How I Made Friends In A New City—Despite Pandemic, And All

May 14, 2021

Almost exactly two years ago, I came back to my childhood hometown of Portland, Oregon to settle down. I had left Portland after high school to attend college on the East Coast. Then as a new grad, I moved to New York and lived there for about a decade. My NYC years were full of dramatic highs and lows: sometimes glamorous and exciting, much more often gritty and tear-inducing. But always very tiring and stressful. After a certain point, I knew I had to leave—and packed all my stuff, traveled to France for three months, and came back to my hometown in April 2019.

What awaited me at home, though, was very different from what I’d imagined. Of course, being able to see my parents much more often was (and is) wonderful. My family life has never been so warm, loving, and supportive. On the other hand, I immediately realized I didn’t have any friends here, not having stayed in touch with high school peers. The one high school friend—my best friend—lived thousands of miles away, and making new friends as an adult seemed next to impossible. I also worked for myself, from home, which even deprived me of office friendships—the lowest hanging fruits of adult social life.

Sure, I stepped up saying hello and introducing myself, and before COVID I met some interesting and like-minded (creative and environmentally conscious) people. But I found that they already had their own friend groups, and were often married with children—which means they weren’t looking to make new friendships. (They have to run a tight ship on their time and energy—I get it!)

After I followed up on a few “let’s get coffee” invitations which then fell through, I struggled with loneliness and a sense of rejection. But somehow, two years into moving back home and one year into the pandemic, I am feeling much more confident in having built a support network from scratch. Here’s how I did it.

Get a bike

First thing someone (my now friend, ahem) told me when I moved here was that I should get a bike in order to make new friends. Sure enough, after getting a bike I was invited to many more hangouts and group rides that I just wouldn’t have been able to join otherwise. This is particularly true of a bike-friendly city like Portland, but the key is to join the local scene. Is rock climbing big in your area? Well, consider learning how to climb. Maybe people in your city love going to the waterfront. Find out what the locals are interested in, and see how you might fit in the scene. Believe me, at first I did NOT see myself as a bike person after living in New York for ten years!

Start with your neighbors

Most adult friendships can be maintained without too much forethought because of proximity—which is why it’s so common to become friends with your colleagues. For an independent worker like me, the most natural equivalent was my neighbors—people who literally live next door, and people I run into frequently at the local park. They all live close to you, so you can casually text for walks and drinks, and no one would suggest going somewhere far that will raise the stakes (and stress level).

Don’t be afraid of reaching out to friends of friends

So you got invited to a group hang and met a bunch of people—congratulations! Are you just going to end it at that, and leave it up to your friend 1 to do the next invitation for a group hang? Wrong! Try to befriend the friends of friends at these gatherings and see if you’re interested in cultivating friendships with them, too. You already have an “in” with them, and they are being vouched for “friendability,” too. I know—sometimes I hesitate to do this as well out of shyness, or because I don’t always love friends of friends as much as I do my original friend 1. But at least keep an open mind. The benefit of this, of course, is that they’ll start to include you in all their friend group hangs. Score!

Be proactive

Last September I hosted a socially-distanced BBQ on the patio. It was nerve-racking because frankly, I don’t like to put myself out there very much when it comes to inviting people. I was worried that no one would show up, or would show up late, or the food would be terrible, etc. But it turned out to be festive and fun, and good times were had by all!

The point is, if you’re holding back, no one will know you’re wanting to be better friends. Ask that person for coffee. Offer to loan that person a book you just finished reading and loved. Share a deeper personal story instead of just scratching the surface of small talk. If you act like an acquaintance, they will also act like an acquaintance. If you act like a friend, they will act like a friend back.

It all takes time

Don’t be dejected if you’ve been working hard at cultivating friendships and still feel lonely. According to a University of Kansas study, it takes 40–60 hours of hanging out to form a casual friendship, 80–100 hours to become a friend, and 200+ hours to become a good friend. Even if you hang out with a new person (2 hours) every week, it takes 5 months just to become casual friends! If you’re not laughing so hard with your new friends that you need stitches, that’s all right. Lower the pressure for yourself and enjoy the process of getting to know people, and it will eventually happen.

How do you make new adult friends?

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Photo: KaLisa Veer via Unsplash

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