Freed from the shackles of the office and the misery of the commute, and with a newfound appreciation for space and air, it may suddenly have seemed as if a new kind of life was possible. In the summer of 2020, a few months after the first lockdown, data from Rightmove found searches by city residents looking for village properties had risen by 126%. But for those who took the plunge, leaving behind everything and everyone they know in return for a garden and a spare room, the pandemic has not made it easy to meet people in a new area. With this in mind, here’s some expert advice on how to build a new community.
Acknowledge Your Loss
Moving home, perhaps across the country, is “a huge adjustment”, says Dr Marisa G Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert whose book Platonic is due out in 2022. “You no longer have the same attachment to place that you used to have, your social connections are about to change. I think it is certainly something to grieve spaces as well as people.” It doesn’t necessarily mean you made the wrong decision in moving.
Put Some Work in before You Move
Ask people you already know if they could introduce you to anyone in the location to which you are moving. Posting on social media is probably the easiest way to tap your friends’ friends. “I find it increases the chance that there’s someone I will get along with,” says Jillian Richardson, a connection coach and author of Unlonely Planet.
Don’t Expect Friends to Magically Appear
“We tend to think friendships happen organically and that’s a huge misconception,” says Franco. “People really need to take the initiative to go out there and meet people and not assume that friends are just going to fall into their lives.” That said, you should also take advantage of the “mere-exposure effect”. “As people become familiar to us, we like them more, and it’s completely unconscious,” says Franco. She advises joining a group that’s continuous. “Instead of doing a single happy hour event or a single lecture, can you find a class to join? Something where you’ll continue to see people over time?”
Assume Everyone Likes You
Trying to make new friends can make you feel like the unpopular kid at school again, but go in with a positive outlook. Franco reminds people of the “liking gap”. “Researchers found that people have a bias to underestimate how much other people like them. I like to tell people to assume other people like you. That also is supported by the ‘acceptance prophecy’ – when people are told to assume that others are going to accept them, they end up being more accepted, because it makes them more confident, outgoing, present.”
Don’t Give in to the Fear of Rejection
Rejection, says Franco, is just one possible outcome of “curating the kind of life you really want. If you are afraid of rejection, and you let that take over, you are not going to develop connections. We can’t experience intimacy without making ourselves vulnerable to rejection.” Try not to take it personally – you don’t know what is going on in that other person’s life – and it doesn’t mean the next person you try to spark up a friendship with won’t be keen. Richardson says she would rather get a polite brush-off than a new friend “cancelling plans later because they were scared to say no in the first place. While in the short term a no hurts more, I think it’s less painful in the long term.”
Do Put Yourself Out There
Richardson moved to a new area recently and got talking to a woman in a queue at a coffee shop; the woman asked for her number, “and now we’re friends. It’s that simple. If you don’t want to be as direct as that, or you’re not sure if the person is interested, you could say something like: “I moved recently, and I’m looking to connect with new people. Is there anything or anyone you recommend?” Because they might say, ‘There’s a trivia night on Thursdays’, or that they’re having a dinner party next week. You never know what people will be open to sharing.” She has recently started blatantly asking for invitations to things, and it has worked. “People are like, ‘I appreciate how honest you are.’ We often don’t directly say what we want. Someone [sends a message saying] ‘Hey, what’s up?’ when really what they’re trying to say is: ‘I’m lonely and would like to be included in stuff.’”
Beware of ‘Covert Avoidance’
While you can congratulate yourself for turning up to something, even if it’s out of your comfort zone, beware of “covert avoidance”, says Franco. “This is where you get to an event, but you don’t interact when you’re there. Maybe you’re playing on your phone or being standoffish.” It really is just a case of introducing yourself, striking up a conversation and being brave enough to say something like, “It was great to meet you, I’d love to stay in touch”. Getting to the point of exchanging numbers is easier when you have seen someone a few times, which is why a continuous group is a good idea. “You have a little bit more leeway,” says Franco. After you’ve been to your class or group a few times, “you can say something like: ‘Do you want to get a drink after class?’”
Make a Public Appeal
When Seb, 31, and his girlfriend moved from London to a south-east seaside town in May, he found a Facebook group for locals and posted a plea for new friends. “My girlfriend was a bit like, ‘Don’t do that, you’ll look a bit weird.’ But I feel I’m at that stage in my life where, if people don’t respond, it doesn’t matter.” Instead, he got about 30 messages. “People have been lovely. We’ve been making our way through the list, and meeting quite a lot of people who have been in a similar situation.”
Join an Existing Group of Friends
This can be a good way to meet – and keep in touch with – a lot of people, although it also comes with its own dynamics. “Try to develop individual relationships with people in the group,” says Franco. “Instead of being passive and just showing up, actually take the initiative to get to know people in the group. The more you develop relationships with people one-on-one, the more you’re going to be comfortable in the group overall, even though you’re that new person.”
Don’t Be Tempted to Reinvent Yourself
Moving to a new area, where nobody knows you, can be a chance to start again, but trying to be someone you’re not can make any new interaction feel like hard work. “The more authentic you can be, the more you’re going to enjoy the connections that you form,” says Franco. However, rediscovering who you are is different. You may feel free to explore parts of your personality in a way “you haven’t been able to for one reason or another with your previous group of friends. Maybe they’re a childhood group who’ve known you in a particular type of way.”
Be Open to a Broader Range of People
You have spent a lifetime pruning your social circle to those you really care about, but chances are you’re not going to meet new best friends in your new area instantly. “When it comes to friendships, having close friends is one of the best things we can do for our health and wellbeing,” says Franco. “But even having brief interactions with people in general benefits us. Quality is best, but quantity still does something. Find people to hang out with in the meantime.” It can make you feel like part of a community “to have those faces in your neighbourhood that recognise you and remember you,” says Richardson.
“Remember to maintain pre-existing friendships, so that you’re not feeling lonely and disconnected while simultaneously developing new relationships,” says Franco. It can take a long time to build up new friendships, especially close ones. But, she adds, “people don’t realise that if they put themselves out there, the process can go faster than they think. It really makes a difference if you’re willing to attend different events, and strike up conversations; you can really change your social life.”