How to Turn Online Friends Into IRL Ones

In a 2018 study on friendship, Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor in communication studies at the University of Kansas, discovered that it takes about 50 hours of time spent together to transition from an acquaintance to a casual friend, 90 hours to call someone a friend, and more than 200 hours to be considered a close friend. Making friends takes time, but a combination of tech and old-school methods makes it doable.

When my children were little, meeting other parents was simple. My kids asked if a friend could come over, I set up a playdate, and, often, the parent and I became friends. Even after our children outgrew each other, we would often remain close.

A year after my divorce, I started a long-distance relationship with my now husband, who still lived in my hometown. Some of my childhood friends remained in Kansas City, but with jobs, families, and personal responsibilities, coordinating our schedules was challenging. I had to devise a new, more intentional way to make friends.

My usual method of meeting others didn’t involve punching and kicking, but I’d always wanted to learn self-defense, so I decided to combine my efforts. Within a week of training in Krav Maga, I made a handful of friends. Also, I learned a potentially life-saving skill. Even two years after leaving my hometown gym, I count a few of my classmates among my closest friends.

I’ve kept many of my long-term friendships intact, but one day, I felt a need to broaden my horizons and meet new people. Curious about ways to make new friends, I asked relationship experts for their tips.

Determine What’s Holding You Back

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Consider what’s keeping you from expanding your friendships. If you have bad memories of a failed platonic relationship, or are concerned about not fitting in, you’re not alone. “We can give it different names, like the fear of not being liked, or the fear of doing it wrong, or the fear of being judged,” says Shasta Nelson, friendship expert, speaker, and author of The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time. “Underneath all of that is the fear of being rejected. We don’t reach out because we’re scared.”

Nelson notes that were are all feeling more socially anxious as the pandemic drags on, even those of us who were doing fine a year and a half ago. “A lot more people are feeling anxious for health reasons, but we’re also out of practice.” It’s difficult to be witty and charming after spending so much time by ourselves or with smaller groups during the pandemic. Instead, it’s easier and less risky to rely on others to put themselves out there first.

When you identify what’s holding you back, you can take steps to open yourself to new friendships. If you’re looking for someone who shares your passion for hiking, gaming, or thrifting, Meetup may be the perfect solution for you. Since its introduction almost 20 years ago, this online and app-based service has helped connect, both online and in-person, over 50 million people with similar interests.

Recognize That Making Friends Can Be Challenging

“There’s a general assumption that friendship should be easy,” says Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach and owner of Friend Forward. This digital community provides coaching and events for women to foster platonic friendships. For some, the thought of being vulnerable with someone new can be paralyzing. “I think it starts with people being a bit too intimidated to even ask for help, because of the fear of what that looks like,” she says. There’s nothing wrong with seeking assistance from others, especially those who are more outgoing than you.

Start with your Facebook friends. You can form a Facebook group based on similar interests like parenting teenagers or cycling. Then ask your current friends to invite their contacts to join. Or you could join an existing group that encourages meeting in person. Grown & Flown is an online resource with a Facebook community of over 194,000 members, where parents create subgroups to meet up with others in the same city.

Understand the Difference Between Acquaintances and Friends

You can have many acquaintances, people you see once or twice a year while socializing with others. Then there are meaningful friendships that require a more significant time commitment. “What we don’t want to do is spend all of our emotional energy investing in shallow relationships,” says Gina Handley, psychotherapist and author of Friending: Creating Meaningful, Lasting Adult Friendships. Those are the ones where you discuss the latest football scores or the weather. Handley stresses the importance of having friends who will be there for you during tough times. “You want the people who are showing up with chocolate and wine to sit with you when you’re in an emotional ditch,” she says. The apps for women seeking friendship cited the most by the experts were Hey Vina and Bumble BFF.

Consider the Health Advantages

Studies, like this one published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, show that socially connected adults are healthier and have a longer life expectancy than their peers who spend more time alone. “Friendships are necessary, not just for relational and emotional help but for physiological help,” says Handley. “They can ward off anxiety and depression.”

Don’t underestimate the mental advantages of close friends. They help us feel seen and understood. “Having someone that you can confide in, someone that you believe accepts you, someone who will support you, is huge to our ability to not feel lonely,” Nelson says.

Know What to Look for When Turning to Tech to Find Friends

We’re used to hearing about online dating, but there’s still a stigma attached to seeking deeper friendships through online resources. “I think we’re just now wrapping our minds around needing technology to make friends,” says Bayard Jackson. “It doesn’t make us lame or incapable or lacking in any way.” Instead, she thinks it’s wise to get comfortable using tech for friends.

Nelson judges the value of any app or service by how well it encourages her to have positive feelings when interacting online. She looks for a game element and a way to express gratitude for each other. An app can help find friendships, but Nelson says we still have to take responsibility for reaching out, how we act, and how much we follow up with our friends.

Leaping From Online to Real Life

When you plan to get together in person, there’s always a risk of rejection. “We want to know that we’re likable, funny, and interesting,” says Bayard Jackson. There’s something intimidating about putting yourself out there to someone new and hoping that they will receive you well.

Still, someone needs to take the first step. Coffee or lunch is a good place to start. Instead of seeing a movie or a play, where you’ll have little chance to interact, consider your mutual interests and go for a hike or take in an exhibit at an art gallery. If you both own pets, meet at a dog park. You could also make your first meeting less awkward by inviting other friends to join you for dinner or drinks.

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