Let me tell you about a girl who went through early life as a geek, recluse, and resident ‘weirdo’. She had few friends and a bare minimum of social skills to speak of. Speaking of speaking, she didn’t do much of that either. She didn’t enjoy parties or clubbing. She didn’t like meeting or being around people, preferring the company of a computer game or a good book. She would avoid social situations, usually only going out when her arm was twisted. She spent her lunch hours in the library reading. An abusive relationship severed the very few social ties she had, and she emerged with rock-bottom self-esteem and limited ability to make friends.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that the girl I’m talking about is me. Or I should say, was me. In September 2007, I remember sitting at home on the night of my 23rd birthday feeling lonely and sorry for myself. All I wanted to do was to go out with my friends. That sounded great – there was one little problem. I had no friends.
Fast forward one year from that day. That same girl threw the first party of her life, was surrounded by more wonderful friends than she could poke ten sticks at, was confident within herself, had developed her social skills, made new friends easily, loved meeting new people, partying, and socializing in any context, and was usually one of the loudest and bubbliest people in the room.
So what was it that brought about such an abrupt change? The turning point for me was experiencing intense loneliness after breaking up with my abusive ex-partner. At the time, having even one friend who I could call up and catch up with for a coffee would have been a huge deal. I promised myself that I was going to overcome shyness and set about making new friends no matter how much it pushed me out of my comfort zone.
My strategy was simple, straightforward, and easy to apply. I resolved to attend absolutely every social occasion that I was invited to. Baby showers, Tupperware parties, dates, family gatherings – you asked me, I went to it. I read everything I could get my hands on about communication, people skills, overcoming shyness, making new friends, and body language. Within a matter of two months, I had gone from having a completely blank social calendar to having three parties to attend in one night!
Okay, you say, but you don’t just go along to social occasions and come away as friends with everyone. True, but what you do come away with is familiarity.
Many of our connections with other people are based on familiarity. People like what they are familiar with. I didn’t actually realise this at the time, but by accepting every social invitation without exception, I was inadvertently making myself familiar to the people who also attended regularly. Think about it. Have you ever attended a social occasion where you knew maybe one person, even if you didn’t have much to do with them? Who do you tend to gravitate towards until you’ve established a basic level of comfort in your surroundings? The familiar person!
Of course, making friends takes more than just familiarity. When I met people, I was friendly, polite, bubbly, and would ask them about themselves and get to know them. If there was a person I didn’t know, I would make a beeline for them and get to know them. That was a challenge for me. I was not at all comfortable just going up to someone to start a conversation, but I knew if I really wanted to make new friends then doing what I had for the past 23 years wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
If you want to make new friends, here’s how I did it in a nutshell:
Learning to Become a Social Epicentre
If you are genuinely clueless like I was, start by educating yourself on how people actually make friends and develop networks. This might include what questions to ask people you’ve just met, the best places to meet people, and how to approach people. While that may sound ridiculously easy to some of you, I can assure you if you’re shy with a social capacity sits somewhere near zilch, that’s plenty to start with! I’ve linked to a few resources I used below. Otherwise, you can skip this step.
Making Friends – Andrew Matthews
Practicing Your Social Skills
It absolutely does not matter whether or not you succeed in making a new friend. The point is to get out there and practice. Social skills are like any other. Practice improves your game and gives you more confidence in your interactions.
Use whatever opportunities come your way to practice your social skills. When I went traveling, I was in a new town nearly every night. I took the opportunity to approach people and initiate conversations I usually wouldn’t. Sometimes I’d hit it off, and sometimes I crashed and burned. All of it was a valuable learning experience. Don’t be afraid to fail. The only mistake you make is one you don’t learn from.
Get Yourself in the Mood
If you’re heading out for a good bout of socialising, do whatever it takes to get yourself happy, bubbly, and interesting for the duration of the event. If doing something sporty before you go puts you in a great mood, do it! If it’s reading a good book, or listening to some inspirational music, take some time out to fit it in before you go! If you need a sleep, have one. Social epicentres are the life of the party, not the person sleeping in the corner. 😉
Your mood affects the moods of people around you and how they perceive you. Come along as a sad sack and that’s how you’ll be remembered. Come along with a bright, happy smile and a positive attitude and people will remember you as energetic and fun to be around.
Make Others Feel Comfortable in Your Presence
It sounds obvious, but pay attention to your grooming and hygiene if you’re planning on socialising. If you have shocking breath, bad B.O., and look like you haven’t seen a shower in a week, people aren’t exactly going to be lining up to spend time with you. People are more attracted to those who take care of themselves.
Learn to be Interested in Other People
Find out what is important to the person you are talking to, and listen to them instead of interrupting with a story about yourself. People in general love talking about themselves. Ask a friendly chatterbox an open-ended question and they will natter on for a good ten minutes without you adding anything to the conversation except an encouraging nod and smile!
Do keep in mind though that everyone is different. Fire five open-ended questions at a shy person and you will irritate them no end. While some people love to talk about themselves for hours, others feel uncomfortable when asked too many questions unless you are prepared to give something of yourself in return. Judge the person and the situation accordingly.
It’s hard to be interesting if you don’t do anything interesting. You don’t meet too many fascinating individuals who spend their days lying on the couch watching soaps and eating ice-cream. If you cringed when I said that, get off your butt right now and go do something fun!
