Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Scaling the Friendship Wall

A few years ago one of my sisters moved with her family from a terrific neighborhood in a great big city to the rural outskirts of a teensy, tiny town. Her husband's new job was a good opportunity, and she was excited about their new house and the wide open spaces where her children could run free, and where she could grow a garden. All good reasons to make the move, right? But there remained one challenge that she hadn't anticipated: making friends.

I lived for several years in a small town in Wyoming. There are many wonderful things about small towns, but in my experience, transplants have a hard time. Small towns are often riddled with complicated family trees that go back seven generations, and friendships that were established during infancy, with brick walls ten feet high surrounding them. Those friendships are strong and vibrant, but heaven forbid an outsider attempt to scale the wall and get in!

photo credit
The past few years have left my sister's hands raw from trying to climb those walls, and while she was blessed with kind neighbors, and in general most people are friendly enough, we all know that's not the same as having a safe, strong group of friends. Other women to trade babysitting with, or talk on the phone with while folding laundry...the type of friend who makes herself available on purpose, not just as a favor in a pinch.

I've spent many phone conversations trying to encourage my sister to be patient, and helping her brainstorm tactical plans to nurture potential friendships. I've reminded her that at one time or another most of us already have or eventually will feel we're surrounded by friendly faces... but lacking true friends. It would help if we humans were more comfortable living as loners, moving through our day completely focused on the task at hand without thought of how we're being received, or included by others. But I think most people need people, even those who claim they are content to be on their own.

About six months ago my sister confided in me that she had spent the afternoon lying on the couch weeping. I'm just so lonely, she said. I felt heartsick, and I've never been able to shake that image from my mind. I knew exactly what she was talking about. There was a time when I was nineteen years old, living alone in France, where I sat down on the floor of a phonebooth and cried, saying out loud, I'm just so lonely. How did I get here?

The experience of loneliness varies, and for many it is the crowded room full of friendly-yet-distant faces that leaves us feeling the most lonely. Who hasn't left a party, or a baby shower, or church feeling like a loner? But the questions I have turned over and over again are what do you do about it? What more can I tell my sister?

