How to make friends with 12 million strangers

In July 2012 I had just moved to the other side of the world, ended my exciting travels, and moved into a hellhole with a landlord from the deepest abyss of Tartarus. My flatmate-friend (JJ) was working mental hours, my travel companion and constant sidekick of the last two years (KJM aka SF) was suddenly separated from me, and everyone else had a damn job to go to.

I knew that I would have a period of borderline-depression when the sails set on Croatia, we said ‘terviseks’ to Estonia, and saluted goodbye to the bobbing mullets of Russia. With July came the long-denied fear of the dreaded job hunt. It’s a torturous situation to have all the time in the world to do things, in a city just brimming with such ‘things’ to do, but be tied to your computer and tied by your ever-diminishing bank balance.

It’s also extremely isolating.

I was lucky to move here at around the same time as many of my best buds, and join a few already here. So I had a network of support already, plenty of advice and directions and invitations, and the comfort of hanging out with walking talking pieces of home. But again, they all had jobs, except for KJM (aka SF), who seemed allergic to the concept.

This made me think about how it is that people make friends. For much of our early lives, play buddies are forced on us by simple geography – the child next door, the kid at the desk beside yours, your mum’s best friend’s brat. My childhood geography was rather chaotic, making it difficult to retain school chums, and forcing a lot of ‘kids mum looks after’ into my social group.

After leaving the confines of school I was overjoyed to have the choice of my friends unrestricted by classrooms and extra-curricular activities. But of course, I still made them in the usual way. Some came from work, some from courses, others flatmates, and then the friends and flatmates and classmates of all of these people.

Having been in Wellington for a few years, I was seeing the diminishing of the social circle as people moved away, changed jobs, found new flats, and I was looking forward to its expansion in London. But… I was shut down in several quarters. On the home front, I was first in a flat with only myself and an already-friend, who was always at work. Thereafter I moved to a new place with lovely people, but no lounge and a tiny kitchen – thus no hub, no meeting place, no hanging out, and therefore a stunted social life. On the work front, I got a job working with a total of 3.5 other people, most of which were, to put it delicately (big brother is watching), not people I would be likely to hang out with if I weren’t being paid to do so.

This got me thinking about how you make friends when you’re past study age and work or home are not an option. I’m always telling my mother she needs a hobby to meet new people, but then I’m not really up for (nor can afford) rock-climbing or sculpting or book club. Actually, scratch that, if anyone wants to start a book club I’m keen. The problem is that this would most likely involve people I already know, and (not that it matters… ahem) all women.

I’m a generally sociable and friendly person, but this is seen as an oddity in London. Today at the supermarket (worst supermarket ever, Morrisons), a girl behind me commented to her friends ‘why is this taking so bloody long?’ and I answered ‘coz this is the worst freaking supermarket ever’ (obvious comment, no? Not particularly threatening?). My reward, naturally, was silence and a stare reserved only for the asylum-bound. Sorry, I forget, don’t talk to others.

But even if I weren’t surrounded by social phobics, I’m not particularly good at turning a casual aside to a stranger into a friendship. I’ll certainly chat to people in a hostel, or at an event or exhibit, or when forced into some awkward shared experience, but I’m not likely to say ‘hey, you think that [thing] was [a thing] too, we should probably be pals now.’

But I have been convinced that it can happen. One fateful night in July, JJ dragged me to a pub quiz near hellhole and the (now fairly serious) relationship with The Bear began. This affair commenced, however, with a creepy old man. ‘Michael’ regaled us gals with tales of his friendship with Mick Jagger and the night that Madonna accidentally knocked on his door, mistaking it for that of her friend, his neighbour (bearing in mind this guy lives near Old Kent Road, famous for being equal-cheapest on the Monopoly board). The fear steadily rose, and when our new pal popped outside for a smoko our eyes darted about for an escape route that didn’t deprive us of a tipple and trivia.

And that’s how we met TB and SS. This stranger couple kindly let us pretend to be their friends to shelter from the madman. Unluckily for us all, he came and joined us again regardless, and proceeded to shush us at every question, offer ludicrous answers (‘how do you measure wind-speed?’ ‘WINDOMETER!’), and refer to JJ as an ‘irritant’ (which is obviously now her nickname forevermore).

