The Washington Post

Lonely freshman can’t start or sustain a conversation

Q. I’m a freshman this year, and I don’t have many friends at my new school. Most of my old friends now go to other high schools or they’ve moved away and the ones who are left seem like complete strangers to me.

Although a few of them are in some of my classes, I have no friends at all in other classes, so I feel awkward when the teacher says we can have the last few minutes of class “to socialize.” Somehow I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew about making friends and talking to people, even to those not-so-close friends who go to my school. If someone doesn’t help me start a conversation and keep it going, I stare at nothing and I say nothing, and then the other person just walks away.

Do you think you could help me make friends?

A. There’s something you should know: Most freshmen are just as lonely as you are. Even if your classmates were friends in grade school, they probably seem like strangers to each other now, just as the few friends you have at school seem like strangers to you.

(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

This is because you and your classmates are changing physically, mentally, emotionally and even morally and these four paths are often out of sync between the ages of 10 and 15. It’s hard to feel self-confident when you look like a child; have the judgment of a fourth-grader; act like a preteen and think like a grown-up.

It might not bother you much if your not-so-close friends have grown four or five inches over the summer while you’re still waiting for your big growth spurt, but the way you now think might be affecting your ability to make friends more than anything else. You’re also more likely to drop old friends if they’re still thinking in concrete terms and you now think in abstractions. Although most teenagers make this big mental leap when they’re about 14, some do it as early as 12 or as late as 15 or 16. Whenever that occurs however, it usually makes them like different books, different video games and different friends — at least until their old friends start thinking in abstractions, too.

This might be the swamp you find yourself in now, but it will dry up by the time you’re 16 or so. In the meantime, forgive yourself for your timidity with others and forgive your classmates for walking away when you don’t know what to say. It’s time to cut them some slack; they’re probably as out-of-sync as you are.

You can cross the chasm between childhood and adolescence more easily if you talk about their needs and their interests when it’s time to socialize rather than talk about your own needs and interests.

If you’ve heard that one of your classmates has joined the debate team or the photography club, for instance, ask him what he likes about it and what requirements you would have to meet to become a member. Even if you don’t join, you’ll have something to talk about the next time you meet, and one conversation will lead to another.

If you can’t figure out what to say, you can just ask him what he’s been doing lately, where he bought his sneakers or whether he’s going to the game on Saturday. The most unlikely (and sometimes the most unfriendly) person usually becomes more voluble if you ask him about himself, not because he is so self-centered but because he knows himself better than he knows anything or anyone. This familiarity gives him the confidence he needs to be more congenial.

You also should force yourself to be as kind to others as you want them to be to you, because it’s good practice and because it’s the right thing to do. Ask a lonely-looking freshman to sit at your lunch table. Tell a shy girl that you liked her English essay. Give a high-five to the boy who’s running around and around the track. And always talk to the classmates who find it as hard to strike up a conversation as you do. The in-crowd can take care of itself; it’s the out-crowd that needs your attention.

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