Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Lost Art of Making New Friends After 40

"With regards to friends, I think we reach a point in life where we just can't make them anymore. It's a lot easier when you're 20 and drinking."

The words of my friend Nancy in an email she sent to me this morning kept playing on repeat in my head. After hitting pause, I wondered, Did she have a point?

I remembered a quote I once read from Whitney Houston, who must have been in her mid thirties at he time. She said that she was done making new friends. The ones she had were the only ones she wanted. She wasn't interested in new friendships, she said, because people are "disappointing." That ship had sailed, and as far as she was concerned, it wasn't returning to port.

It was a sobering, dramatic pronouncement, one that aside from the people being disappointing part, I didn't quite understand at the time. I wouldn't say I agree with her point of view now, but it's easier for me to see where she was coming from. In my middle age, it's almost as difficult for me to make new friends -- and I'm talking actual real-life friends, not Facebook "friends," Twitter/Instagram/Pinterest/etc. followers, acquaintances, or people you go out drinking with -- as it is for me to make new romantic interests. Am I older and pickier, older and crankier, or just living in the wrong cities?

The other day I was talking to a man from Istanbul, a 31-year-old fellow expat in Cape Town who was commenting on how difficult it is to make friends here. I agreed. So would have the Capetonian native who recently told me that Cape Town is "a friendly city but a friendless city." Translation: People are congenial and welcoming here, but don't take it too personally. For the most part, you're still on your own.

The young Turk described Capetonians as being "closed," which is a charge I've heard leveled at them from both outsiders and insiders, who have also frequently called them "cliquey" in my presence. I wouldn't disagree, though I can't say I've made much of an effort to engage them in more than the most superficial ways. Presumably, he has, yet since he moved here for work one year ago, the only friends he has made are people he's met at work.

As a writer unattached to a regular gig, I don't have the luxury of meeting people that way. Even if I did, I'm not so sure I would become friends with them. I haven't made a friend at work since 2003, and I left the 9 to 5 in New York City in 2006. I've met some lovely colleagues through my work since then, but with one exception (and if he's reading this, he'll know who he is), I wouldn't describe any of them as being particularly strong presences in my life, not even on Facebook and Twitter. I'm quite fond of a few, but I'd never describe them as being true "friends," not in the I'll-be-there-for-you sense.

I've now been in Cape Town for nearly five months, and I can't say I've made a single new friend in all that time. I barely see the ones I had here when I arrived! I've met people. I can always find a lunch or dinner partner, or a wingperson for Crew on Friday or Saturday night, if I don't want to be alone, but they wouldn't be people whom I see or communicate with on a regular basis. It's a two-way street: They have as little use for me as I do for them. No one can accuse me of not returning their messages and vice-versa.

So I can't say for sure that Capetown is "friendly but friendless" because I haven't necessarily gone out of my way to make it anything else. Of course, I could say the same thing about myself in Buenos Aires and Melbourne, but porteños, for all their flaws, pursue new friendships tirelessly, while I have more in common with Melburnians than I do with Capetonians, which paved the way to more effortless and natural connections in Australia. I never would have thought to write this blog post one year ago, when I was in my final days in Melbourne.

One could also say that I'm just older now (by one year, which, in the context of personal evolution, could make a huge difference), and the socializing aspect of friendship has become less important to me. Have I turned into someone like Patti LaBelle? When I interviewed her when she was in her early fifties and asked whom she hung out with, she looked at me like I was crazy. "I don't hang out," she replied. When she wasn't working, she insisted, she was at home with her family, or by herself.

I was still in my 20s at the time, so I figured it was an age thing. In my mind, if I didn't see you or at least hear from you regularly, we weren't really friends. (This was pre-Facebook, when you had to actually make an effort, particularly with people in other cities and countries, and you couldn't keep track of people's whereabouts without saying a word to them.) I assumed that people in their thirties and forties were too busy with families and careers to make time for friends or to make new ones, but now I wonder if there's something more. As we get older, do we subconsciously close ourselves off from forming new meaningful connections? If we've stopped drinking, do we stop trying, too?

For me, I believe a number of factors are at play, the biggest being my lonerism. The older I get, the more I embrace it, to the point that I sometimes find myself resenting other people for encroaching on my solitude. I've had great times with good pre-existing friends over the last few years, and memorable experiences with complete strangers, but my favorite moments have been the ones in which there has been no one else around.

There's also the aforementioned fact that I don't go into an office five days a week, and I rarely go out drinking anymore, which removes the two top friendship possibilities from my twenties and thirties. With the exception of a handful of friends I was introduced to by other friends, most of the friends I made after college I met in the office, on a bar stool or on the dance floor. So now that the three are diminished if not altogether eliminated presences from my life, it makes sense that new friendships would be fewer and farther between.

As I said before, it's not that I don't meet people. It's incredibly easy to meet people in Cape Town, and I sometimes have quite enjoyable exchanges in restaurants, in bars, on the street, online, in the Pick n Pay across the street from my apartment. But unlike the old days when my social life was equal to my professional life, I'm less inclined to try to take it any further, to make lunch plans, dinner plans or drinking plans, or to go over to someone's house just to hang out (the latter of which was never really my thing). I hate talking on the phone, so I certainly wouldn't call someone who isn't one of my best friends or a family member on the phone just to talk.

A German from Stuttgart who was recently in Cape Town for 10 days told me he was visiting a couple he met a few years ago on holiday in Mozambique, and he was staying with them, too. I would never do that! The people I casually meet in everyday life often end up becoming the platonic equivalent of the one-night stand: the one-lunch stand. Or if I'm on holiday, the one-holiday stand. If our connection is romantic in nature, file it under foreign affair (except for my last boyfriend, Jayden, who became my next boyfriend).

It's possible that the rise of social media plays into my approach to local friendships. (It's so much more crucial to my long-distance friendships, most of which probably wouldn't exist without it.) With Facebook and Twitter and even my blogging, I'm constantly communicating with people, so I rarely feel as if I'm not being social. If it weren't for social media and modern communication (Skype, Whatsapp, even email), which allow us to keep in regular contact with people in far-flung places, I'd probably feel more alone than I normally do, which might encourage me to reach out to people who are closer to home.

Perhaps my recent friendlessness is a symptom of my peripatetic lifestyle, which has found me based on four different continents in the last three years. Friendships are trickier when you don't stick around to watch them grow. If I were back in New York City, or Buenos Aires, or Melbourne, which is the last place where I would say that I made actual friends as opposed to actual acquaintances, I would naturally want to spend time with my friends there, but would making new ones still be important?

The catch-22 is that making new friends becomes more important (or it would, if I were normal) when you're constantly relocating, which, in turn, makes it harder. But then, my decision to stay in Cape Town for an extended period of time hasn't affected my social life here in any significant way. I'm going to put most of that on me: Making new friends is simply not the priority for me that it was 20 or even 10 years ago.

I'm not quite as fatalistic with regards to friends as Nancy is, though. I'm sure there'll be new ones, but they'll probably take me completely by surprise. Those new relationships will likely evolve over time without any conscious effort on anyone's part, blossoming into enduring friendships when I'm not even looking.
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