I used to find it difficult to talk to people because I never did anything interesting. At university my life consisted of lectures, tutorials, and sleeping through the week. On weekends I rarely socialised. My typical weekend involved me working day and night shifts at two jobs. Not exactly the most interesting life to lead, and certainly not to talk about.
Once I acknowledged my lack of interesting activities as part of the problem, I began looking around for hobbies that interested me. I tried a couple of different styles of dance, tried yoga, dabbled in learning the piano and guitar, went for a psychic reading, stopped being such a sissy and checked out the Brisbane nightlife solo, backpacked around the country alone for three months, developed an interest in journaling, and got a job reviewing hostels for a UK-based travel company. Needless to say, I had plenty of chit-chat ammunition for some time!
Go out and do something you are interested in. Play sport. Learn a language. Take dance classes. Join a club. People will be interested in talking to you if you have interesting things to talk about when the conversation swings around to you.
Learn to Interpret Body Language
Have you ever seen a guy trying to chat up a woman who is clearly not interested, but he just won’t take the hint? Of course you have. He’s leaning forward, angling himself towards her, trying to make conversation. She’s looking away, checking her watch, checking her phone, arms crossed, looking around for her friends, all the while maintaining a tight-lipped smile to feign politeness. That’s a classic case of misinterpreting body language.
First of all, if you ever find yourself in a situation like our friend Casanovice above, please excuse yourself from the conversation as quickly and gracefully as possible to avoid potential embarrassment. 😉
Seriously though, your interactions with people will be more successful if you can learn to read how comfortable they feel around you, and adjust your approach accordingly.
Let’s say you’re talking to a shy person. They have answered a couple of your questions, but you can see you’ve pushed them a bit far outside their comfort zone and they have begun to close up again. They start giving short answers, looking down, and crossing an arm over their body. Perhaps it is time to give them a break from the hot seat while you talk for a while. They will welcome the distraction, and will probably begin to open up again once they realise you’re not playing a one-sided game of 20 Questions.
Conversely, you may sense the other person losing interest because you’ve been over-zealously indulging them in more information about your life than they care to hear. They’re looking away, sneaking subtle glances at their watch, subconsciously touching their ear to indicate they have heard enough. Put the spotlight back on them and pay them the courtesy of listening effectively. Don’t try to turn the conversation back to yourself. Listen.
For more information on learning to read body language, a great book I read on the subject is The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease. It includes theory, illustrations, and scenarios to help you learn what to look for.
Utilise Your Existing Social Networks
You can make it easier on yourself to make friends if you know who to talk to, and where to look for them! Existing friends and acquaintances are a great way to meet new people. Let your friends know you would like to meet some new people, and assuming you have good friends, they will be more than happy to help you out. An added benefit of meeting friends through friends is that you are likely to have similar values. After all, your mutual friend has good taste in friends, right?
Choose Your Target Location
The situation in which you meet people is as important as anything else. As a general rule, public transport and elevators are not conducive to social interaction, especially on work days. The unwritten social rule of ‘do not disturb’ echoes loud and clear, and usually you will end up making people feel uncomfortable if you attempt to extend a conversation past a smile and ‘Hi’.
Social gatherings and parties on the other hand are great for meeting people who are receptive to friendship. Chances are they are there for the same reason as you are. Now it’s up to you to initiate an interaction. Reach out and talk to them. If you enjoy their company, ask them for their contact details so you can catch up again.
Follow Up With Action!
How often have you met someone you connected with and were too scared to say, “You know, you’re pretty cool. We should catch up some time!” Great! Now get over your ego and quit being such a sissy. If you meet someone and like them, get their details, and follow up by inviting them out!
People are usually flattered that you would like to spend time with them. Quite often if you have the courage to just ask, you’ll find that you are quite naturally headed towards a new friendship. Other times, the connection may simply end up being an acquaintance. Either way, you have met a new person.
If people don’t always accept your invitation, don’t take it personally. Usually it’s not about you at all. Some people are shy. Others are genuinely busy at the times it’s convenient for you to catch up. For these reasons alone, I’ll usually extend a few invitations to give a person every opportunity to pursue a friendship. It depends on the person. If they genuinely want to connect, they will reciprocate the effort.
Refining Your Friendship Circle
When I still had a relatively small network of friends, I expended lots of time and energy getting to know new people. As my social network expanded, I gradually learned to become a social epicentre rather than a branch. I got better at making new friends, and I became more selective of with whom I spent my time. I let less satisfying friendships drift naturally out of my life. I knew I didn’t have to tolerate incompatible friendships, because I had developed the ability and confidence to make new, more compatible friends easily.
Making new friends is a time consuming pursuit, but very rewarding. A year ago, I was about as lonely as a person could be. Now, I have a wonderful group of close friends. They are all very different, but I love and cherish every one of them.
Go out with the intention of making a lot of new friends. Don’t be afraid to initiate a friendship. Plenty of people want to connect just as much as you do, but are not confident enough to try. The more people you spend time with, the better you get at discerning what you do and don’t want, and the more likely you are to find people with whom you want to develop deeper friendships.
Like this article? Say "thanks" with a soy chai latte!