Bearing in mind that I am often Queen Stick My Food in My Mouth, and I leave many social situations second guessing myself, I'm going to attempt to share some scrapwood of friendship wisdom. While I dread sounding like Cheer Bear with a megaphone, Okay Carebears, get ready to care, this is something I've been thinking about for months. I don't know any person who is the perfect friend all the time, but I've been paying close attention to the women I know who seem to have been touched with the friendship wand. This is their forte, and here are some of the trade secrets I've observed:
  1. Be self-aware. Consider what you're like in social situations. Do you run your mouth without thinking? Aggressively defending your unmovable position on the best place to go camping, politics, plastic surgery, the restaurant with the best molten lava cakes, the perils or benefits of immunizations, or the latest Oprah's Book Club selection? Do you constantly talk about the weight you've lost, the weight you've gained, how much money you spent shopping, all the awesome trips you're going on next year, or how terrible your spouse is? Or how badly you want to be married, or have more money, or how you can't stand these ten people for these ten reasons? I am personally well versed in the social challenges facing outspoken people, and the necessity of learning to express yourself in a way that isn't boasting, negative, alienating, or overwhelming to others. Usually it boils down to allowing others a turn to speak, being sensitive to their situations (money, weight, spouse, etc.), and learning to appreciate others people's views. And for the wall flowers out there, the bottom line is that no matter how nice and thoughtful you are, you actually have to talk to people in order for them to know you. Sometimes when I am going to social events where I don't know the other guests very well, I think about things we could potentially talk about at the party. Holiday plans, the latest Vince Vaughn movie...maybe this sounds contrived, but it really does work.
  2. Open Up and Be Sincere. I dread those social situations where you spend an hour engaged in strained chit chat, only to leave feeling like you don't know the people any better, and you were just wasting your time. But even a conversation that begins with What are your holiday plans? or Did you see the new Vince Vaughn? can evolve into something fun and worthwhile. The key is opening up and sharing your own stories and experiences! For example, if someone shares with you a story about how they recently ran over their puppy, instead of nodding and mumbling, Wow, that's sad, you might say, I know just how you feel. When I was younger I accidentally killed my sister's pet gerbil. We were bouncing it inside a blanket and it broke its back. It's hard when you kill a pet, even if it was an accident! The point of this silly example is to show that while it's nice to be a benevolent listener, it is more important to be a participant. If you are willing to put a small piece of yourself out on the table in social situations, even if that piece is a story about a murdered gerbil, people will feel more comfortable opening up to you. And as a sidenote, I think women who protect themselves with inpenetrable shields made of their beauty, or money, or accomplishments need this advice just as much as wallflowers. Our realness, our sincerity, and our vulnerability are often the qualities that make us interesting and compelling to others.
  3.  Be thoughtful. Friendships need water and sunshine. It's not enough to be friendly whenever you happen to bump into potential friends because friendliness alone does not equal friendship. The best friends I've had, the best friends I know of, are the gardeners of friendship. If their friend is sick, they stop by and drop off chocolate (which has amazing healing properties). If you know they are having a terrible day, you send them a happy text message. Being there. Showing up. Actively pursuing other people, not in a "I'm stalking you" way, but in a "You matter to me" way. Of all the suggestions listed on this post, I believe this one is the most effective way to form meaningful and lasting friendships with other people.
  4. Take the initiative. Being shy, or poor, or busy, or socially awkward does not mean that you cannot take the initiative in making friends. And contrary to popular belief, you don't actually have to know people well in order to invite them to something. A few months ago I wrote a post on party ideas. But maybe you aren't a party person, maybe your spouse isn't a party person, or maybe you simply can't afford the kind of party you're dreaming of. Well, now is the time to get creative. Invite another mother to get together for a park day with your kids. Invite someone to go walking with you in the mornings. Invite someone to come eat paninis with you for lunch. Invite someone to go see Jane Eyre while it's still playing in theaters. One caution to consider when inviting people is that a bulk, twenty person Evite might result in only two or three guests attending because everyone assumes that everyone else will attend, and so they don't feel their attendance is of any particular importance. But if you've only invited a handful of guests, and they feel like it is a personal invitation you're extending, they're more likely to come. Anyway, my central point here is that while there are lots of people who would love to be included, there is only a very small percentage of individuals actually planning and organizing social events. Everyone wants to be invited, but no one wants to do the inviting. That's a problem. And evening out that ratio would help!
I want to end by sharing a quotation I stumbled across recently: Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down (Author unknown). In my humble opinion, the unknown author of this quote is an idiot, which is probably why he/she chose to publish this quote anonymously. How about we not put up walls if we can help it. How about we accept the burden of forming and nurturing friendships instead of shifting responsibility to other people. Friendship is hardwork. But there have been times in my life, like when I am down with mono and in bed for weeks for example, that I don't know how I would have made it without the ministrations of good friends. And so regardless how intimidated you are, or lonely, or insecure, or new in town, keep climbing that wall. It's worth it.


  1. Been there doing that. You don't have to move to a small town for that. I was thrilled when we moved to East Mesa and we had 5 families on our street. Come to find out 2-3 of those families have known each other for over a decade and the remaining families are too busy for friendly conversation. So I have decided my best tactic is to be so friendly that eventually I have friends.

    Lauren, I have enjoyed getting caught up on so many of your posts. So sorry you are sick and glad to see you are keeping a positive attitude about it.

  2. It's great to hear from you. Just keep telling yourself it usually takes several years to REALLY feel at home in a new neighborhood. Take care!

  3. As I was reading this post I could not help to see myself in a lot of the points you mentioned. We have been in Rexburg, ID for about a year--a small town where the average age is 20, and families who have been here FOREVER who are in no need to make new friends. They are friendly and hospitable, no doubt about that, but so busy with their own families that they don't seem to have time to nurture any new friendships. I will take your advice and see how it works. Thanks so much! Beverly


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