First, I get coffee. If there’s no line, I’ll lean, elbows at the counter, getting an update on the barista’s love life. I’ll carry my coffee to the back office and the kitchen, to see if there is any food up for grabs, say hi to the early morning crowd — lots of old men in Carhartts. Back up the street, under the green tunnel of maples, I’ll run into neighbors starting their day. More chat. After working through lunch, I’ll usually run errands with the woman who lives above me. She owns the coffee and beer place across the street from my apartment; there is always a deposit to be made at the bank, milk for lattes to pick up. There is town gossip from the man who owns the restaurant supply store, there is the U.S. Foods delivery man to hassle and be hassled by. We bring snacks and bicker and scheme and talk about our lives. Later, at night, I might help pull pints if it’s busy. I might have people over for dinner on the scrap heap picnic table I swear I’m going to sand one of these days. I might go to the bar and dance if there’s a band, or see friends, or meet new ones. Last time it was a beekeeper and his buddy who runs a landscaping business, although “in the winter time there isn’t much to do, so I mostly deal with feral cats.”
This life probably sounds like hell to some dyed-in-the-wool introverts. But I think, compared to many more people, I am exceptionally fortunate in my small-town routine.
Everyone seems to be having a hard time making friends these days. A recent survey by Cigna found that Americans are getting lonelier, with the perverse flourish of the youngest feeling the most isolated. But it isn’t only a 2020s phenomenon. Ever since Bowling Alone, the complaint has manifested over and over in different forms. Men don’t form deep bonds with each other — which you can blame either on the patriarchal extraction of emotional labor from wives or on the feminists making McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City admit women in 1970. Moms are isolated — again, depending on whom you ask, by the patriarchy or the feminists. Young people have social anxiety. On top of this, as we so often hear, is the problem of introverts, who lack real-life avenues that mimic the low-commitment availability of what’s available on the Internet.
But maybe those very online introverts are on to something. For good reasons, we are used to thinking of low-commitment or low-effort relationships as less fulfilling than the alternatives. But we may be suffering by their absence specifically.
The intimacy of mind and heart that characterizes the deepest form of friendship is rare, but it is also undiminished by small quantities: one friend like this is enough for a lifetime. What is harder to find in adequate abundance is low-stakes, time-flexible friendships of camaraderie and affection that do not require deep intimacy.
When this type of friendship appears in cultural representation, it’s usually through the friend group — the professional, unattached collection of twenty-to-thirty-somethings who populate shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, friends who mutually provide the audience for each other’s quips and the theater for each other’s antics.
This type of friendship may be difficult to realize off-screen. It falls between two stools, requiring existing social capital to cultivate, without necessarily providing much reward in depth of relationship. Its internal structure does not allow for persistence through the formation of permanent attachments, or much engagement with the outside world beyond different forms of consumption. It is not made to grow; it is made to be looked at.
But there is another type of diffuse, porous, low-intensity friendship. Civic friendship is based around shared ownership of something external, rather than internal homogeneity. Its value is in the nodes of its network, not the strength of its defined boundaries.
In trying to develop these civic friendships, you are staring down the horns of two very powerful technologies: the automobile primarily, and the smartphone secondarily.
Any town or city built around the automobile will, to varying degrees, be harder to develop friendships of serendipity in. If you have to get in a car to go somewhere, and if a critical mass of people do not more or less work where they live, the overall volume and complexity of criss-crossing networks of movement will shrink. The default will be to see only the people you mean to see on purpose.
The smartphone’s effect is in comparison minor, but it matters. I don’t mean in the sense of those insufferable coffee shops that ban phones so as to force you to enact Socratic dialogues and manic-pixie meet-cutes with your neighbor; just that the way that the phone engrosses attention is different from the way a puzzle, a book, or even a computer does. It requires positive attention to look away rather than to keep looking at it. It fills up little spaces and silences, little cracks for serendipity, more completely and less porously than anything else. It offers a complete world in which the algorithm, a more perfect hostess than any of us, is always shepherding you toward the groups you will find most congenial. It is superior to physical life in every way, except that it isn’t.
