Autism spectrum and Asperger's · Friendship · Mood and anxiety · Uncategorized

For introverts and people on the spectrum: how to make friends out of strangers

How to make friends out of strangers -- for the rest of usSo you’ve met someone you don’t know and it’s time to have a conversation, hopefully create a friendship, and your first tendency is to… run.  Sound familiar?  If talking to strangers feels like a bucketful of icy, cold water thrown in your direction, you’ve found the right spot.  This post is written for all shy, introverted souls who want to be more friendly and social.  Or make a friend or two.

Whether you’re a proud introvert or someone with Asperger’s, you might find it difficult to put yourself out there socially — which can make friends hard to find.  If you’re struggling with social phobia, things can be even more challenging.  But you don’t need to be an extrovert to form connections with others.  Below you’ll find some hints to help you along.  We’ll take it one step at a time.


First, find those people!

No strangers in your life? Start by meeting people.   If your day is typically a lonely one, we challenge you to get out of the house, even if it’s only once a month.  Where should you go?  What should you do?  Read on.

(1) Practice hanging out with people you know.

Reach out to old friends or acquaintances, colleagues at work, peers at school, people from church or anything else you’re involved in, and invite them to places where conversation isn’t the attraction — movies, concerts, clubbing, workshops, lectures by guest speakers, dance lessons, noisy video game nights, or something comparable.  If the unstructured time after the event is going to be a challenge, tell them you’re busy afterwards and can’t hang around.  (But don’t forget to invite them out again.  See below for more information.)

(2) If you don’t know anyone, meet someone.

There are ways to meet people.

(a) Hang out somewhere a lot.  Consider choosing a hang-out that appeals to you and visit it often.  The good thing about this strategy is that you don’t need to talk to anyone unless you want to.  Potential places include cafes, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, museums, libraries, bookstores, gyms, or your college student center.

(b) Sign up for a club.  Chase your passions.  Pick an interest, and join a club of people with that same passion.  Think of hiking, book, sewing, and writer’s groups, rock bands, card-playing Dancing friendsleagues, or sports.  Some situations, like movie-lover groups, theater enthusiast clubs, depression support groups, running, 12-step programs, church choirs, and dancing might require less socializing than others.

(c) Go back to school.  School for adults is an excellent way for the timid being to ease into meeting people without the pressure of instantly required conversation.  Keep your local college and specialty schools in mind.  Community education classes are often cheap and available to everyone.  Subjects can range from Chinese, yoga, and poetry to Shakespeare and armchair trips to Venice.  Neighborhood schools and large specialty stores also offer interesting classes, like dance, cooking, karate, woodworking, arts and crafts, or music lessons.

(d) Become a volunteer.  Want to meet kind-hearted people with a cause?  Volunteering gives you the chance to spread kindness while reaching out to others for friendship.  Consider offering your services to the humane society, museum, soup kitchen, shelter, hospital, or nursing home.

(e) Surf the net.  The internet is a great way to connect with people, if it’s done in a safe way.  The web allows you to move at your own pace and “get to know” someone before you meet them.  Use meetup.com to find locals with similar interests as yours.  Alternatively, friendship websites are like dating sites that help people find friends.

No matter how you reach out to people, remember in most of the above scenarios you don’t have to talk to anyone until you’re ready, no pressure.


Be the kind of friend you wantBefore we move onto the next step, talking, consider these general tips for making friends:

