By Christine Leccese, MPH
They say “you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends.” That’s certainly true and some sage words. Thing is, you aren’t necessarily born with friends like you are with family. The responsibility to have friends is on you. If you are someone who others reach out to with lots of invitations, you’re all set. However, if you are someone who is more reserved, moves a lot (Hello, PCS?) or not generally that outgoing, making friends can seem harder than solving the Rubik’s Cube. But, friends are worth the trouble! Not only do friends make life more fun, research shows that social connections improve your health and longevity.
Some people are better at making friends than others. While there is certainly an art to making friends, anyone at any time in their life can make new friends. Just think, when a senior citizen goes into an assisted living facility he or she has to make new friends. Yes, you’ll still need to make friends at 80, so you might as well get some practice. It’s never too late to expand your social network – regardless of whether you call yourself shy.
- Leave the couch. It may sound silly, but if you don’t get out in the world, you won’t find new people with whom to make friends. Go out and do something you genuinely like – volunteer on a political campaign, join a church group, stop by the local knitting store, play on a local a soccer team or learn something new. These kinds of activities are great because you already have something in common with the others when you walk through the door.
- Don’t be afraid to ask. If you meet someone who you think would be fun to spend time with, reach out. The reality is that many people do not reach out to others proactively to make new friends. They have their friends from high school or work or some other activity. The plain fact is that if you want new friends, you have to reach out. I coached my social phobic cousin through many parties and friendship efforts. She wanted to know why people didn’t invite her to go out and why she always had to be the person to reach out. Get over it. If you want friends and company, put yourself out there.
- If he or she doesn’t take you up on your offer, don’t be offended. So now you’ve finally reached out and invited someone to do something and are moving toward having a new friend. That person declined your offer, which was your biggest fear. Don’t take it personally if you get turned down. There are lots of reasons someone doesn’t want a new friend, and most of them have nothing to do with you.
- Remember everyone’s favorite subjects: their kids, themselves and their vacations. If you’re having trouble striking up conversation, remember everyone’s favorite subjects. Twenty years ago, I coached my cousin through a May party by telling her to ask people if they were taking any vacations that summer. If I’m with her at a party today, she still uses it to make conversation. It’s not controversial, reminds the person of something pleasant, and could establish common ground. Don’t be worried about appearing “nosy.” Most people genuinely appreciate any interest shown in them.
- It’s OK to share. The more you tell a person about yourself, the more he or she is likely to share. Once you start sharing and getting to know each other, the friendship can grow.
- Be authentic. Of course everyone wants to come across well to others. But, you don’t do anyone any favors if you are not being your genuine self.
- Work through the awkwardness. Making new friends is like dating. First, you establish that you like someone and spend some time together. Then, you may go out with just the two of you. It is awkward at first as everyone puts their best face forward. Don’t let awkward feelings dissuade you from continuing.
Some things in life make it easier to make friends For example, having children the same age is an instant entry into the parenthood group. Look for those people with whom you have something in common and get “friending.”
Christine Leccese is the communications and marketing manager at Military Pathways, an anonymous, online mental health self-assessment for service members, veterans, and their families. The assessments are fast and easy. Check them out at www.MilitaryMentalHealth.org.