I am an unprepared actor in front of an eager audience, pulled on stage, where my every move is seen, studied, scrutinised. Their gaze is a spotlight, forcing me to deliver my lines before the scene changes, and the next subject is brought up. Socialising feels like an art form, yet for some of us, we fear that our performances fall flat.
As an introverted person who has been a little too comfortable with staying in my own bubble for the past few years, I found it difficult to connect with people after entering university. While the term “introvert” has many definitions, and is now used loosely to describe a person who prefers to spend time alone rather than be with others (Cambridge dictionary), it is a myth that introverts are all quiet or unsociable. However, introverted people may be less used to interacting with new people, due to their need to recharge alone. So, whether you identify as an introvert, are simply more shy, or perhaps for both reasons (like me), here are some tips on how to (try to) make friends.
Setting the stage:
It is difficult to make new friends without meeting new people, so the obvious thing to do is to seek out new things and places. From experience, this is the most difficult part, due to the sheer number of potential places to visit and people to meet, and the foreignness of it is daunting. Starting small helps, such as making friends in tutorial groups. As time progresses, joining clubs and societies is also a good step to meet new people. From ad-hoc volunteering opportunities to permanent positions, they all serve to expose you to new opportunities for expanding your social circle.
Whilst setting the stage, it is important to understand yourself, and what environment you thrive in. There is a thrill to throwing yourself into the deep end, diving into places where everything is a novel experience, but the risk is that the stress accompanying those interactions could become demoralising instead of enriching. This is definitely not to say introverts should never seek out new experiences in fear of it becoming uncomfortable, but instead a suggestion to understand your limits and work around them, before making big leaps. After all, socialising is not a competition, but rather a naturally occurring event that should be as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. Hence, it is wise to understand your own limits, and in the beginning, seek out a comfortable middle between comfort and challenge.
Additionally, it is crucial to take note of our own expectations when we seek friendship. For example, we could first understand what does a friendship look like to us. Does greeting each other when passing by count as a friend, or an acquaintance? What about after a meal together, or an outing, and if after the semester ends, there is no more contact? It is helpful to manage our expectations in the beginning, as it helps us orientate ourselves and our perception of our new friend.
First impressions matter, and to many people, introverted or not, this can be a source of anxiety when meeting new friends. From experience, it helps to plan out a “script” of what to do when interacting with new people. Everyone actually does this automatically, which is called a “schema”, or a set of mental structures that help us understand how things work, so that we do not overload ourselves with new information all the time. However, it may help to have a deliberate plan of how you want to introduce yourself to others, and also what you want to say. This can be as basic as your name, age, hobbies, which then branch out to points for small-talk.
It is true that first impressions matter, but it is also helpful to not get too stressed up for the “perfect” introduction or way of presenting yourself. Additionally, first impressions are exciting for all parties, and people usually fret enough about themselves to notice minute things like the other person’s slip of tongue. Moreover, making friends is a relatively low-stakes exercise, which takes time. In fact, it takes around 50 cumulative hours to transform an ‘acquaintance’ into a ‘friend’ (BigThink). What feels like a clumsy first impression may not sabotage the potential for friendship, as in the long run, when people get to know each other better, it may not even matter. Thus, it is prudent to not let perfect be the enemy of good, and for the lack of a better truism, “be yourself”.
“Oh no,” I once thought to myself after hearing that last bit of advice. “What if people think I’m weird/ cringe/ (insert negative adjective of choice here)?”. This then brings us to the next point about self-esteem. Self-esteem is like a personal report card we have for ourselves, and our self-imposed scores are not necessarily accurate. After all, most of the things we dislike about ourselves are arbitrary, determined by none other than the entity in our own minds. While worrying about how others perceive us is not indicative of low self-esteem. However, the assumption that others will pick on us for factors outside our control, or that we are unworthy of friendship because of it, is an indicator.
Managing low self-esteem has no definite answer, but what I find useful is simply having as much optimism as possible when thinking about finding friendship. We are not everyone’s cup of tea, and we should respect that, but that does not mean that we are lousy, or there will never be another person that appreciates us. The only thing in our control then, is to try to be the best version of ourselves, and to believe that people will be kind. This helps prevent us from being prickly or overly-defensive when meeting new people, because we acknowledge our own efforts, and hope that people see that.
After all that preparation, it is time to put that all into practice, by (trying to) make new friends! There is never a fixed method or rule to this part, and given the infinite possible number of first meetings that are possible, it would be arrogant to give any concrete tips other than to play it by ear, and follow your heart.
Even with everything prepared and thought through, there is still the possibility of not always being able to form friendships. Perhaps in a comfortable environment, with a script of what to say planned out, there is still no lasting connection formed after that, maybe because the friendship did not meet our own expectations. In these cases, it is tempting to put the blame on the other person or on yourself, but occurrences are nobody’s fault— maybe there was simply not enough time to form a friendship, or there was simply no reason. Thus, rather than being disheartened or dispirited, it is more productive to reflect, relax, and then try again.
In conclusion, setting the stage and having a script before “show time” is a framework I find useful when attempting to make friends. However, it is also important to note that that is all it is: a framing device I use to help me think of how friendships are formed. In reality, this is much more complex than 3 steps, and there are a multitude of things that different people consider when making new friends. Thus, this is not meant to be prescriptive steps, but rather an affirmation for all those struggling to make friends: it may seem like an uphill trek, but with a good pace, healthy expectations, and a positive attitude, it can be a fun one.