Why don't I have any friends anymore?
March 2, 2006 6:19 AM   Subscribe

In the last 15 or so years I have managed to make and keep exactly one friend. What am I doing wrong? I used to have friends from college, but they all moved away (seriously, almost all of them, to other continents and coasts). I freely admit to being judgmental and opinionated--but I'm also funny, well-read, and courteous. (Once upon a time, my friends liked that I was opinionated and judgmental.) I'm a good conversationalist. I know about balancing self-disclosure vs. showing an interest in the other person. I'm also well acquainted with professional help, and with prescription remedies, so no "go to a therapist" answers, please.

I've tried taking classes, volunteering, etc. I started a new job recently and I made a huge effort to smile and say hello even if the other person didn't do it first. Yet still, people pretty much never talk to me beyond the bare minimum. I can accept that I don't easily make connections with people; but I find it hard to believe that every single person I meet is waiting for me to make the first move in terms of exchanging phone numbers, making plans, etc. IMO the best friendships are the ones where you share interests and attitudes--I'd rather be alone than with unsatisfying "friends"--so I understand I'm partially responsible. But other than that I'm stumped, and my phone never rings, and I don't have anyone else to ask.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (38 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have a female friend who calls me all the time to make lunch dates, shopping dates, etc. She's really proactive in setting up social engagements for herself, and it impresses and inspires me. Maybe other people aren't "waiting" for you to make the first move, but it wouldn't hurt to try it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:33 AM on March 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

The judgemental thing is a bit of a turnoff, but none of are perfect and some people might like that atribute.

I have the same problem as you do. Too often I find people are just too busy for anyone in their lives besides themselves.

I wish I had a good answer for ya. Sorry.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 6:44 AM on March 2, 2006

What you described are your perspectives of yourself. Without knowing you it is hard to say what is going on. But it seems to me that you need some honest critcism. Go to someone who knows you but will tell you the truth (not your mother :) ), or find a professional makeover person, to give you an honest opinion of how you are coming across. You might be giving off various vibes that you are not even aware of.

I also second PinkSuperhero's sentiments that it helps to be proactive.
posted by blueyellow at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2006

Could it be something so simple as appearance? I don't know what you look like, how you dress, or what kind of haircut you have, but all of those can make a big difference in the way people perceive you. It's something to consider.

Also along those lines, could you be unconsciously projecting a certain facial expression that puts people off? I've been in a habit of doing that before. I was always tired from being overcommitted, so I ended up scowling and squinting more, and I think it made a difference in the way people perceived me. I also used to have a terrible hairstyle, and I think that also put off many would-be friends. A lot of people may jump on this and say it's superficial, but if people don't know you, something as simple as a quirk of appearance or mannerism could put them off.
posted by limeonaire at 6:49 AM on March 2, 2006

Why aren't your old college friends still friends? You shouldn't lose touch just because they are far away. I've got plenty of good friends that live in other states. We keep in touch by email and phone and occasional visits.

Your attitude is a little funny, likening friendship to almost a challenge:

....but I find it hard to believe that every single person I meet is waiting for me to make the first move in terms of exchanging phone numbers, making plans, etc.

Friendships can be lopsided, they don't have to be 50/50. Creating friendships is also risky but you also shouldn't look on it as an effort. It should be a way of life. You should be open to everybody, not just people who you think "look cool" or who seem to share something with you.
posted by JJ86 at 6:49 AM on March 2, 2006

Without knowing you personally, finding the problem is going to be tough. Some suggestions:
  • Try asking your friend for their honest opinion about which of your personality traits might be off-putting. We generally have difficulty recognizing our own flaws. If s/he tells you, don't be defensive. Consider how you can change this.
  • Do you practice good hygiene?
  • Try reading some books in the vein of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

posted by justkevin at 6:51 AM on March 2, 2006

Anon, I've gone through the same thing. You say, "I find it hard to believe that every single person I meet is waiting for me to make the first move," but this is exactly what's happening. Unfortunately, this happens when we get older. The easy, slide-into-it friendships happen when we're kids and in college. Some people are lucky enough to keep some of their childhood friends. Like you, I didn't. They all moved away and I lost touch. This was pre-web/email, so we REALLY lost touch.

