Please help this introvert make new friends!
January 28, 2013 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I have been an introvert for as long as I can remember. I do have a few good friends that I enjoy talking to, but usually they were the ones who befriended me, instead of the other way around. Now, because of changes of circumstances in my life, I would like to bring more new people into my life, more actively this time. Dear hive mind, please give me some tips on how I can do it.

I was born in China, then moved to North America with my family when I was 11. So, most of my teenage years were quite solitary: naturally introverted + only child + no extended family (just me and my parents) + language and cultural barriers. Now that I have grown up, I have become somewhat more sociable, but the old patterns that I used as part of my ego defence mechanism during those years still come back to haunt me.

Even as a child, I have been shy and proud at the same time. For example, once, because my grandparents had made fun of the way I spoke in our regional dialect, I stopped using that dialect; to this day I cannot speak it, although I can understand 100% of it. So, imagine extending this to a completely new language such as English. During high school, I refrained from talking because I was scared to sound inappropriate or "stupid". So, from age 11 to 17, I didn't really talk to anyone in another language other than Chinese. By "talking", I mean having a meaningful conversation, not that I pretended that I was mute.

Needless to say, not talking to people, really limited one in the getting-to-know-you arena. In addition to the language barrier, there was also the cultural one. They are similar in the sense that I was always scared to do something inappropriate for the context, because I found the very new cultural environment that I was in bewildering. Case in point 2: When I graduated from language classes to be part of a "regular class" with local kids, I was once invited to watch a movie with the "normal kids". I was extremely nervous and anxious about how to handle the event, so I meekly said in the phone that "I had things to do" and couldn't go. Ouch, even now I wince when I recall that awkward conversation.

Again, this can be extended to other areas of my social life, even to this day. I am not the best at accepting invitations to events for which I don't understand the behavioural norm. Also, I rarely invite people to go on outings of any nature. That is because, I guess, because of the way I feel about invitations, I feel disinclined to put other people in what I perceive as "a hard place to be".

To this day, my up-bring has made me a very independent and self-reliant person. The problem is, I feel that I am too independent and self-reliant, to the extent of excluding people I enjoy being with. My friends tell me that they think I am intelligent, knowledgeable and reflective, but they also think that I am distant, aloof and cold. In September 2011, I have started graduate studies, which lead once more to a rather solitary and confining lifestyle. And, I am acutely experiencing that the way that I behave currently is not who I really am. I am ready to make some changes in my life that will release me from the cold, distant manners that I almost instinctively adopt to prevent hurt and loss in self-esteem. The first move, I think, would be to become less passive in meeting people and making new friends.

Since I am really really new to making friends, I would love to get some tips on how to approach people. I also wonder how people who are out of college (so slightly older, with more responsibilities and time commitments) would feel about new friendship at this stage of their life. (I have read that it is universally hard to make new friends once we get older. It is a piece of information that I use to rationalize away my feeling of inadequacy...)

BTW, I am female, if it makes any difference.
posted by clair-obscur to Human Relations (8 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I love, love, love me some MeetUp. It's great for finding folks that you share interests with, and also for discover and test driving possible new interests. Low to no pressure.
posted by THAT William Mize at 9:57 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are probably going to suggest this, but join some clubs, volunteer, or sign up for a class. Find groups that meet fairly regularly for a reason that interests you, and join. Hell, get involved in a bunch of things! Seriously, that is how a lot of adults expand their social netowrk. Since you're naturally quite introverted and quiet, I would try to find something where talking and conversing with people is sort of the point. (ie. a book club where everyone discusses the book)

Just as datapoints:
- I actually STARTED a book club and that is where I met the people who are my closest friends now. It started out as just a weird group of people from my office of all ages (20's to late 50s) and we're all a really close knit group now. Books in our book club are definitely an after thought lately.
- My best friend joined a pre-existing graphic novel club and she met all her friends that way, including her now boyfriend.
- My sister met most of her close friends through a rowing club and through a pottery class she took.
- My other sister moves around a lot and the first thing she in every new city is find a choir to join and a Scrabble club (or starts one herself if one doesn't already exist).
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:02 AM on January 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

I've always found that the best way to get to know people is to work on something new together. This method is particularly suitable for an introvert, because it takes the focus off you and puts it on the task at hand. It's best if it's something you're relatively new at, so that you are (1) a little bit out of your comfort zone (and not locked into your habitual patterns of interaction), and (2) collaborating with others (rather than in an explicit or implicit authority position over them).

