Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is it harder to make new friends when you're older?

I had a friend recently lament how hard it is to make new friends nowadays. She lives in a different city to many of her old friends, and simply doesn't know how to meet new people. She's lovely, so lack of new friends can't be put down to her being a heinously bitchy Alpha-witch or the like. She meets plenty of people to chat to, and maybe even to become 'friends' on Facebook with. But, as for making real friends, it seems it's harder now than ever before.

This conversation had me wondering: is it harder to make friends now? It certainly seems that way. I've met a number of women in recent years that I've gotten on really well with, and thought "if we'd been at uni or school together, we would have been friends". Yet, we never seem to get past the swapping numbers and agreeing to have coffee at some indeterminate point in the future stage. Regardless of how well you seem to get on with someone while seeing them at drop-off, it's a big jump from "how's little Bob doing at school?" to "I have these problems and really want to talk about it over wine and ice cream".  A jump that, for people like my friend, is almost impossible to make. 

So, why could this be? My oldest friend and I bonded over a discussion about an Enid Blyton book. It was pretty easy, then. "I like that book too. Let's be friends!" Friendships from high school were cemented over sitting together in science or history, and talking about teachers/assignments/boys in our class. At university, my best friends and I lived in the same hall of residence during the first year, and other university friends were from my course. Work friendships evolved during lunch-breaks and after work drinks, and friendships with other mums have developed after attending structured groups. 

When I think back to how I became friends with all of these people, the common denominator is spending bucket-loads of time with them. Hours and hours and hours. And not just that, hours and hours and hours where you don't have to have that awkward "let's meet up sometime" "Sure, I'm free three Mondays from now between 2 - 4 pm" conversation to see each other again.   We just turned up to school, class, work or parties and saw each other there, until we knew each other a bit better. Apparently, we became friends due to meeting the three criteria that sociologists pin point as being important for making close friends: proximity, repeated unplanned interaction, and a setting that makes people comfortable to let their guard down.  Criteria that are much harder to meet now than they were when we were younger.

Between doing housework, juggling work and childcare, and spending time with your other half, most people also simply don't have the time to get to know someone in the same way they did when they were younger. With old friends, you don't need to see them all the time to feel close. But, that's because of all of the hours you spent together in the first place. If you aren't even friends yet, it's hardly going to progress beyond the superficial. Instead of talking about feelings over ice-cream, you'll only continue to make inane conversations about flavours of ice-cream.

For most people, the only place they spend enough time to become friends with new people is work, and friendships are less likely to get off the ground in the workplace as people get more and more senior and the line between "friend" and "colleague" is more firmly drawn. Bonding with your workmates over the terrible bosses is less appealing when you're one of the bosses yourself. Even spending hours together at toddler groups and the like is different than the hours spent together at school and uni, as you always have one eye on whether or not your child is about to eat his own sock or some such.  Many a good conversation recently has been interrupted by one or other party yelling "no!" midway through, chasing a toddler who has decided to explore a public bathroom, or negotiating a truce between our children.  So, even though we mums can spend hours in each others company, it's still harder to get to know each other properly.

I also think that many people have a better idea of who they want to be friends with as they get older.  If you don't feel like you see your old friends often enough as it is, it's harder to make space for someone you don't really know, especially if your world-view is different. One old friend and I have an unspoken agreement never to talk politics after a series of heated discussions a decade ago. We can't agree on anything. I don't mind, given we've been friends for over 15 years. But, if we met now, I don't think we'd be friends at all. I don't think either of us would be able to overlook the fact that we actually, on the face of it, have nothing in common. To be honest, we probably wouldn't have even become friends in the first place if we hadn't spent so many unplanned hours together at university. And that would have been a real pity.

So, is it harder to make friends now? Of course, some people would say no. There are some people that could be stranded on a desert island with nothing but a one-legged parrot and still find a best friend. For some people like my friend, though, I think it is much harder than it used to be. Hopefully, she can at least be reassured by the idea that it's not about her. I think that for many people it is harder to make friends when you're older. Based on my son's experience, the only thing you need to have in common with someone to be friends is to be a similar age and, in the case of the last party we went to, the inclination to put a plastic plate on your head while yelling "Aaaaa!"  It's a shame that the older we get, the more complicated it becomes.

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