Grownups tend to do crazy things, like getting-married and having-kids. They work all day, they come home, they watch TV, they go to bed. They don't put energy into making new friends.

But if YOU are willing to take the effort, it will pay off. Pretty much every time I have approached someone and asked them if they want to get a drink, they've said yes. It's not that people don't want friends; I think it's really that the make-friends program gets shut down in many adults. They need someone (you!) to come along and reboot it.

The really sad thing, anon, is that -- from your self description -- you sound like someone I would like (email is in my profile), but if we'd been working together a few years ago, before I became more pro-active, we'd never have become friends. I would wait for you to approach me; you would wait for me to approach you. No one would ever make the first move. And we'd both wind up needlessly lonely.

That's just stupid. Swallow your pride and ask someone over for coffee.

By the way, in a fit of loneliness I once posted a LONG essay about myself ito craiglist's "strictly platonic" section. I worked hard to describe myself fully. I befriended some great people that way.
posted by grumblebee at 6:55 AM on March 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've found myself in a similar situation since leaving university. It's hard if people at work aren't on your wavelength and you don't have another sort of social structure where you are forced into contact with people. I haven't got much advice but don't blame yourself too much. Some people never have a problem making friends, but that doesn't mean you're necessarily doing anything badly wrong. Modern life can be isolating.

What you said about making the first move etc - I think friendships happen for me by hanging round with someone until you're both sort of used to each other and comfortable. Some people can put others at their ease quickly, maybe you just need a bit longer.
posted by lunkfish at 6:55 AM on March 2, 2006

I find it hard to believe that every single person I meet is waiting for me to make the first move in terms of exchanging phone numbers, making plans, etc

I don't. I've moved to new cities with few friends a couple times, and this is exactly how you make friends, especially somewhere (hello Cleveland!) where most of the folks you run into are townies with the same friends since elementary school.

The people you hope to befriend, most of the time, already have friends and a social group. You're at a disadvantage. Making the first move is exactly what you have to do.

In the four years I've lived here I've met exactly one person who started proactively inviting me to events after our first meeting. One.

One way we made good friends after moving here: Found a restaurant that had a great deal (2-for-1 burgers and $1 beers on Monday nights, great veggie burger), went almost every week, and called people to get them to come (in pairs, for that matter). After a while, folks knew that we'd probably be there, and if not, someone in our circle of friends would. This was just a stepping-off point. I then invited these people to movies, bars, coffee. I started a book club. Hosted a few house parties.

I'm not an overly social person, I have a horrible phone phobia, and I'm sure I have personality flaws. But I've managed to make some great and close friends that I expect to keep when we leave Cleveland (soon!).

Also, I haven't made a single good, after-hours friend from work. My employer has about 1,000 employees on our campus, my department has over 100 people most of whom I know, at least, by name. I haven't ended up seeing any of them out of the office.
posted by sohcahtoa at 7:03 AM on March 2, 2006

I freely admit to being judgmental and opinionated ... Once upon a time, my friends liked that I was opinionated and judgmental

That's the thing that sticks out to me here. Perhaps as you have gotten older, your "judgmental and opinionated" starts reading less like "dorm room cynic" than "cranky middle aged guy."

YOU may not have changed at all -- and while there's nothing wrong with that, your audience may have changed a great deal.

Grownups ... don't put energy into making new friends.

So, this is true, and perhaps your "judgmental and opinionated" persona is making it harder for them to spend what little energy they have.

Summing up -- you say you're "judgmental and opinionated." You can't find friends. Perhaps one might be causing the other? Maybe, maybe not. It wouldn't hurt to change your general demeanor and see what happens.
posted by frogan at 7:09 AM on March 2, 2006

I'd chalk some of this up to age, possibly. When you're younger you're constantly around a group of people who have shared a lot of experiences by virtue of living in the same timeframe. During school you're around the same people every day so you're bound to learn about them and end up having some memories.