What are you interested in? What would you like to learn about? You could ...
- Play a sport! There are adult leagues for many sports, and your college probably has intramural leagues with public postings looking for teammates; look around your area to see what's available.
- Join a class! It's best to find a class that has built-in interaction, like an improv class, a dance class, a language class, a baking class, a martial arts class, etc. Look for experiential learning, not book learning.
- Find a MeetUp or activity group! Hiking or adventure group, hobby group, craft group, musical ensemble, etc.
- Volunteer somewhere! Community garden, homeless shelter, local political board, etc.

The other thing you might try is an experiment in saying "yes" to every invitation. Relieve yourself of the pressure to decide in the moment by pre-deciding that you will say "yes" to everything that you can physically attend and just see what happens! You can even set a time limit -- perhaps try it for six months or a year. For an example of what this tactic can do, take a look at this book: The Year of Yes.
posted by ourobouros at 10:30 AM on January 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

OP is in graduate school, it sounds, so she is already very likely in a class (make that several), and she may not have a lot of time for a regular "fun" class.

OP: if your school has a graduate student organization, take a look at their social offerings. For example, my school's graduate student government organizes regular social events for graduate students, happy hours near campus, and offers discounted tickets to off-campus events. Grad school can be a stressful and lonely time, but many schools offer social resources to their students.
posted by Nomyte at 11:29 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make sure you have Metafilter set to notify you of IRL events in your area (it's in your profile settings)! I know there was a Montreal recently.
posted by maryr at 11:34 AM on January 28, 2013

A Korean woman recently joined a club I belong to. We are an old club with a history, and she volunteered to take on the job of photographing our events, and keeping our scrapboook. Her English vocabulary has improved dramatically, and the club has some gorgeous photos. Win/win. My point is that your North American contacts are poorer for not knowing you. Learning a bit about your life, about China, about immigrating, would have been valuable for them. It is not too late. Speak up. Join a club as advised above. Volunteer somewhere. You are an asset. (That's a good thing.)
posted by Cranberry at 2:42 PM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Nomyte, definitely look into graduate student organizations, or departmental clubs, or any student group that offers free lunch. You're bound to meet lots of fellow students over pizza (seriously, free food attracts poor hungry grad students). At my school, lots of these types of events were invited lectures or panel discussions, so you can chat to people afterwards about the event specifically and go from there.

Do you take classes or are you doing a thesis? If you have classes, maybe try to ask around for group study sessions. At the very least, strike up convos with the people sitting next to you. Simply watch for flyers posted around the school and show up! (Actually, I went to tons of events advertised on flyers and met heaps of people this way).

If you have a research group, reach out to them. Casually see if people want to grab lunch as a group, or brownbag it and meet people in the cafeteria/lunch room (you might notice that food is a big trend here). I became good friends in grad school with a research group who worked near me simply because we ate lunch at the same time every day.

Also, be kind to yourself and be patient. Don't dwell on the little things or beat yourself up for being awkward or if a social interaction doesn't go quite right. These things take work! And frankly, if someone judges you when you're trying to get to know them, they're probably not good friend material. Patience is important because good friendships don't happen overnight. They take a lot of small talk and little moments of bonding. But you can do it! Good luck!
posted by Paper rabies at 4:08 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

First of all, I know this isn't what you asked, but your English is flawless. I know writing and speaking are not the same, but I'm so impressed with your command of a language you learned relatively late in childhood. It sounds like you might be/have been somewhat self-conscious about your language skills, but absolutely no evidence of a language barrier came through in your post.

This is sort of an out-of-the-box suggestion, but would you ever be interested in a wilderness trip like Outward Bound or NOLS? The goal wouldn't be to make friends there per se (though it is a team environment and most groups do bond pretty closely). My thought is more that the trip would be a learning experience and a confidence-builder.

Both organizations run wilderness expeditions lasting 8 days to 1 month (or even longer). You will be in a group of 8 or 10 people, all strangers, and you'll be taught how to navigate and operate in the wilderness. You will be out of your comfort zone much of the time, but you will always be physically safe, and none of the challenges should push you into genuinely freaking out. I used to lead Outward Bound trips, and we really pushed people into examining how they interacted with each other and thinking about what role you take in groups. By getting out of your usual environment, it can help you get more perspective on your way of being, and it can be easier to make changes. Also, overcoming the challenges of the trip can be very empowering. Feel free to memail me if you are interested in this and have any questions.
posted by pompelmo at 8:55 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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