The game is rigged against you, and it will take major shifts in American life to unrig it.
All right, so the game is rigged against you. Now what?
You still have to live, you still want to make friends. Trying in a hostile environment will yield less fruit than trying in an ideal environment, but more than doing nothing in either. Here is a primer.
1. Develop a routine around the same physical places as much as you can, ideally including one or two designed for extended stays: a coffee shop, a park, a bar, a lunch counter.
If you live in a dead zone of strip malls and Starbucks drive-throughs, you will have to be inventive and do the best you can. But to the extent possible, they should be places you genuinely like and enjoy being in. You will, without realizing, take many of your cues from the atmosphere around you; you will be at your best if you are genuinely having a nice time — not necessarily a good time, but a nice time. Include in your routine some visits that do not involve the kind of deep work that requires headphones and unbroken concentration. Reading a book for pleasure or doing less-taxing work allows you to observe, and to indulge pleasant interruptions if they come along.
If you are able to find a place that is one of the pulse points of your town’s life — as the coffee shop my neighbor runs is — all the better. How will you identify these pulse points? Well, one tiny tell at the coffee shop is that people occasionally receive their mail there. A bigger one is that the owner knows simply everybody, especially figures in local government and business. A third is that all kinds of people gather there, at different times of day: soccer moms pushing strollers for lattes in the morning, college students studying in the afternoon, pillars of local industry for lunch meetings, curmudgeons and eccentrics of all types for the happy hour beer and smoke at the outside tables.
There are a few reasons why establishing a consistent routine is helpful. First, if you are the type of person whose relative isolation is driven by social anxiety, you will be able to get acclimated and comfortable in a space before trying anything new. You will be able to watch the interactions and develop a sense of the dynamics. If you return to the same places over and over, you will not be burdened by the sense that each visit is your one and only chance to wring as much social interaction as you can from the encounter. You can take things at your own pace.
Second, repetition will open up little doors. As you start to see the same people and they start to recognize you, day after day, there will eventually be an opportunity with someone or other for a shared reaction, a quip, a question. Perhaps this will lead to a friendship, perhaps not. But it will create a fluid matrix of interaction with others: a stream in which you swim, rather than a fortress you must attack. It will provide a key to your social context. And being a part of that context, rather than just an onlooker, is where things start to happen. Sociality is more like good garden soil than a video game. You cannot utilize input–output models that deliver predictable results. You can only add the compost, the mulch, that creates the conditions for the web of life. Which microscopic part of that web is agent in producing the food that nourishes the gardener is impossible to isolate.
Even places not designed for extended stays are important, especially smaller businesses. Chat, just a little bit, not enough to hold up the line, wherever you can: with the grocery store checkout worker, with the post office clerk, with the antique store proprietor. Ask them how their day was and remember things they tell you for next time. You will be surprised at how much better this can make you feel, if you are lonely — how important a role the slender and impersonal, but warm and omnipresent, bonds of civic friendship with the people of goodwill all around you can play in your life.
2. Participate in the drama of the street.
Granted, the joyful agonistic dialogues that converge, erupt, and resolve just as quickly punctuate the day less in polite Nordic-settled small towns than on the streets of Mexico City or New York. But the little theaters are still there. Someone is moving furniture into a house: offer to help them. Someone is walking an enormous Great Dane: ask if you can pet him. Someone is parking a tricked-out car: nice ride. Someone is gardening in her front yard: hope you still have enough time to get your bulbs in yourself.
Also: Don’t be afraid to get into quarrels with people if they arise. Too often, for people afraid of engaging in a fracas or appearing the bad guy, the only safe option is avoiding large swaths of humanity altogether.
Squabbling conventions will largely be governed by the norms of where you live. A good metric for how aggressively you can fight is how loudly and expressively people tend to talk in normal conversations. But in any case the key is to not be afraid, and to be willing to admit that you are in the wrong if you are. Last time I was in New York, I got into a shouting match with a building superintendent. Having cursed each other out thoroughly, we parted and cooled off. I came out, apologized (I was absolutely in the wrong, as usual), he said to forget about it, and now I have a standing invitation to come look him up whenever I’m in the city.