You need to get in a habit of getting to know more about people around you. Is there an open lunch area where you work, or possibly some sort of open food court nearby? You could easily find a coworker who might be interested in talking during lunch, or you might see someone you don't know reading a book you like. The same goes for local coffeeshops, bars, restaurants with special nights, etc. It's possible that none of the people you'll find really share your interests, but one of their friends might. It's ok to have some casual friends and shop around, especially if you're talking about your interests and someone says, "You should meet Matt, he's been trying to get me to see that movie for years."

I've had people come up to me to introduce themselves that I continually run into around town. Some are just passing acquaintances that are nice to talk to, but others have entered my circle of friends. I can also remember a fair number of bar conversations I overheard and ended up asking about because I could tell the people were discussing something I was interested in.

It may be depressing, but realize that you may not get everything you want from one friend. The friend near your age that you like to play sports with might hate sci-fi, while you find an older friend from work who loves talking about sci-fi books and movies.
posted by mikeh at 7:28 AM on March 2, 2006

As you get older, it's tougher to maintain relationships. As said above, people just get involved with their own stuff. So your real issue may be expectations of what's normal.

I'm actually trying to start a company built around the idea that people crave social interaction but don't have the time to maintain friendships due to various conflicting schedules. If you're in Los Angeles, let me know.
posted by willnot at 8:00 AM on March 2, 2006

To some extent, this is one of the reasons I left Boston -- I just found the vibe of the entire city didn't really mesh with how I like to interact with people (in that, I do). A friend from elsewhere in the Northeast once said that she finds it rude when people she doesn't know, like cashiers, talk to her because it's "invading her space." Though I had some great friends, I just felt like everyone was so closed off to new people.

Obviously, other Bostonians have little problem with it, so I think it was just a bad fit for me. Are you just living in a place that discourages interaction? If so, you may really need to ratchet it up, as "unbalanced" as it may seem.
posted by occhiblu at 8:12 AM on March 2, 2006

We make friends with the people we're around often. It's a simple truth. You could have a soulmatch of a friendship with someone in a different city and it would die on the vine without extraordinary effort. By the same token, if you like your roommate at all, you can become best friends overnight. Either do the stuff that ThePinkSuperhero mentions, or get yourself out and around more potential friends.

Post-college, a lot of us are only around the same people frequently at work. This doesn't do much for my social life, actually. In personal life, I'm very... "unprofessional" in my sense of humor, very affectionate emotionally and physically, and somewhat radical in my politics and such. So I keep my distance from people I need to be professional with. This leaves rather few options.

I suggest you undertake an activity that will bring you in contact with potential friends. Audition for a small play. Volunteer at a local clinic or public radio station. I find it a lot easier to insinuate myself socially when I have some excuse to interact with someone (eg: we have a project to finish together).

Another suggestion is that you stop thinking about making individual friends and look for a "community" of friends to join. I have less expertise on that, but I have seen people move fresh into town and sniff out a 100-friend network and join it right away. Suddenly they have 10 times as many social attachments and engagements as I do. It's a different way of approaching social life, but it has its appeal.
posted by scarabic at 8:21 AM on March 2, 2006

Firstly, your question is very you-centred, did all your friends move to another coast/country to get away from you? If so then you must be revolting and the rest of your assessment of your character is so way off as to be meaningless. Let's assume instead that they were just getting on with their lives, and that you were doing the same. Now, when they moved did you look upon that as a great opportunity to see other places and volunteer to go and see them asap? Sent regular cards? Called them up? It's a shame you didn't say how you had attempted to keep in touch with them.

With regard to new friendships, then generally I'd agree with others that it can get a bit more difficult, even joining clubs frequently doesn't solve the problem, only specific types of group will socialise together and you have to be lucky to find the right group at times. Even within the same hobby sport, some groups will be social some won't, but in general things like teamsports will be ahead of solo sport (for example). Work can be useful depending on your job and who it lets you interact with, would it be impossible for you to start some social life their, acquaintances can turn into friends with enough socialising.
As a personal observation I'd also say it gets easier if you have a partner, but that's neither here or there in terms of advice.
posted by biffa at 8:24 AM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Also: relax around people more. I have much the same problem that you do, honestly, and I think it has a lot to do with being stiff and nervous in settings where there's an opportunity to establish a friendship vibe. If you don't seem comfortable, even someone who likes you will have reservations along the lines of "what's up with this guy?" They'll think there's something off about you, a little risky, they won't take a chance on inviting you somewhere, etc.