Luckily for us, mad old man was only seen twice more – once when he turned up the next week to claim his portion of the bottle of wine we won (justified of course by his zero correct answers), but declined to stay because we were ‘very rude creatures’; and then one dark drizzly evening where with a shriek we spied him spying through the misty windows, hands cupped around crazed eyes, lurker beams on full.

Also luckily for us, our new buds came back every week, and so did we. We added our friend LD and occasional guest stars from NZ, and they added their friend/cousin/flatmate/landlord (man of many titles AM) and a new dominion of geekery was established when our friendship transcended the bounds of the bar.

This, I think, is the mark of when an acquaintance has turned into a friend – when the relationship leaves its natural confines. If you met at a bar/friend’s house/class/work/etc. you have to take it elsewhere. It’s an awkward moment when you ask someone you don’t want to sleep with if they’d like to come round to your place or go out to brunch or see a show, but after that leap of faith the connection is no longer restricted to its initial construction.

My faith is now restored that it’s possible to make proper, long-term friendships with wonderful people even if flats and work and existing friends don’t yield new candidates. But I’m still rather stumped about how to go about it again. How do you get a new person’s number, and then what do you text them? What do you do together that first time?

… How do you chat up a new friend?

11 thoughts on “How to make friends with 12 million strangers

  1. laurenmchambers

    I don’t think this problem is special to London. I’m having the same issue in Wellington. Although I am lucky enough to work with some fun people at my new job. It is a bit like dating!

    1. shapelle Post author

      Definitely not special to London, I just notice it more here thanks to the lack of opportunities in job and flat. But glad to see you’re hanging out with some of my other Welly pals and high-tea-ing and such!

  2. Ruth B

    Shaps you are missing the obvious point – sometimes we don’t want to make new friends – we just want our amazing old friends to be in the same country as us again!! xo

  3. jo mckenzie

    I think this is my favourite to date…it has such a good blend of the personal with the observations of others. And it is a universal dance, this friendship thing. I’ve been considering lately how to be honest in new friendships, especially if they keep inviting me to things I don’t enjoy and do not yet know how best to communicate this without hurting their feelings…

  4. JayTee

    Love this post! Feelin exactly the same way but I’m stuck in my shy little bubble in need to put myself out there! I’m one of the first that moved over here from NZ out of my circle of friends and it has been hard 😦 we should reminisce about Wellington together sometime though! 🙂 Jo xox

    1. shapelle Post author

      I’m bloody lucky to have a group of awesome people already here, but even then it can be lonely when everyone’s off with their workmates/partners/family and I don’t have the same options. Did you come from the Kiwis in London page? I think there’s plans for meet ups!

  5. gemsjaunts

    DITTO! I love this blog – you have hit the nail on the head with this one! ive been here since April and have made 2 non-travel friends that I have been out with only once as I’m living in a little some with what i like to refer to as ‘small-town-syndorme’ – everybody is too busy with their own lives for any new invaders!
    Am looking forward to moving to london next week tho and establishing a social life! Totes keen to piggy-back on the catch up if you’ll have me!

    1. shapelle Post author

      Awww thanks! I’ve had a few friends experience the odd phenomenon of ‘locals’ (are any of us locals in London really?) not wanting to make the effort of new friends when they know you’re only here for two years. Don’t expect people to necessarily be more welcoming in London, but there are a LOT more people to find, and a fab network of folks from ‘back home’ – check out the kiwis in London facebook page!

  6. shmennikins

    I don’t think there’s such a thing as a London local, except the black cab drivers, who proudly tell you if they’re proper Cockneys (born within earshot of Bow Bells). Yay meet ups – please make lots of cool new friends so I can easily steal them when I come back!

    1. shapelle Post author

      The only London ‘local’ I’ve so far met (that I know of) was a plumber who came to fix our disaster zone boiler. I think he was proper Bow Bells ‘n all. Though apparently it’s impossible (barring home/street birth) to be an official cockney any more, as the maternity hospitals in the area closed down. Also, I’m getting a tingling in my spidey senses that I might have to do a ‘what’s a real Londoner’ blog…


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