How do you connect meaningfully with new people?
April 18, 2020
I’m a 20-something-year-old who works in the tech industry and has most recently lived in NYC and the SFBA, so my social circle (friends and even friends-of-friends) tends to be dominated by peers who also work in tech. I think it’s important to be connected with people who are not just like yourself, so I’m hoping to change this.
I would appreciate any tips you have on building a more diverse friend group! I’ve had some success just meeting people from more varied backgrounds, like through local interest groups and meetups, but have struggled to translate those to more authentic, closer friendships beyond that interest itself. Of course I don’t want to “force” a friendship, but I would love to hear your thoughts and stories on connecting meaningfully with new people!
First of all, I want to apologize for taking so long to respond to your letter. During These Times™ I have been… playing a lot of Animal Crossing. Like a lot a lot. It seems to be the only way I actually want to spend my time while stuck inside with the constant thrum of anxiety and fear, wondering what each new day will bring.
Anyway. You didn’t ask about my bad coping mechanisms, you asked about to make meaningful connections with new people. If I were writing my response in the Before, I would have a lot of suggestions about things you could do in person, at a distance less than six feet apart, without wearing masks or the existential terror of existing in the Now. But—
Are you doing okay? Are you holding up? I hope you and yours are safe and healthy. The places you mention living in seem to be pretty hard hit these days. I hope you’re well.
Okay. Let’s try to do this again. Maybe I should edit this out and make this more coherent but—well, I’m not super collected these days and what is a response about building authentic friendships without a little authenticity of my own?
So: it makes a lot of sense to me that your social circles most easily comprise people like you—who work in your same industry, and might close to you in age or hail from similar educational or social backgrounds. But I’m also not surprised that you’re discontent with so much similarity. You write that “I think it’s important to be connected with people who are not just like yourself,” which is a sentiment I agree with.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to ponder why exactly you believe having a diverse friend group is important and what “diverse” means to you. I try to be really clear with myself on this front. I don’t want all my friends and community to come from one source or one mold, because that doesn’t reflect the world in which we live. I am incredibly thankful for my friends who do have different experiences and backgrounds—as they have shared their stories and perspectives with me, I have learned a lot and become a better friend and a better person who is aware of a lot more nuance and possibility than I used to be. But we’re not friends because they have a lot to teach me, we’re friends because we have similar interests and we like spending time in each other’s company.
It doesn’t sound like this is something you’re doing, but it bears repeating: make sure you never treat any person like the lastest model of a “Diverse Friend, Now in Even More Marginalized Identities, Collect Them All For a Complete Set!” I find it helpful to think less about “I want to add people to my community to make it more diverse” and more about “I want to notice places where I tend to prioritize and center those who are like me, and to make whatever changes I need to so that more folks can also be welcome and comfortable around me.” That changes the focus in my head from other people’s identities to my own actions (or lack thereof).
It sounds like you’re already taking steps to meet new people1 outside of your normal circles, which is great! Interest groups and meetups are a fantastic way to meet people from all walks of life that you might not get to know otherwise. This is especially true when those interests don’t come with a hefty price tag—you’ll probably meet vastly different people at the yacht racing club than the local library’s free knitting circle.
But the crux of your question remains: once you’ve met someone that seems interesting, how do you build a meaningful friendship with them? Friendships deepen slowly, over time, and with intention. If you’d like to build a meaningful relationship, start with an invitation.
Invite someone or a few people to get together outside the usual group that you meet in. This could look like:
- 🌮 grabbing dinner together
- 🍻 going to a happy hour for drinks and appetizers
- 🎟 attending a local festival related to your shared interests
- 📆 inviting them to something you were going to do anyway!
(or… for more social distancing appropriate suggestions…)
- 🎮 hosting a board game night over video conference
- 📝 doing a recipe swap
- 🏝 visiting each other’s islands on Animal Crossing2
- 🎬 setting up a watch party of a movie you’ve talked about
Don’t just ask them if they want to hang out—be specific with your invitation. You want a one-time event with a clear timeline and purpose. So, instead of inviting someone to be a founding member of a new Dungeons & Dragons campaign, see if they want to join a single board game night.