It's very hard, but relax.
posted by scarabic at 8:25 AM on March 2, 2006

You know, personally, I find I have different sets of friends that don't really overlaps significantly for all different reasons. Part of it is simply history with friends, but I find a significant part of it to be sense of humors.

If you understand your own sense of humor pretty well and you can recognize who to temper certain parts of it with, then you may find you can make friends with some different levels of people for different reasons. Some friends may be more intellectual, some more political, some more pop-culture sharing, some more musical.

But statement after statement here is right about one thing. You've got to follow up. I mean, it's not a job interview, but you have to treat part of it as such. Email people and ask what they're up to for the weekend. Be flexible with you time, too, when things do come up. If you've got a weekend of EQ planned and you DO have a chance to hang out with someone, postpone the EQ. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 8:38 AM on March 2, 2006

This probably isn't going to be very helpful, but maybe you should move away too. I went from sitting around on my own every night telling myself HBO was a great substitute for a social life, to going out every night, juggling multiple invites and meeting great new people all the time. What changed? I moved to NYC.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:52 AM on March 2, 2006

I was thinking about your question and it occurred to me that the first friend is always the hardest. Once you have one friend then you inherit all of their friends. Thinking back over my life, the vast majority of my friends I originally met because they were "second order" friends. A lot of times I ended up liking them better then the original friend, so I spend more time with them and become friends with their friends and so on.

I guess my point was that first friend is the hardest. It may be a good idea to try to befriend someone who has a lot of friends, you will meet a lot more people that way. And the person who has a lot of friends is less likely to feel hurt if you drift away into a new circle of friends.
posted by jefeweiss at 8:55 AM on March 2, 2006

Grumblebee is dead on.

Adult responsibilities kill the spontaneous nature of childhood/college friendships. You can't just sit around in a coffee shop for hours or playing hacky sack.

Most adults are so busy that they don't even think about putting aside time for building new friendships, or if they do they are cautious because they don't have alot of time to waste on a friendship that isn't going anywhere.

Make the first move. Be the initiator, set up lunches, fun activities, etc.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 8:58 AM on March 2, 2006

NYC has been a mixed experience for me. I DO have more friends here than anywhere I've lived before. And pretty much everyone seems to show up here eventually -- either as a tourist or they actually move here. I've even hooked up with some childhood friends who I hadn't seen for decades. One guy and I went to High School together and then didn't communicate at all for over 20 years. We both wound up moving here and we've resumed our friendship as if no time passed at all.

On the other hand, people in NYC are super busy. And it's really tough to get from one borough to the other. I'm in Brooklyn, my friend is in the Bronx. If one takes him a couple of hours to subway to my place or vice versa. So, in a way, he might as well live in Chicago.

But we do email each other all the time. Many times a day. I find that most of my adult friendships -- even with people who are local -- are conducted 90% via email. Some people might not like that. I'm fine with it, as-long-as there are occasional real-world meetups.

I have a weird mailing-list of friends that I cc on many emails that I write. About 50% of these people live in NYC. The other 50% live all over the place. It SEEMS as if they are all really close.
posted by grumblebee at 9:01 AM on March 2, 2006

I agree with frogan that the "judgmental and opinionated" aspect is probably not helping. In college, that kind of affect is much more accepted than it is among people with more life experience. Older people are more accepting of nice than they are of authoritarian, and the two are somewhat mutually exclusive, especially on the surface.

Others may disagree with me. Don't listen to them, they're worthless.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:09 AM on March 2, 2006

Have you tried sports clubs? A bunch of the guys I regularly go out with I met playing men's club rugby.
posted by electroboy at 9:41 AM on March 2, 2006

Anon, I guess everyone is wondering just how judgemental and opinionated you are. And, is it balanced by being open and fun and funny? I'm very opinionated and judgemental, but, I am also a very open person. I smile and laugh a lot, so people feel I'm approachable. And I'm funny but I'm especially funny making fun of my judgmental, opinionated stupidity. Other people's humorous observations about me being wrong are also welcome.

