The first time Alex Paterson lived in Washington, as a 19-year-old summer intern from Montana, he had no friends.
He was working 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. — spending his days in an unpaid internship and chasing that with a job as a server at Logan Tavern in the evenings — leaving little time to cultivate friendships.
He would go to Town Danceboutique and dance by himself. “I was so happy,” Paterson, now 22, said of his solo outings that summer. He was recently out of the closet, so it was enough to just be at a gay club, never mind that he was alone.
In the three years since, Paterson has graduated from college and moved back to Washington for a job at the Department of Health and Human Services. He’s also blossomed into a social butterfly. “I would never go to a gay club by myself now,” he says.
In fact, when Paterson was out with friends at Nellie’s Sports Bar recently, he met someone who followed up on Facebook Messenger later, asking: “Do you have any advice on how to make friends in the city?”
It’s a good question. Making friends seems easy. Find people with similar interests, do things together and share things about yourself. After a certain number of hungover brunches and bad-dating stories are exchanged, you’re besties for life, right?
Not exactly. There’s one thing that’s different about making friends after you graduate from college and move to a new city: You’re no longer surrounded by people your own age, experiencing all the same things at about the same time. But there are ways to make and keep friends in your 20s. Paterson shared some of his tips with me, and many of them jibed with what the experts have to say, too.
If you’re moving to a new place, ask for friend setups. Rachel Bertsche — who’s written a book about her search for a best friend after moving from New York to Chicago in her late 20s — recommends telling people that you’re in the market for friends. “People are happy to help and introduce you to people if you let them know that you’re looking,” Bertsche said in an interview. Start by letting your existing network know that you’re about to move to a new city, and find out whether anyone might know someone where you’re moving.
“The nice thing about friendships versus dating is there’s so much less pressure,” Bertsche added.
One of Paterson’s best friends is a setup; Debi was a friend of Paterson’s ex-boyfriend who moved to Washington around the same time he did. They spend most weekend nights together, Paterson says, and they’re in a running group together, which brings us to the next point.
You need momentum for a first meetup to grow into something lasting. “The hardest part about making friends is that second or third meeting,” Bertsche said, which is why she recommends joining a book club or any kind of group that meets consistently. “If you know you’re going to see someone once a month, it takes the awkwardness out of ‘when should we meet?’ ”
Consistency might be the most important ingredient for friendship. Just like a romantic relationship, friendship “is a relationship that requires time and getting to know each other,” says Shasta Nelson, the author of “Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.” Nelson teaches online courses in friendship, in which she stresses the importance of repetition in bonding with new people. “In my anecdotal research, women say they need six to eight interactions together before they feel safe calling someone a friend,” Nelson said.
To Nelson, a healthy friendship requires consistency, positivity and vulnerability. “When we get out of school, one of the biggest mistakes we make is thinking we need to go out and meet new people,” Nelson said. “It’s less about finding the right people and more about practicing those three things with the people we’re meeting.”
If you’re still not feeling close to anyone, ramp up the vulnerability. After about three months in Washington, Paterson realized he had a lot of friends where he “knew their drink order at the bar, but I didn’t know what their relationship with their mom was like.” In other words: He didn’t really know them. “It’s really easy to have superficial weekend friendships,” Paterson acknowledges. “But in the long run, that’s not going to work for my big emotional self.” Paterson remedies this by way of a simple tweak: Rather than asking a person he’s just meeting “What do you do?,” he asks, “How is your day going?”
Getting close to someone requires talking about more than work with your work friends, for example, and discussing more than exercise with your workout buddies. “The friends we’re going to stay in touch with over the long haul are the people we’ve practiced bonding with beyond the one thing that brought us together,” Nelson said.
How did Paterson know that he and Debi were meant for a close friendship? “She actually cares about my emotional well-being in a way that’s sincere and not just filling up quiet space at a party,” he says.
There will be plenty of small talk when trying to make friends in a new place. When you find something deeper or bigger than that, hold on.