Why Making New Friends is so Hard
by Dan Walsh
The parallel struggles of dating and friendly courtship.
Making new friends is a delicate social dance that parallels modern dating rituals. The trials and insecurities are almost the same – with one exception. Society talks about dating a lot, but seems to disregard conversations about friendship. This missing dialogue discourages one-on-one discussions about friendship and creates insecurity around situations which are otherwise an accepted part of the dating scene. These situations are so common, in fact, that they have names. The “let’s take it slow” and “are we exclusive” conversations are common to the point of cliche. So are moments of insecurity like debating when to call, or deciding on an appropriate second date. These are all part of doing business in the dating world, but don’t get attention in the friendship scene, even though the exact same moments and insecurities occur.
New friendships are tricky business and it can be easy to overstep invisible boundaries. In many ways dating is easier because there is an understanding that both parties are looking for a romantic encounter – whatever form that may take. Potential friendship has no such underlying social compact. There exists the potential for rife misunderstanding. Maybe you only asked me out for coffee as a networking thing. Maybe I only invited you onto my flag football team because I needed to fill out the roster. Maybe like Jerry Seinfeld you already have enough friends, and yeah, we get along, but you just don’t have time for new people in your life.
Or maybe, just maybe, you and I are both looking for a new friend. We both like each other, that’s obvious, but we don’t want to move too fast out of respect for each other. We don’t want to demand too much too soon and blow the operation. This ambiguity can be misconstrued by either party as disinterest and ultimately lead to dissolution of the burgeoning friendship. If we were dating, however, I’d call you and say we need to talk. We’d then proceed to have a conversation wherein I tell you that I like you, “I really really like you, but…I want to take things slowly.” I’d probably tell you that I’d been burned in the past or that things are really busy at work right now, but that I see a future for us and I want to make sure it has time to grow. Because conversations about friendship aren’t the norm, this type of “let’s take it slow and see where it goes” discussion never happens and potential friendships are lost. Hell, because this type of thing is so uncommon, the other person might think you’re a weirdo for having such a frank discussion and you’d ruin the friendship that way instead.
It can also be frustratingly difficult to know where you stand with another friend. In the dating world we regularly have the “are we exclusive” discussion. The results of this conversation are far reaching. If we aren’t exclusive, then things might end because we’re looking for different things. If we are exclusive, then maybe you can start leaving your toothbrush at my place. We might have a standing Friday night date. You’ll eventually meet my family and accompany me to my work holiday party. You will be my valentine. The boundaries for acceptable relationship activities become clear after this conversation. But oh! Friendship you have no such dialogue!
If there were such an openness then I would know if I could call you in times of need – like for an airport pickup – or if you are the type of acquaintance that will only show up when I throw a house party. Do we help each other move couches, or is the extent of our favor limited to an endorsement on LinkedIn? This could all be resolved with a simple conversation about where we stand with each other. Again, this is acceptable during romantic courtship, but never occurs during friendly courtship.
It’s obvious when someone is single and ready to mingle. You wouldn’t be wearing a miniskirt and heels and I wouldn’t be buying you a drink if we weren’t both looking for a connection. Hell, we probably wouldn’t both be at the bar to begin with. Friendship is more subtle. It can happen anywhere and there are no obvious signals that someone is “on the prowl” for more friends. But friendship is still a human-to-human relationship. So even if the accepted rituals are different, the insecurities remain the same.
In one regard I understand why friendship insecurities are so under represented in popular culture. For one, pure romance is more interesting because it (hopefully) eventually ends in sex – which make for entertaining books, television, and movies. What does a newly consummated friendship result in? A 4-hour Halo marathon and a pepperoni pizza? Not exactly riveting entertainment. It’s possible that you might save my life by dragging me out of an exploding warehouse, but our lives can’t all be directed by Michael Bay.
Most people also tend to cycle through more dates than friends in a typical lifespan – at least while we’re young. On average, friendships can last a long time because they aren’t mutually exclusive. I don’t have to give up one friend to take on another, which is typically the case for dating. As far as entertainment media is concerned, they can build more episodes out of dating exploits than they can around the one or two friends that move in and out of a persons life in a given year. How many suitors did the cast of Friends churn through during the show? A bazillion? How many friends did they have? 5.
Like it or not the stories we read and characters we watch serve as models for social interaction. We live vicariously through characters who are loose proxies of real people. It’s a warped system, but it at least puts everyone on the same page. It works for dating, but no one seems to get the memo when it come to the tribulations of friendship because it is underrepresented. There is no playbook to follow and I think this lack results in a lot of loneliness and feelings of inadequacy where there doesn’t need to be.
Feeling insecure and unsure while making new friends is normal. In fact, I’d argue that it’s more normal than the similar feelings that come with dating. At least we can all commiserate about romance together.