If you want to feel like you’re part of a community, it’s time to get to know the people in your neighbourhood.
This is hard, for many of us — we’re busy, we’re pretty sure the person standing in front of us at the coffee shop doesn’t want us to introduce ourselves, and so on. But forming casual, low-stakes friendships with the people you interact with regularly is a good way to feel more integrated with the world around you.
Plus, some of those low-stakes friendships could eventually turn into true, close friends.
Why it’s so hard to make friendships as an adult
In the early stages of our lives, we often get to see our friends every day—in fact, spending time with someone on the regular is one of the requirements for building a close friendship, as David Roberts reminded us in a Vox piece on why it’s so difficult to make new friends as an adult:
I read a study many years ago that I have thought about many times since, though hours of effort have failed to track it down. The gist was that the key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact. That’s why we make friends in school — because we are forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows.
However, as we move into midlife, those opportunities to repeatedly interact with people dry up. We find ourselves shuttling back and forth between family and coworkers while staying in contact with our friends through our phones.
This leads to two problems. First, we’re only spending time with people who, even if they love us, see us through a narrowly defined role (parent, partner, daughter, assistant manager).
Second, we can feel isolated from our neighbourhood and community.
As Allie Volpe explains, in The New York Times:
The desire to belong and form social attachments is a basic human need, alongside food, sleep and safety. But once we hit 25, the number of friends we have peaks and begins to slowly dwindle over time, according to a 2016 study. As we get older and priorities shift from after-work bowling league to after-school pickup, maintaining a loaded social calendar becomes less essential. Staying socially engaged, then, is integral to personal fulfilment.
How do you create that engagement? By finding ways to create repeated, spontaneous contact with people — volunteering, joining a choir, taking your kids to storytime at the library — and using that contact to develop low-stakes friendships.
To quote Volpe, again:
A 2014 study found that the more weak ties a person has (neighbours, a barista at the neighbourhood coffee shop or fellow members in a spin class), the happier they feel. Maintaining this network of acquaintances also contributes to one’s sense of belonging to a community, researchers found.
Taking a few minutes to engage with people we see regularly or joining a group — such as a religious group, a sports team or a hobby meetup — has been shown to increase our satisfaction with life.
How to develop a low-stakes friendship
If you want to turn an acquaintance into a low-stakes friend, the key word here is engage. You can’t sign up for spin class without spinning your mouth in addition to your legs — that is, you have to start talking to people while you’re waiting for the music to start or wiping off your bikes after class.
That’s how the person sitting on the bike next to you becomes the person you say hello to at the coffee shop, who becomes the person you chat with at the farmer’s market, who becomes someone you might invite to a backyard barbecue, who might someday become a close friend.
Not every low-stakes friend makes the transition to “person you’d share your troubles with” or “person you’d call in an emergency.” However, a low-stakes friend can easily become a person who you feel comfortable chatting with at an event, a person you have lunch with after class, or a person who can introduce you to an employer or a dating prospect or someone who might turn out to be the new best friend you’ve been searching for.
So talk to the person next to you, whether you take the same spin class or see each other at the same school events. Then say hello again, the next time you see them. Watch their body language and responses, of course — you don’t want to pursue a friendship, even a low-stakes one, with someone who is clearly uninterested in you.
But with enough short, spontaneous conversations, you could find yourself surrounded by friends you never knew you had.