Meeting and making new friends as an adult is no small feat for many of us. First, there are the logistical challenges: Unless you instantly click with a workmate or mutual friend, say, the realities of grown-up life can make finding the time and energy to seek out new pals feel as impossible as finding time for self-care.
Pursuing platonic relationships can also be emotionally overwhelming. From initiating conversations with strangers to putting yourself out there once you find someone you connect with, making friends in person—like dating IRL—can be a lot for our brains and bodies, especially after years of isolation and social distancing.
In other words, meeting potential pals in real life—as opposed to online where you can carefully craft messages or simply close a tab if you need a break from a conversation—means making yourself vulnerable. The good news is: The initial discomfort can really pay off. In his book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, psychologist Nicholas Epley, PhD, writes that “nobody waves, but almost everybody waves back.” It’s a line friendship coach and educator Danielle Bayard Jackson, host of the Friend Forward podcast, often returns to. “We’re all terrified to take the first step, but most of us are eager to receive an invitation from someone new,” she tells SELF. “It feels good—like you’ve been chosen.”
Regardless of how big or small your current circle is, most people will agree that there’s always space for more friends. And there are actually tons of opportunities to make new pals in the flesh—you’ve just got to be looking out for them and know how to act when you see a chance to connect. Here, friendship experts share their best advice when it comes to making new friends in person as an adult.
Find a way to meet people who share the same interests or hobbies.
Joining a sports team, book club, or some other hobby group might seem like cliché advice, but there’s a reason it’s so often repeated. “One big part of making friends is putting yourself out there, and the other part is finding people who are open to being your friend,” Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland and author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends, tells SELF. “When other people are pursuing a hobby in a group, they’re likely also doing it for social reasons, because they’re choosing not to do it alone.” In other words, joining a like-minded group allows you to surround yourself with people who are into the same thing(s) as you and are also looking for friendship, increasing your chances of making a match.
Beyond having access to other people with shared interests who are likely open to striking up a conversation with a stranger, these types of groups provide another key to friendship-building: regular exposure. “If you want to make friends, don’t just go to a one-off event, but choose something that’s repeated over time because then you can capitalize on the mere exposure effect, which is our unconscious tendency to like people simply because they’re familiar to us,” Dr. Franco says. “If you sign up for something regular, it gives you an infrastructure, so you’re not having to reach out all the time, but you still have regular exposure to potential friends.”
The mere exposure theory is also a good reason to not give up if you don’t meet your BFF at your group’s first or second meeting. Building a friendship takes time, and the more often you show up, the more likely you are to make a friend in the weeks or months to come.
Put your phone down and try your best to look approachable.
It can feel as though being attached to our phones is to blame for almost every problem in modern life, but both of the experts who spoke to SELF say there’s no denying that technology can interfere with our ability to meet new people—whether you’re sucked into your screen at a backyard BBQ or scrolling your thumb off while you wait for your kickboxing class to start.
“If I’m scanning a room and trying to make eyes with someone who seems warm, and I see that they look either disinterested or super busy, I’m probably not going to bother them,” Jackson says. “When you’re scrolling on your phone, you’re sending the message that you’re not interested in socializing.” Instead, she recommends considering your body language (yes, it’s important to smile and uncross your arms) and making sure it reflects how eager you are to start a conversation.
Keep it positive whenever you’re meeting new people.
It can also be wise to watch your tone when you’re within earshot of others. “If you’re complaining about how you’d rather be home or saying that the space you’re in leaves something to be desired, for example, that’s not going to give someone the green light to approach you,” Jackson adds. Similarly, if you try to engage someone on a negative note, you could unintentionally kill the budding-friendship mood. Instead, try starting conversations with a positive observation—for example, “That painting is incredible” or, “The appetizers are all really good tonight.”
Then, follow up with a question about the person you’re chatting with—“What kind of art are you into?” or maybe, “What’s your all-time favorite finger food?” A 2012 study from Harvard University found that self-disclosure activates brain regions associated with reward, backing up what many of us already know to be true: People love the opportunity to talk about themselves. That’s why asking polite but personal questions is a surefire way to get a conversation off to a good start, Jackson says.
Remember that how you end a conversation can be just as important as how you start it.
There are few things more disappointing than walking away from a great conversation with someone unsure if you’ll ever cross paths again. While initiating and enjoying conversations is integral to making new friends, the way you end those interactions can also be critical.
