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Ms. Opinionated: All the Advice You Asked For, and Some You Didn't

Megan Carpentier, a.k.a. Ms. Opinionated

Welcome back to "Ms. Opinionated," Bitch's new advice column, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I am turning 24 and finishing graduate school in December, but I need help making new friends. The friends I have are all from high school. A few of them are great, including my boyfriend, but most of them I have nothing in common with and no longer feel close to. My friend group has gotten smaller and smaller in the six years since HS graduation. I commuted to undergrad and really didn't talk to many people and in graduate school most people are much older than I am. I very much want to make more friends, especially more women friends, and especially friends who share my values and interests. Do you have any friend-making advice for a somewhat shy, teetoaling, agnostic feminist about to enter the nonprofit field? What are the chances I'll make friends at work?

My dad -- ever the mature humorist -- used to tell me, "You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose." But the thing about picking your friends in high school (and even at college) is that, like picking your nose, sometimes you're stuck with the boogers you find.

I can't say for your experience precisely, but having grown up in a small town and gone to high school with many of the same kids with whom I ate cookies in nursery school, the friends I could make and keep were limited by geography and age and their parents' willingness or ability to remain in the area when jobs didn't. (And, because of the ways in which America is still both self-segregating and economics plays into housing and geographic segregation, I grew up in a reasonably homogenous place in terms of class and race, which further limited the universe of people with whom I had access to friendships.) College, though I wasn't a commuter and went to a huge school, was for me -- like many people -- much of the same: I made friends with the other students around me in my freshman year dorm (accident of geography), with the students I met in class (self-selecting for intellectual interests), with the people I had campus jobs with (economic class) and occasionally with the people I met through extracurricular activities. There were so many people around that were also looking for friends, and who were already either in the same chosen circumstances as me or were there because they liked the stuff that I liked, that making friends was pretty easy.

And then I moved to go to graduate school, worked two jobs to make ends meet, spent a summer interning in yet a different city, graduated, started work at a tiny company... and then I looked around and realized I didn't have many close friends (or at least many local ones), just like you. And, like you, I didn't really know what to do, because it felt like everyone sort of had their friend circles and no one tells you How To Make Friends when you aren't smack in the middle of a group of people who also want to make friends and don't have any either.

But this is where the picking comes in -- and I know that this is really hard for shy people, but bear with me. There are no more accidents of age and geography on which you can rely and no more large groups of similarly-situated people who are also seeking friends. Until now, finding friends was like going to the college dining hall -- someone else picked the menu, but there was always going to be something around you wanted to eat, even if it was Cap'n Crunch. Now, you have a whole universe of restaurants with diverse and divergent menus, but you've got to seek them out and make reservations.

And even though this sounds scary, it's actually really great for a lot of reasons that might or might not be clear from reading the status updates on your high-school acquaintances' Facebook pages: The accidents of timing and geography, or even shared academic interests and similar work-study jobs, don't always make for the perfect friends for you and, even when they do, everybody changes. This is what you're experiencing now with some of your high school friends: They're changing, and you're changing, and you're finding out that having high school in common isn't enough to bind you together forever.

The other reason that getting to pick your friends is great is that learning how to make friends in what feels like a vacuum is a life skill that will bring you more emotional fulfillment than you ever thought possible. When I was 24 and trying to figure out how to make friends in that vacuum, I felt stupid and awkward and annoying (especially when it didn't always work), but I eventually made friends -- family, really -- whose new jobs and weddings I cheered at, whose shoulders I could cry on and whose support I had (and to whom I gave my support) through thick and thin. And when I moved to another city almost 4 years ago, I still had those friends and that support, but I also knew how to make new ones here, and I was able to build another family that I love and who all add depth and richness to my life (and, hopefully, whose lives I help add the same things to). And you can have that, too!

There's one simple way to start. You have to date your friends (but not in that way). Women -- and probably men, too, but to a lesser degree -- are socialized to have friends and date significant others, because our heteronormative culture defines a lifetime relationship (and, more specifically a marriage) as the be-all, end-all of our lives. And on top of that, despite all our gains, there remains a heteronormative cultural expectation that men do the asking and women do the accepting. So we invest a ton of emotional time and energy in our Relationships (especially those folks who disappear when they are In A Relationship and reappear to cry on our shoulders when they end) and we have our friends as sort of a given. In effect, we all spend time taking our friends for granted at some point, and then many of us turn around and realize they aren't there -- as anyone whose gotten a phone call out of the blue to be a bridesmaid for someone she hadn't talked to in years can tell you.

So, if you want to make friends, you have to make friend-dates with people you want to be friends with. You can't sit around and wait for people to realize you're awesome, and you can't hope that you meet people at work because, if you're lucky, you might make one really good work friend who outlasts the job. Find stuff you like to do -- book clubs, author readings, knitting circles, sewing classes, blog meetups (or start one, if you're an active contributor or commenter on a feminist blog, say), a local choir, a jazz night at a coffee house or a bar with a really great Diet Coke dispenser -- and then go and enjoy it. See who else enjoys that stuff, too, and who gives you the vibe of being someone awesome to be friends with, and start a conversation. (The person doesn't have to be 24, by the way -- the great thing about being an adult is that all of us are adults and you can totally be friends with someone 34 or 54 if they're cool and you have stuff in common.)

Now, I know it's hard for shy people to start conversations with "strangers," but start thinking of it as a skill you have to learn rather than something you "can't" do. One way to psych yourself up is to stop hating the cliché that strangers are just friends you haven't met yet, and make it your mantra instead. Another way is, if you have a friend that's better, to bring along a winglady. Or just grit your teeth, promise yourself a treat for every time you force yourself to do it, and start a conversation with someone anyway. (Even extroverts have to practice conversation-starting, I promise.) If you're doing something you both like, you already have something in common, so start there.

