A few weeks ago, I joined a local “comedic acting” class. The instructor asked us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there — probably assuming we’d say things like I’ve always wanted to be on stage! or I did improv in college and it was fun.
But I decided to be honest:
“I’m just here because … I need to get out of my house,” I admitted.
In truth, I would have signed up for anything. Comedy class, jewelry-making, naked figure drawing, reiki hand-waving, whatever. I just needed to talk to people, ideally ones who might eventually learn my name or even compliment my shoes.
I’m thirsty for friends. It’s embarrassing. I’m far too old to be courting acquaintances like some middle school girl at Claire’s, harassing strangers for their opinion on $5 earrings. But here we are.
I thought that being honest about why I was in comedy class might make everyone laugh (at me? with me? who knows) before they went on to give their normal, theater-related reasons for being there. But instead, this is what they said:
“I work remotely and I haven’t seen anybody — and I mean anybody — in, like, a week? Or two? So, I signed up for this.”
“My wife told me I needed to get out and make some friends.”
“I’ve been having a tough year and I thought doing something like this could help with the stress.”
“I just moved here recently and wanted to meet people.”
Literally not a single person said anything about comedy or acting. None of us cared at all about what the class was purportedly all about.
Really, the class should have been advertised as the “Learn How to Make Friends as an Adult” class. Of course, if it had been, it would have sold out immediately because these days, everyone is trying (if, sadly, mostly failing) to figure out how to do just that.
In a recent study of over 2000 adults, a whopping two thirds of us are actively trying to grow our inner circle right now.
Put another way: if you look at any three random adults, it’s not just that two of them are thinking, Maybe another friend or two would be cool. It’s that two of them are thinking, I need friends so badly right now, and I am struggling so hard to find them, that I am going to make a game plan and change my lifestyle and sign up for some dumb AF comedy class so that I can sink my hooks into a new person and claw my way out of this situation.
This is not normal.
According to Dr. Robin Dunbar, who analyzed the study, “Lockdown made people rethink a lot of their friendships. and one of the big problems [has been] friendships are very dependent of continued investment of time, so if you aren’t able to see individuals at the requisite rate, they’re just going to slide.” Dr. Dunbar points out, also, that meeting online seems to keep families close together, but it doesn’t work for friends. For whatever reason, most friendships need face-to-face contact to survive.
Another study pointed out that this decline in face-to-face contact with friends started long before the pandemic. In 2014, we spent over six hours a week with friends, on average. It’s been dropping steadily since, and we’re down to less than half that now: just two hours and forty-three minutes a week.
Researchers theorize that this drop is due to “learned loneliness.” Psychologist Marisa G Franco, author of Platonic, explains it this way:
The issue we are seeing now is something called ‘learned loneliness’ — people have adjusted to isolation. It’s not that they have gone off socializing, it’s that they have learned to live with an unfulfilled need. A recent study from Pew Research showed that 35% of people feel that socializing is less important than it was before the pandemic.
But even though we think we’ve adjusted to less socializing, we haven’t. And the longer we spend convincing ourselves that we don’t need friends, the harder it is to get out there and make some. Franco points out:
For example, one symptom of loneliness is that you’re in a bad mood for [what you believe is] no reason [when really, a lack of social interaction is the cause]. … Ironically, loneliness makes us withdraw and perceive other people as threatening. We devalue how important connection is, we choose not to depend on other people, which makes us more lonely. It’s a vicious cycle.
Basically, we stopped hanging out with our friends, so now we don’t have any left. And we’re too mired in the quicksand of loneliness to get out and make new ones.
Personally, I didn’t have a lot of friends to start with, partly because I’m an introvert and partly because my own lockdown started three years before everybody else’s. (In 2016, I had a special needs baby and switched to remote work to better handle that new life. Once my baby was old enough to tolerate a babysitter, I jumped straight into a medically horrific second pregnancy, where I was bedridden for months. And my second newborn was just finally ready for a babysitter in — you guessed it — March 2020. I haven’t left the house in six years.)
A few months ago, I went to a coffee shop that I frequented in my twenties and ran into an old friend. He looked stunned and said, “Hey! When did you move back? Or are you just visiting?”
I had to explain that I’d never moved away at all. I’d just morphed into a 2D character who lived inside an office Zoom grid, and who would blow away like a paper doll if ever dropped into the real world.
So, what does it take to rebuild your friendship circle as an adult? Science has an answer to that, too, but you aren’t going to like it: the 11–3–6 rule.
It takes about 11 different encounters that are each three hours long, over the course of six months or so, to turn an acquaintance into an actual friend. So, you can make new friends as an adult — if you have three-hour chunks of free time available and can find some poor sap whose personality you actually like with the same amount of free time and convince them to all that time with you. For six months straight.
It’s a tall order.
Most of us used to find these lengthy, repeated friend-building encounters at work, or at church, but with remote life and an increasingly secular society, those options are dwindling just as our rate of losing touch with friends is accelerating.
So what’s a girl to do? I’m certainly open to suggestions.
And until I think of a better idea, you’ll find me reading sitcom scripts with strangers on Monday nights. Fingers crossed, in a few months, they won’t be strangers anymore.