When thinking about the kinds of events you invite people to—especially people who might have circumstances unlike yours—try to consider:
- How much does this cost? Is there a free or low-cost option available?
- When does this happen? Who might not be able to go because of their work schedule, or needing to care for dependents?
- How do you get there? Do you have to have a car? Are there transit options available?
- Would this exclude anyone or make them uncomfortable? (For example: happy hour is fun if you drink alcohol or are comfortable being around it, but very unfun for a good many people for many good reasons.)
If the people you invite decline due to schedule conflicts, you can offer to reschedule no more than once or twice—it might be that they’re just super busy, but it could also be they feel awkward saying no outright3. And honestly, even if they are just that busy, it could be that your schedules don’t align well and that’s okay!
When you successfully schedule an event with a single person or smaller group, pay attention to how much you all seem to enjoy each other’s company. If you’d like to hang out again, ask! Hopefully, they’ll feel the same way and might respond with an invitation of their own. It’s okay for you to be the initial organizer of a few events, but if they never reciprocate that could be a sign they’re not as invested or interested in building the friendship.
When other people invite you to do things, say yes and show up! If you really can’t go because of a schedule conflict, try to follow up with an invitation of your own later. Even if the event they propose is a bit out of the way or not completely your cup of tea, demonstrate that you care about building a relationship with that person by being there when they ask you to be.
When it comes to actually building a meaningful friendship out of these times spent together, I encourage you to invite people to share about their lives by sharing about yours. The best way to encourage vulnerability is to be vulnerable first. Now please hear me: this does not mean that the first time you hang out with potential friends, you should immediately divulge the most pressing and painful circumstances of your life. Like the friendship itself, what you choose to share should start out fairly surface level and deepen over time as all parties express interest and openness to that kind of connection.
So for example, after a few different hangouts and as you feel more comfortable with these people, you might mention something from your personal life that you’re excited about or that you’re frustrated about. If the people you are with engage with that conversation and ask you follow up questions, that’s a good sign! Be sure to ask them how they’re doing in return and listen well and thoughtfully.
If, on the other hand, your conversation partners don’t seem that interested or comfortable with the topic you’ve brought up, let the moment pass and go back to regular small talk! Don’t try to force someone into a Deep Conversation they aren’t ready to have, especially about topics that could be particularly upsetting or painful. This is particularly true for topics that deal with the ways that people are marginalized or othered. For example: I have some male friends that I love to trade funny political memes with, but I’ve had to tell them I really don’t like anything that references sexual assault or harassment—it lands differently with me than with them, so it’s off-limits. Try to be mindful of potential off-limits topics that other people may have and respect any boundaries they set as soon as they tell you.
Not only should you model a willingness to share, you should also be open to receiving what others share with graciousness and acceptance. You want to show others that it is safe to be in conversation with you—that you trust them and that you are trustworthy in turn. Expect this trust to grow over time and be patient.
But remember: not every friendship will turn out to be one where you share your deepest fears and joys and ponderings, and that’s perfectly natural. Some friendships are meant for the most perfect evening every few months where everyone has a fantastic time and a lot of fun and it’s all easy and breezy. Other friendships are built on a standing weekly date where you exclusively talk in-depth about one very specific topic but don’t broach any others. Still others never exist outside of the large group where you met, but you’re very friendly with each other and enjoy that time together too. All of those friendships are a joy and a blessing and are deeply meaningful in their own ways.
I hope you find meaning and comfort and encouragement in your community. I hope you are able to build lasting, authentic friendships with the people who are also interested in that kind of relationship, and that you find each other in the crowd. But most of all: I hope y’all are safe. I hope y’all are healthy. I hope y’all are safe. 💛
If you need more inspiration on this front, may I suggest my response to “How do you make friends when you move somewhere new?”↩
I told you I was playing a lot of Animal Crossing.↩
An additional disclaimer, in These Times: it could be that people barely have the energy for their existing relationships and no capacity to build new ones. It might be that they don’t even have time for any friendships, if they’re dealing with unemployment or newly-fulltime childcare or taking care of a sick family member or managing their own chronic illness or grieving a death in their community. As you extend invitations to people, hold space that a fun event might be just what they need right now, or the last thing they can possibly handle, and that neither of those reactions has to do with you personally.↩