Sunday morning, our pastor related a dialogue that he had a few days ago with a young man who had just started at a new high school on Thursday. Kevin spoke with the teenager at a wedding rehearsal dinner on Thursday evening. He asked the boy how his first day of school was. “Horrible,” was the reply.
Kevin inquired about why it was so bad. The boy responded, “At lunch there was no one to sit with so I had to eat by myself.”
At the wedding on Saturday evening, Kevin made a point of asking the boy how his day at school was on Friday. “It was even worse.”
All of us can relate to this experience. In our adult lives, we live it out when we must attend a business or social event where we don’t know anybody. We pass through the entrance with apprehension, hoping that there is someone in the room that we have met before. Once we survey the room and find that there is not anyone, we wait anxiously at the edge of a group, or near the bar (you can always talk to a bartender) hoping to be included in a conversation. If we are lucky, an outgoing person comes up to us, introduces himself (or herself), and includes us in their circle. We are safe for the evening.
Realizing this years ago, I now try to help in this regard. When I go into a room where I don’t know anyone, I try to identify people standing by themselves who clearly don’t know anyone and seem apprehensive about meeting new people. I make it a point to walk up to them and introduce myself. These efforts have ultimately resulted in several good friendships through the years.
It does not surprise me that many of us, including people like me who are reasonably outgoing, approach new situations with apprehension because we don’t know anybody. I think one of the ingredients of this is the fact that we are taught as little children to never speak to strangers. Even many years later, I can still hear my parent’s voice in my head telling me to be cautious with strangers.
However, as good as this advice is for us as children or in certain situations, it does not serve us well in settings where we need to meet people and initiate relationships.
Those who know me would likely be surprised to find that I am not naturally outgoing. My ability to be outgoing and friendly and talk to strangers like I have known them forever is a learned behavior. I am actually more of an introvert than an extrovert. I have taught myself to be outgoing when I need to be, in large part because of my father’s shyness.
With regard to meeting people, my parents were as opposite as you can get. My mom was outgoing and friendly to the ultimate degree. In fact, I would argue that she was too friendly. As a teenager I was often surprised when checking out at the grocery store that the checker knew who I was and much of my life‘s history. This was due to my Mom’s frustrating ability to share our family’s inner workings with every stranger – I mean friend – who she met.
My Dad was the exact opposite. I remember an occasion when I was in grade school, and we were at a department store looking for something. After walking around for a long while, I spotted someone who worked for the store. I pointed him out to my Dad and said, “Why don’t you ask him?” My dad ignored me and continued wandering around. After a few more minutes of wandering, I went over to the clerk and asked for help so I could lead us to the section we were looking for.
With this background, as a young person, I realized that there was probably some place of balance on this issue. Somewhere between my Mom’s view – that all strangers were immediately lifelong friends – and my Dad’s perspective – an aversion to all contact with strangers – there was a proper way to approach strangers and initiate friendships. As a result, I have cultivated the practice of reaching out to strangers, both when I need someone to talk to and when I see someone by themselves who needs a little bit of help to have a good time.
My sense is that making friends is one of the hardest things possible for most people. If you could get most people to answer honestly, they would tell you that they wish they had more friends. Let me suggest to you that although making friends is not easy, it is not as hard as we think it is. It just takes proactive action at the right times.
Here is a list of things you can do to meet people and initiate friendships.
- Frist of all, realize and accept the fact that just about everyone wants more friends. You are not alone. Normal people want and need more friends. Even the visibly outgoing person is likely to need friends instead of acquaintances.
- Building friendships starts by meeting people. But the real test is what you do next. After you meet someone that you like, get their contact information and tell them you would like to meet for coffee or lunch.
- In new social situations, seek out people who are by themselves. Particularly focus on people who look as lonely and awkward as you feel. You have a lot in common. And, since they probably don’t make friends easily, they are probably going to be interested in a friendship with you since they have limited opportunities.
- Networking groups are a great way to meet people and make friends. I have been blessed over the last few years to be part of a networking group that has spawned several wonderful friendships. Seek out such a group in your profession or area of interest.
- Reach out to new neighbors or to new people at work. People in new situations generally have a strong need for new friends. Introduce yourself. Help them get oriented. Stop by with a welcome package. Invite them out for lunch or coffee.
- Volunteer for a charity or a cause that you believe in. In this way you are likely to meet people who share your interests. You will also meet people who are likely to be concerned about people and things outside themselves. Selfish people don’t often volunteer.
- Finally, when you are in a situation where you don’t know anyone and you just don’t feel like initiating, have a conversation with yourself. Use good coaching self-talk to encourage yourself to take action.
In closing, I want to reference back to the story I related at the beginning of this article.
If you have children of any age who are going back to school, be aware of the fact that they might be in the same situation as the young man that our pastor talked to at the wedding. Check with your children. Ask them how their first few days at school went. Coach them through the mechanics of meeting people and making friends. With some modifications, the suggestions I made within this article for adults will work for school age children as well.
By the way, if you need a friend, you’ve got my email. I love coffee!