“When conversations are over, we tend to close them with a cap, bottling them up so nothing else can flow, but you want to leave it open, so things can move beyond that initial conversation,” Jackson says. But how exactly does one keep the good times flowing? She recommends listening closely throughout your chat to find a seed to plant when the conversation comes to a close.
“If someone tells me they plan to go hiking this week, for example, I might end the conversation by saying something like, ‘I know a couple of hiking spots that you would probably love. Are you on Instagram? I’ll send you a link,’” she says. Or maybe you suggest a visit to your favorite park with a fellow dog owner. The goal is to intentionally create a space in which you can continue to connect, either in-person or online, after your initial interaction.
Invite someone you meet in a group setting to hang out one-on-one.
So you’ve met someone you vibe with—maybe at a knitting club or hiking group—and you’re seeing them regularly. Now what? According to Franco, a one-on-one activity is the best way to take your friendship to the next level. “Once you find a person you like, think about generating exclusivity, which means having experience with that person that you don’t have with everyone else in the group,” she suggests.
One of the easiest ways to create the closeness that fuels friendship is to have unique experiences and make memories together, Dr. Franco says—whether it’s a suggestion to grab a quick dinner after a workout class, go for a walk around the block on your lunch break, or get ready together before an event you’re both going to, making this progression is an important friendship milestone. If you’re feeling shy or aren’t sure if they reciprocate your interest, start by inviting them to a group hangout you’re planning (like your birthday party or a picnic in the park) before progressing to just the two of you.
Consider turning your work friends into real friends.
If you’ve ever worked closely alongside your coworkers—maybe behind a service counter, in a kitchen, or at adjoining desks—there’s a strong chance you’ve had a work friend. “It sounds really unsexy, but one of the top places we make friends is at work,” Jackson says.
Work friends can easily become real-life friends—as long as you consider professional and personal boundaries, of course, and don’t, say, pressure a direct report to join you for dinner or invite your boss to a party they might not feel comfortable attending. And one of the best ways to change the dynamic of a relationship with roots in the workplace is to employ a change of scenery, according to Dr. Franco.
“If you’re only interacting with someone at work, it’s going to be hard to sustain that friendship when you no longer share the same workplace,” Dr. Franco says. “Different settings bring out different parts of ourselves, so you can really get to know each other.” For example, a colleague may feel a lot more comfortable opening up about their personal life while you’re grabbing an ice cream or watching a baseball game together than they might in a shared office kitchen.
But if you’re not sure if you’re ready to step out into the fresh air together, Dr. Franco says a good first step to test the temperature of a potential friendship with a coworker is to introduce non-work topics into your conversations. Maybe you can find common ground around the music you like by sharing a playlist you’ve been loving recently, or bond by swapping restaurant recommendations. The idea is to reveal a deeper version of yourself, so you can see if there is potential for a long-term IRL friendship.
When you meet someone you like, make it obvious.
Much like in dating, letting someone know you like them—and knowing they like you back—is a big part of making new friends, so you may need to get comfortable with saying your feelings out loud. Not surprisingly, “Research shows that we tend to like people who like us,” Jackson says. “At the risk of oversimplifying it, sometimes you just need to tell someone—in a non-intense way—that you like them.” You don’t necessarily have to use that L-word, but by letting someone know that you enjoy hanging out with them or think they’re a fun and interesting person, you’ll make your intentions clear, and this may increase your chances of making a new buddy. You can say something like, “I’m so glad we finally made this coffee happen—I’ve been having so much fun cracking jokes with you at choir practice.”
This advice is especially helpful when you consider a 2018 study that found people regularly underestimate how much others like them and enjoy their company. Basically, if we humans like to be liked but we also have a tendency to leave interactions unsure of where we stand with others, it makes sense why making your feelings known to a potential friend match can move the relationship in the right direction.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed by how much care and thought is required when it comes to finding and making new friends? Know that this reaction is completely normal. Both Dr. Franco and Jackson note that it takes a lot of time and consideration to make new friends, but that accepting—and embracing—that effort is the only way to make meaningful connections, which are always worth it.
Gyan Yankovich is a writer based in Sydney, Australia. She has written for VICE, The Cut, Man Repeller, The Guardian, Refinery29, and more. She’s currently writing a book on friendship, which just so happens to be her favorite thing to talk about.