And then you have to really put yourself out there and just ask. Get an email, trade phone numbers, and make a date to hang out for coffee, or see a local band, or go shopping for yarn for your next knitting projects. Ask about her life, show interest in what she says, open yourself up a bit and talk about how it was your Great Aunt Mindy who taught you to cross-stitch in between nips of gin (I made that up, though, so don't actually use it). And if she cancels, or you aren't vibing as friends, start it over again.

Rejection sucks, and it plays right into the heart of some of the reasons you are probably shy, but tell that voice in your head to shut up and give her a piece of dark chocolate and do it again anyway. Make making friends your project, and eventually, even for shy people, all this talking-to-strangers stuff will get easier, and the group of people you meet and make friends with will grow. Introduce them to each other! Show up for their birthday/Halloween/housewarming parties and talk to their (presumably also awesome) friends! And then focus on being a friend, too, which involves making plans and sending and returning emails and IM conversations about whatever link to something awesome you just found and bringing Kleenex for the post-break-up dinner plans.

Just don't pick their noses. Because my dad was right about that part.

Have a question? Email us with "advice" in the subject line. Anonymity guaranteed. Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Friends

Aww! So Cute!
Too bad real life doesnt work that way.
I dont know if either I live in a city of assholes, or nobody wants to talk to anyone anymore.
(Probably a bit of both!)
Unfortunately, you cant just go up to someone and start a conversation anymore without first confirming that
A) No, you dont want any change or smokes.
B) You arent part of a religious organization.

Friends are great, but if you're a shy, neurotic straight Edged feminist (like myself), you have to realize that sometimes, you have to be your own best friend.
The more you like about yourself, the less you'll worry about the outside world.

I must disagree!

It's true most people you approach at the bar may think you're trying to hit on them or bum something, but I've found tonnes of success just going up to people out of the blue to say hello! I've literally just tapped someone on the shoulder to say hello and ended up making a new acquaintance. The author is right, just put yourself out there and develop it as any other skill you might need. There are tonnes of friendly people out there waiting to meet their next friend.

Actually...

I don't know what city you live in, but I lived in DC and now live in NYC (a city of certified assholes), and have had it work in both. I've also started or had people start conversations with me in San Francisco, LA, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Dallas, Minnesota, Tampa, Charlotte, Philly and Denver (and that's just off the top of my head not including smaller towns like where I grew up). Obviously it's a little hard to keep close friends all over the country, but that's the genius of the Internet, which helps me stay in touch with those scattered people in my life.

While approaching random people on the street or in random settings they might still seek out for privacy (NYC in particular being a place where people often use public settings, like coffee shops, for private time) is probably not the greatest way to start a conversation, it's different in a group setting where everyone is there for a shared interest, which is why I recommended classes, readings, clubs, concerts or even organized meet-ups of blog commenters or contributors (where, since I used to organize them for Jezebel commenters in DC in 2008, I know lots of shy people met people who became their close friends in real life).

But the best piece of advice anyone gave me on conversation was this: everyone likes to talk about themselves, so start there rather than leading off with stuff about you. And, of course, you have to be sincere about that interest, or else people will pick up on it.

Non-Profit Friends

I'd also like to add that making work friends in a non-profit environment is usually pretty easy. Those who work in non-profits have usually self-selected themselves as people who care about the mission of their place of work; assuming that you also care about that mission, you already have one thing in common! Unlike in the corporate world, where you're always competing against your co-workers, the non-profits that I've worked at have really fostered a sense of community - since we're not getting paid as well as our corporate counterparts, there have to be other, non-tangible benefits to keep folks around. One of those benefits is often a work "family" that sees each other more than just during office hours (though my experience lies firmly in small non-profits; I can't speak to what happens in institutions with 60+ employees).

I was in your boat a few years ago when I moved out to San Francisco. The best way that I found to make friends was to join different activities/take classes and see what happened. I signed up for classes at the JCC, joined a curling league (yes, the ice sport), took sewing classes, went to some D&D game nights at local bookstores, and went to concerts all by myself! I ended up meeting a lot of people through those shared interests, and like Ms. Opinionated noted, went through some trial and error before finding some great people. But, it worked in the long run. I also want to second her point about not looking at age when going through this. I'm 24 and just went to a concert with two other folks - a man in his mid-30s and a woman who just turned 60, and we all had a fantastic time.

Best of luck!

If you haven't read it

If you haven't read it already, I recommend picking up MWF seeks BFF. She combines scientific studies with her own experiences and, if nothing else, you'll know you aren't alone.

Honestly, it's hard. And while what the author suggest works...it's not always as quick or easy as you might like. My hubby and I picked up and moved 2300 miles 5.5 years ago. I finally (finally) found "my" people this summer. I joined every group I could find. Networking groups, professional groups, blogging groups, crafting groups, etc, etc...And from that came a good number of people we could invite to a party (a small fraction of which would ever actually show up and almost none of which would ever reciprocate) and several people who have since moved away.

However, the key part of this (and the super hard part for us introverts) is following up. There was one lady I met who I felt I would get along well with, but we only saw each other every few months and had no reason to bring us together. One day she emailed me out of the blue to let me know her college friend has been hired at my company and suggested that we go out to lunch. We had fun and instead of leaving it at "we should do that again!", I asked her if she minded if we scheduled it. So now, we do lunch every 3 weeks, she invited my husband and I over to her birthday party (where we met more cool people!), and her and her husband have done dinner with us.

Good luck!

Bitch has an advice column

Bitch has an advice column now! This is a great column idea. And this is great advice. I'd like to see a column with some more advice about how not to become that person who gets sucked into a relationship and abandons your friends.