Welcome back to "Ms. Opinionated," Bitch's new advice column, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I am turning 24 and finishing graduate school in December, but I need help making new friends. The friends I have are all from high school. A few of them are great, including my boyfriend, but most of them I have nothing in common with and no longer feel close to. My friend group has gotten smaller and smaller in the six years since HS graduation. I commuted to undergrad and really didn't talk to many people and in graduate school most people are much older than I am. I very much want to make more friends, especially more women friends, and especially friends who share my values and interests. Do you have any friend-making advice for a somewhat shy, teetoaling, agnostic feminist about to enter the nonprofit field? What are the chances I'll make friends at work?
My dad -- ever the mature humorist -- used to tell me, "You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose." But the thing about picking your friends in high school (and even at college) is that, like picking your nose, sometimes you're stuck with the boogers you find.
I can't say for your experience precisely, but having grown up in a small town and gone to high school with many of the same kids with whom I ate cookies in nursery school, the friends I could make and keep were limited by geography and age and their parents' willingness or ability to remain in the area when jobs didn't. (And, because of the ways in which America is still both self-segregating and economics plays into housing and geographic segregation, I grew up in a reasonably homogenous place in terms of class and race, which further limited the universe of people with whom I had access to friendships.) College, though I wasn't a commuter and went to a huge school, was for me -- like many people -- much of the same: I made friends with the other students around me in my freshman year dorm (accident of geography), with the students I met in class (self-selecting for intellectual interests), with the people I had campus jobs with (economic class) and occasionally with the people I met through extracurricular activities. There were so many people around that were also looking for friends, and who were already either in the same chosen circumstances as me or were there because they liked the stuff that I liked, that making friends was pretty easy.
And then I moved to go to graduate school, worked two jobs to make ends meet, spent a summer interning in yet a different city, graduated, started work at a tiny company... and then I looked around and realized I didn't have many close friends (or at least many local ones), just like you. And, like you, I didn't really know what to do, because it felt like everyone sort of had their friend circles and no one tells you How To Make Friends when you aren't smack in the middle of a group of people who also want to make friends and don't have any either.
But this is where the picking comes in -- and I know that this is really hard for shy people, but bear with me. There are no more accidents of age and geography on which you can rely and no more large groups of similarly-situated people who are also seeking friends. Until now, finding friends was like going to the college dining hall -- someone else picked the menu, but there was always going to be something around you wanted to eat, even if it was Cap'n Crunch. Now, you have a whole universe of restaurants with diverse and divergent menus, but you've got to seek them out and make reservations.
And even though this sounds scary, it's actually really great for a lot of reasons that might or might not be clear from reading the status updates on your high-school acquaintances' Facebook pages: The accidents of timing and geography, or even shared academic interests and similar work-study jobs, don't always make for the perfect friends for you and, even when they do, everybody changes. This is what you're experiencing now with some of your high school friends: They're changing, and you're changing, and you're finding out that having high school in common isn't enough to bind you together forever.
The other reason that getting to pick your friends is great is that learning how to make friends in what feels like a vacuum is a life skill that will bring you more emotional fulfillment than you ever thought possible. When I was 24 and trying to figure out how to make friends in that vacuum, I felt stupid and awkward and annoying (especially when it didn't always work), but I eventually made friends -- family, really -- whose new jobs and weddings I cheered at, whose shoulders I could cry on and whose support I had (and to whom I gave my support) through thick and thin. And when I moved to another city almost 4 years ago, I still had those friends and that support, but I also knew how to make new ones here, and I was able to build another family that I love and who all add depth and richness to my life (and, hopefully, whose lives I help add the same things to). And you can have that, too!
There's one simple way to start. You have to date your friends (but not in that way). Women -- and probably men, too, but to a lesser degree -- are socialized to have friends and date significant others, because our heteronormative culture defines a lifetime relationship (and, more specifically a marriage) as the be-all, end-all of our lives. And on top of that, despite all our gains, there remains a heteronormative cultural expectation that men do the asking and women do the accepting. So we invest a ton of emotional time and energy in our Relationships (especially those folks who disappear when they are In A Relationship and reappear to cry on our shoulders when they end) and we have our friends as sort of a given. In effect, we all spend time taking our friends for granted at some point, and then many of us turn around and realize they aren't there -- as anyone whose gotten a phone call out of the blue to be a bridesmaid for someone she hadn't talked to in years can tell you.
So, if you want to make friends, you have to make friend-dates with people you want to be friends with. You can't sit around and wait for people to realize you're awesome, and you can't hope that you meet people at work because, if you're lucky, you might make one really good work friend who outlasts the job. Find stuff you like to do -- book clubs, author readings, knitting circles, sewing classes, blog meetups (or start one, if you're an active contributor or commenter on a feminist blog, say), a local choir, a jazz night at a coffee house or a bar with a really great Diet Coke dispenser -- and then go and enjoy it. See who else enjoys that stuff, too, and who gives you the vibe of being someone awesome to be friends with, and start a conversation. (The person doesn't have to be 24, by the way -- the great thing about being an adult is that all of us are adults and you can totally be friends with someone 34 or 54 if they're cool and you have stuff in common.)
Now, I know it's hard for shy people to start conversations with "strangers," but start thinking of it as a skill you have to learn rather than something you "can't" do. One way to psych yourself up is to stop hating the cliché that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet, and make it your mantra instead. Another way is, if you have a friend that's better, to bring along a winglady. Or just grit your teeth, promise yourself a treat for every time you force yourself to do it, and start a conversation with someone anyway. (Even extroverts have to practice conversation-starting, I promise.) If you're doing something you both like, you already have something in common, so start there.
And then you have to really put yourself out there and just ask. Get an email, trade phone numbers, and make a date to hang out for coffee, or see a local band, or go shopping for yarn for your next knitting projects. Ask about her life, show interest in what she says, open yourself up a bit and talk about how it was your Great Aunt Mindy who taught you to cross-stitch in between nips of gin (I made that up, though, so don't actually use it). And if she cancels, or you aren't vibing as friends, start it over again.
Rejection sucks, and it plays right into the heart of some of the reasons you are probably shy, but tell that voice in your head to shut up and give her a piece of dark chocolate and do it again anyway. Make making friends your project, and eventually, even for shy people, all this talking-to-strangers stuff will get easier, and the group of people you meet and make friends with will grow. Introduce them to each other! Show up for their birthday/Halloween/housewarming parties and talk to their (presumably also awesome) friends! And then focus on being a friend, too, which involves making plans and sending and returning emails and IM conversations about whatever link to something awesome you just found and bringing Kleenex for the post-break-up dinner plans.
Just don't pick their noses. Because my dad was right about that part.