3. Engage in small talk; it is your friend.
Small talk makes no personal claim and requires no disclosure even as it connects people. There is enough variety in the weather, in your surroundings, in the incidental happenings going on around you for as much conversation as you need.
Simple neighborly chat may indeed annoy someone who prefers not to be bothered, but here too you can take up your roles in the little drama — grump and Pollyanna — and negotiate a peace. The goal must be outward-directed beneficence and respect; it cannot be controlling how others perceive you such that the safest thing to be is always invisible. And you cannot by any means give in to the idea that the right to be left alone is so absolute, fundamental, and overriding that it constitutes a default state that should never be impinged upon, however respectfully. The rare eccentrics who really need to live like that find islands on which they can do so.
Never pass up the opportunity to do someone a favor. Never pass up the opportunity to accept help or ask someone questions about an area where they have more practical knowledge than you.
4. Invite your neighbors over.
This perhaps should be the prime directive, since it’s the one almost everyone can manage — in an apartment building, in a bungalow, on a city block or in a sprawling subdivision, congratulations, you have neighbors.
Invite them over for something low-effort and fairly generic — once you have made their acquaintance you can discover if they share your interest in tabletop games or hiking — like grilling, beers, and dessert. You don’t need to know their names. Put a note on the door with your name, address, phone number, and a message that you’d love to have them over for a specific something on a specific date.
It must be a specific date, any time you are trying to make a new acquaintance. Time-specific invitations keep the lethal administrative burden of trying to coordinate calendars to a minimum. It minimizes awkward conversations. And it makes it easy for the other party to refuse if they want to without either of you losing face. If they do plead busyness, try again in two weeks. If that also fails, leave them alone unless they reach out to you.
5. If you have any kind of front yard that interfaces with the street (a stoop counts), spend time in it.
Plant a garden; the plants and critters are your neighbors too, and will bring you good luck. Working on it will give you a reason to be outside, an inexhaustible source of small talk, a reason to seek advice from your neighbors. Besides, a front garden with some density and height is helpful in creating a less-exposed plane relative to the street, and in making it more likely that you will actually spend time in your yard. Nobody really enjoys spending time in a flat, empty front lawn. You feel too much like a scarecrow.
Put down some Adirondack chairs and drink your morning coffee or evening beer in them. You create theaters for the drama of the street this way, and opportunities to flirt. If you see passersby, give them at least a nod and a smile. If they say “beautiful evening,” offer them a beer. They will say yes or no, they may think you charming or a lunatic, but it doesn’t really matter which.
6. Join things.
I understand if you don’t want to. I am not much of a joiner myself. But if you don’t easily make friends and would like to, it would be foolish to let that stop you. If you knit, play, do tabletop roleplay games, or play basketball, there is probably some kind of organized meetup somewhere.
Do not join a church you do not have some basic level of belief in just to make friends. That is both violating your own integrity and simply begging God to play tricks on you. Here’s what you can do, though. Write to the church secretary (or equivalent at the synagogue or madrasa) and say that, while not a person of faith yourself, you’d like to get to know your neighbors of faith better and support the church’s charitable community efforts, and are there any upcoming events that might be suitable?
Join the Elks or the Lions, the Knights of Columbus or the Polish American Civic Association. You might find it awkward, dull, or corny at first, but do you want to be a friend or do you want to be cool? The desire to be a friend sees everyone as interesting, as they are. It seeks greater ingress into the social and physical reality around you. The desire to be cool desires glamor and thrills; it sees people who cannot provide these as NPCs.
The best thing you can join is any kind of civic organization or effort. You can attend city council and zoning board meetings, join river cleanups and historical societies, become a friend of the library. You will connect yourself to more pulse points in your community’s social network this way. You will find, especially with immediately practical projects, an easy basis for comradeship among people who care about where they live and want to serve it. And after you’ve joined, if you’re so inclined, there is nothing stopping you from launching your own initiative, from looking around you and saying, what would make this place better?
To launch your own initiative, you will need to invite people to things. Actually, once you have gotten yourself on a well-established acquaintanceship footing with a few people, you should already be doing this.
