balanced well with the vivaciousness of our household.
My second new friend is Isabel, a fellow journalist who I’d seen around my daughter’s school for several years. I was intrigued by the fact she worked on the global affairs desk of a major broadsheet but in the rush of the school run we’d never got the chance to talk.
We finally got to know each other via a mutual friend and discovered a shared love of cold water swimming and a desire not to just be seen as a ‘mum’ but also someone with a career and wide-ranging interests, including film, travel and global issues.
So, if you’re not a natural ‘friend flirt’ like me, how do you go about making new connections?
How to widen your circle
1 Think about what you need from a friendship
To help you streamline your search, think about what area of your life a new friend might fulfil. “It could be linked to a particular interest – whether foreign language films, a certain sport or trekking in the mountains,” says Williams.
“As our interests grow, we develop too and may find that we have nobody to share them with. Often it's simply around basic human connection – wanting someone to talk to, someone who is interested in you, as you are in them.”
2 Deepen your everyday conversations
“If you find yourself regularly talking about work or other mundane topics with a colleague you could imagine being friends with, then consider deepening that conversation,” says Pippa Murphy, a relationship expert who also shares her insights with brands such as Condoms.uk.
“You can ask questions about what they do when they're not working, what hobbies they have, or even if they’ve watched anything interesting on TV recently. Once you find that non-work-related topic, you’ll find the conversation flowing much more easily."
3 Remember the law of attraction
Consider what vibes you’re giving off. “When you go into a social situation, you need to think about the law of attraction and try to create positive conversations when speaking to people,” reminds Murphy.
“It’s also important to surround yourself with positive people – as it’s harder to get out of a negative mindset when everyone around you is self-denigrating.”
4 Consider where you’ll find like-minded people
The key is to find common ground. “Love foreign language films? Join a foreign language film club, and start a conversation about that film," suggests Williams. "Love walking dogs? Get chatting to other dog-owners by asking questions about their pet – that shared focus will unite you.”
5 Branch out of your existing social circle
It’s important not to let the expectations of your current friends affect your future friendship choices.
“As we get older we may already have a large circle of friends and we may wonder what they’d feel about this ‘new intruder’ into their circle,” says Grunfeld.
“As an adult, you can imagine you’re not making a friend for yourself but also a friend for your group. But don’t let your assumptions about who your other friends would like put you off making a new friend.” This can be a refreshing chance to explore another side of yourself.
6 Look close to home – neighbours can be great allies
“People often make friends with neighbours because the shared home environment gives you so much in common,” says Williams. “Your initial exchanges are the ones where you’ll be both consciously and subconsciously deciding whether you want to talk further.”
With no expectations, it can be liberating knowing you don’t need to be anyone other than who you really are. “This allows you to forge new friendships based on who you are now, rather than an outdated version of yourself that I hear many ‘people-pleasers’ talk about,” he adds.
7 Adopt an open mindset
Simply open yourself up to opportunities. “Whether you call it serendipity or chance, you will interact and engage with people throughout your day, whether strangers on a train or a relative’s second cousin,” Williams points out.
“People come and go in fleeting moments. Can you notice whether or not there is a connection in some way? You may just really like the look of them and feel drawn to them. What’s stopping you initiating a conversation?”
8 Prep your conversation-starter
If you struggle with shyness, it can help to mentally prepare a couple of opening lines in advance, suggests Grunfeld.
“Begin by introducing yourself. Say ‘Hi, I’m Jo, I don’t think we’ve met before...’ for example. Or try asking their advice: ‘Do you know where the best place to go for X is?’ After all, everyone likes to feel useful.”
9 Be honest without being needy
To get a sense of whether they’re open to friendship, try to read the signs.
“Are they interested in talking to you and are they asking questions or is just one of you talking?” asks Williams. “Don’t just listen with your ears, try to notice what's going on with their body language too. Let things take their course."
So how do you take the connection to the next level? “It may be a simple ‘Hope to see you here next week’, or a sharing of ‘I really enjoyed talking with you, it was fun’, or even suggesting a firmer meet-up for lunch. Whatever you do though, if you’ve enjoyed their company, be brave and tell them. Chances are they feel the same.”