And, yes, as you get older, friendships don't just "happen" anymore. At the age of 50, I have reverted to school playground etiquette. I use the adult version of "You wanna be friends?"

When at a party or gathering where I don't know a lot of people, I just begin introducing myself with a handshake and a smile, "Hi, I'm _____." People almost always respond in the same manner. And, actually, they feel really good about you for doing this, because MOST PEOPLE DON'T. It's a really simple, surprisingly effective ice breaker. The key is to not be bothered if someone doesn't respond to this. I think it might be self-confidence, but I don't care to know the person who doesn't respond to a genuine smile and an introduction. I don't get pissed, or rattled, I just move on to the next person. This has almost never failed for me. And if it has failed, then I was at a stinky party with a stinky group of people. Or, they just didn't like me. I'm okay with that too.
posted by generic230 at 9:48 AM on March 2, 2006

A wise wise man once told me that there's a limit to the number of friends you can have... I think his limit was six. After that, they are acquaintances because, if you make time for your family, you run out of time for more than six friends.

That being said, and questions about your general presentation aside, how many friends do you want? What do you want to do with these friends?

Do those things. When you meet people that stand out to you as interested in those things and interesting, invite them to lunch.
posted by ewkpates at 10:07 AM on March 2, 2006

It can be really difficult to make friends as an adult. I doubt it's that you're doing anything *wrong* per se, it's just that adults get so wrapped up in their own lives with work and relationships that they don't have time for much else. I've run into this problem myself; here's some ideas that might work:

1. Try just engaging in hobbies that you really like. Don't do something just for the sake of making friends -- pick something you like. My dad, at 60, has more friends than anyone I know and he's pretty shy. But, he's passionate about poetry. He was president of the poet's league, has a weekly poetry workshop, and has had a huge group of poetry friends for the last thirty years. He also met his SO this way. So pick something you love, that you're passionate about, and the friends will come.

2. Start a group on Craigslist. It can just be a general social group or it can be tailored to your interests. I did this once and had fantastic success.

3. If this would work with your office culture, try inviting everyone to a happy hour. Make sure you include everyone, or you're likely to hurt someone's feelings.

4. Try a team sport. That's always a good way to make friends.
posted by bananafish at 10:33 AM on March 2, 2006

fwiw, I dropped most of my friends who were constantly critical and cutting someone down to size when I was in my 20s. I'm guessing that's not what you mean when you say opinionated and judgmental, but there you go. As I got older, I just didn't have the energy to support their personalities -- I think at heart she and he were also just starved for attention, and it was exhausting.
posted by onlyconnect at 10:41 AM on March 2, 2006

I've been thinking about "judgmental and opinionated." Though some people balk such traits, I find them attractive, depending on what you mean by "judgmental."

I tend to like "sharp" personalities. If I like a movie, and you say, "that's a piece of shit," I'll probably enjoy talking to you. On the other hand, if you say (and mean it, not as a joke), "You like THAT?!? You're a moron," I'll be offended.

I know this woman, "Angie", who told me a story about going to a club with her friend, "Laura." Laura is married, but before she went to the club, she removed her ring. She liked getting attention from the guys in the club. But when guys approached her, Angie would say, "You shouldn't be talking to her. She's a married woman!" Angie went on and on about how she didn't approve of cheating and how she felt it was her duty to interfere.

I don't like cheating either, but I was appalled by Angie's behavior (though she assumed that I would agree with it!). Not being an Angie myself, I kept didn't berate her, but I made a mental note to spend less time with her.