How? The same way all of these prescriptions are done: with resolve in the attempt and detachment from the results. Think of someone you wouldn’t mind spending more time with. When you next run into them, say, “Hey, any interest in coming with me to this [always date-specific] event?” Do not ask people this while they are on the clock in any capacity. As always, this prescription is liable to exceptions, but exceptions are for those who have mastery of the subject at hand.
Where will you find things to go to? Join as many local Facebook groups as you can. You can find ones for buying and selling and trading, for gardeners, for backyard chicken producers looking to offload their extra eggs. Join them all. When you’re in the car, listen to local radio stations. The ads can be very useful in keeping you apprised of goings-on. Subscribe to local papers and alt-weeklies, insofar as they still exist. Take a look at the Craigslist community section. Not only will you find events and volunteer opportunities, the “activities” section will have people advertising for a hiking partner, a frisbee partner, what-have-you. It is not difficult to safely take a chance on one of these.
Read those community bulletin boards that sit in libraries, rec centers, town squares, grocery stores. There will be events of various kinds. Go to them, even if they don’t sound fun to you, even if you don’t have company. At the very least, there will be some anthropological interest at the UFO Encounter Survivor Group. And don’t worry about showing up to the Basil E. Frankweiler Memorial Park Annual Concert by yourself. You will only seem as weird as you feel, and most people don’t have enough investment in you to think about it much either way. Insofar as someone is by temperament more naturally interested in the lives of strangers than most people are, they will be more likely to invite you to join their party than to laugh at you.
7. Finally, some fun advice: go to bars.
Do not go to places with clean marble bars and house cocktails or thoughtful wine lists or whimsical décor. Do not go to craft breweries with industrial lighting. Do not go to any place that specializes in a particular product, unless you genuinely want to treat yourself to the product or are there for some kind of activity, like trivia. These bars are often a drain on the wallet, and you want to be there regularly. And they are not really hangout bars.
Instead, go to the slightly seedy local places with cheap beer and some old men. If they have a pool table or a dart board, all the better. You need no introduction at a pool table. Don’t go on Saturday nights, especially if you have colleges nearby. Go in the later afternoon to early evening, before the real nighttime partiers arrive, between Wednesday and Friday. Sit at the bar. If you need something to do, bring a crossword puzzle. A crossword will keep you from needing someone to talk to you while inviting co-operative efforts. And you can always ask the bar if anyone has “bibulous insect, six letters” if you need to break the ice.
You will probably find that people talk to you, though, especially when it’s a quiet evening. Most people go to bars to talk, and there are many lonely people eager for someone to listen. Letting a beloved old crank tell you about his recipe for rattlesnake has been someone’s entrée into the social scene at a bar at least once.
But at a bar, won’t you mostly meet heavy drinkers and burnouts? You will meet some, as well as loners and eccentrics of various kinds. However, you will mostly meet a lot of hardworking people who enjoy drinking, playing darts, watching a game, and seeing the pals they see every week. If you’re new in town, it’s the best way to meet people who have lived there their whole lives.
The key to making the bar work as a space for friendships to form is one of the keys to making friends in general. Do not assume that you can only be friends with people like you, whether that is age, sex, occupation, or politics. You can make friends with disabled veterans and widowed grandmothers and college students. You will find what they offer cannot be predicted.
All of this primer mostly amounts to the kindergarten dictum, “Make a friend, be a friend.” As such it is perhaps frustrating: It describes a posture of openness and habit of engagement rather than concrete steps that guarantee a certain number of friends. Unfortunately, this is simply the reality: Making friends easily is less about accomplishing certain actions than inhabiting a kind of persona.
The tricky converse is that making a habit of the actions develops the persona. You are probably not doomed to a feeling of squicky interloper status among your fellows forever, but you will have to suffer through repeated discomfort and artificial motions for longer than you’d like.
But you will suffer anyway. The patronage of the algorithm cannot in the end protect you from much — much less from the unkindness of strangers. How much better to suffer in exploring the depths of human nature, in pursuit of the sweet and wild world, than in the retreat from it.
The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.
How to Make Friends