I WANT to be around people who have opinions, people who are cynical, skeptical, smart and make biting comments. I DON'T want to be around people who take a holier-than-thou attitude to me, act self-rightious and give unsolicited advice.
posted by grumblebee at 10:45 AM on March 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

Today's Ask Amy column contains almost exactly the same question.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:04 AM on March 2, 2006

The only thing I'll add is, is it that much of a problem? Sure, I think ideally it's probably "healthiest" to have more than one friend (or at least some semi-close acquaintances), but is it possible you are just thinking you "should" be another way? I'm a bit of a loner myself, I have more than one friend though (maybe 2-3 and several acquaintances) and I've caught myself thinking I should be another way. But I think I've mostly realized that I am generally pretty happy keeping to myself for a lot of the time... I am an introvert and have a "rich inner life." Just food for thought.
posted by mojabunni at 12:12 PM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound lame, but you need to find people who are interested in the same things you're interested in. I know that everyone says things like that, but I have an actual "find people like you" story:

My husband and I noticed that we had very few friends: a few friends of mine from college, mostly out of state; two or three local people; one other couple; and uh, some people from work. The work people were just place holders, though, because we had not one thing in common with them. We actually met a blue ton of people through our blogs -- we found other local people who were blogging, found the ones that said things we thought were cool, and started participating on those people's sites (this is very condensed and simplified, btw, but you get the picture). Eventually a group of people got together to play trivia, and we have been playing once a week, almost every week, with the same people for a year. We're up to ten members on our team. It's been really great. Use the intarweb to your advantage. And, if you're in the Atlanta area, you can bring your rude self to trivia next week. We're pretty damn rude as a group, so you'll fit right in.
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:56 PM on March 2, 2006

...is it that much of a problem?

I'm also a loner. I've had (horrible) times in my life when I had ZERO friends, but I've often been happy with only one friend. But the problem is that when you have only one friend, you depend on that friend for EVERYTHING. And there's always the chance that you'll lose that friend (people die, people have fights, etc.) In which case, you'll have no support system at all. Even when I'm the most social, I usually only have 2 or 3 close friends (more than that gets exhausting for me).

I DO worry about myself if some crisis happens.
posted by grumblebee at 1:02 PM on March 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

Hm. I'm not sure that I'd take up with a group of 'pretty damn rude' people if I were you. I went through something kind of similar when I was in my mid-20s in Washington, D.C. and ended up befriending a small group of guys who were all very cutting and judgmental-- what I thought was a good fit for my taste in friends.

But the real truth is that their behavior amplified my own, and I became more arch and snide, to the point where I saw it in myself and didn't like it.

So I did the only thing I could and jettisoned them. I went through a very dry spell of several months where I had almost no friends, and then started acting the part of someone outgoing and made some friends through a volunteering gig. But it took effort, real serious effort. I invited people to events and out for dinner, etc. It didn't just magically happen.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:09 PM on March 2, 2006

I think yellowcandy is on the verge of something. If you pretend to be a certain way hard enough, for long enough, you'll probably end up being that way.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:17 PM on March 2, 2006

If you can afford it and you like that kind of thing.

1. Buy a boat

2. Tell people you have a boat

When summer comes around you'll have a lot of friends.
posted by Justin Case at 2:59 PM on March 2, 2006

I've been making a mental list of people I've met and become friends with since I left university and they're all, with one exception, who I met through family, people I met through work or in bars. Or, of course, both. People from work I went for a drink with after work.

"Meeting people in bars" sounds kind of seedy and depressing, but for a start, I used to play pool a lot. When you play pool, you have to talk to people, and if they see you play, people will pick you up to make four for a doubles game. Also I'd go to bars to see bands. If you go to see the same band a few times, you'll see the same people there because they're fans. You say "hi, are you going to the gig next Friday?" and so on. Then there are trivia nights like other people have mentioned. So, not just glumly sitting around in a dive drinking and feeling sorry for yourself, but going to bars where there's stuff to do.

I'm not saying it's a perfect solution, or even the solution for you, but at least it's something to think about.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:58 PM on March 2, 2006

You know, it was a joke.

That being the primary feature of people that anonymous might get along with -- tolerant people who can take a joke, and don't take themselves or anyone else too seriously.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:42 PM on March 2, 2006

Learn to enjoy being alone. It is possible.
posted by petsounds at 10:31 AM on March 3, 2006

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