  • Focus on others.  The best way to make friends with others is by showing interest in their feelings, thoughts, passions, and opinions.  Everybody wants to come across as important.  Instead of trying to get the other person to like you, your job is to focus on what’s going on with them! Listen to what they have to say and ask questions.  Be empathetic.  That means expressing understanding: “Wow, that must have been difficult,” or “That’s great!  I’m so glad you were able to do that.”
  • Don’t expect “instant friendship. Making friends can be a gradual, nonlinear, trial-and-error process, and you have to roll with the hills that accompany it.  Take six months to establish a hi-bye relationship?  No problem!  Keep at it!  The other person doesn’t have time for you?  That’s okay.  Remember there’s more than one potential friend out there.
  • Flexibility is the answer.  Don’t establish strict rules and expectations, wanting everything to conform to the outline.  So you made a mistake in a conversation?  Or the other person inadvertently offended you?  It’s okay.  There’s probably room for repair. Be forgiving, if that’s the right thing to do.
  • Have compassion.  Be kind to yourself and others.  Don’t criticize, belittle, or gossip about the other person.  Look for the other person’s strengths.  
  • Give’em room.  Even potential friends need space.  Once you’ve met them and are on the friendship road, don’t be clingy or obsessive.  It’s best not to call multiple times/day (unless they’re calling you that frequently), and don’t act jealous when they spend time with other people.  Friendship isn’t exclusive.
  • Be honest.  Don’t lie or make up stories.  They’ll only circle back and bite you down the road.  If you have Asperger’s Syndrome, decide whether and when you want to let the other person know.  You can say something general or funny without giving them your diagnosis: “Social rules don’t come easily to me, so let me know if I’m stepping on your toes.”

Next, talk!

So here you are, just you and this stranger, and that “bucket of ice water” feeling is back.  This person would make a good friend, but you still want to… run!   Your hands are shaking, your throat is dry, and your vision is off a smidge.  What do you do?  What do you say?  My friend, we’ll talk you through this in five steps.

Step 1. Greetings and Goodbyes.

You’ve hung out at the local café or gym, or joined an underwater basket-weaving class, and have identified a couple of potential friends.  They’re still strangers, and you’ve never talked to them.  If you haven’t done so, your next step is to make them into a “hi-bye” buddy.  It isn’t too hard.  When you first see them in the day, nod, say “hi,” and/or offer a friendly wave.  Don’t forget to make eye contact and smile.   The same goes for “goodbye.”  It’s a good sign if they offer the “hi-bye” back.

Step 2.  First contact. 

If the other party doesn’t reach out with conversation, you have to take the first step.  Start simple.  Take your time.  When you’re ready, offer a sentence or two in passing.  “Wow, the weather is cold.”  “This coffee here is super good.”  “I like your shoes/bag/shirt.”  That said, smile, nod, and move on.

Step 3.  Small talk.

Don’t groan: small talk has it’s place!  It’s safe, superficial conversation that helps people connect in a nonthreatening way, and it can be kept short or lengthened, depending on both parties’ interest.  It isn’t too difficult to learn.

How do you edge your way into small talk?  Next time you find yourself standing next to the person of interest, offer a sentence and ask a question — and don’t leave.  “Wow, this basket-weaving class is harder than I thought.  Are you struggling as much as me?”  “That exercise machine thingee is a real work-out.  Sorry, I don’t know the right word.  You know what it’s called?”  “I like your shoes/bag/shirt.  Where did you get them?”  Questions are helpful when it comes to small talk.  You’re encouraging the other person to engage.

If you’re very uncomfortable maintaining small-talk,  keep it short the first time around.  A couple minutes is enough.  Excuse yourself with a friendly smile, “Sorry, I gotta go! Maybe more next time?”  Next time, try longer.  Keep it comfortable, but get in there and make small talk!

What do you small-talk about?  Here are some ideas.

  • Offer a friendly greeting.  You say: “Hey, I keep seeing you here.  My name’s John.  What’s yours?”
  • Make a small compliment about the other person.  “I admire your taste in coffee.”
  • I need more coffeeReveal something interesting (but not too deep) about yourself, then ask questions about the other person.  “Whenever I’m in this café, I feel like I’m in coffee heaven. You a coffee junky like me?”
  • Talk about something in the environment: a piece of furniture, food, a song on the loudspeaker, a class you’re both taking, anything.  “That sofa reminds me of my ex-roommate.  Isn’t that strange?”

When the person answers, listen carefully, then keep up the small-talk.  Make a statement pertaining to what they just said, then consider asking a question.   Statement and question.  Statement and question.  It’s a simplified equation but a nice tool when it comes to small-talk.

Step 4. Get to know the person. 

You’ve established a “small-talk” buddy, or an acquaintance.  Maybe it was a one-time discussion that evolved into deeper conversation right away, or it’s been a little-by-little endeavor, three months of small-talk that got longer and deeper each time you saw one another.  One way or another, you’re ready to take it to the next level. If you want friendship, you have to get to know the other person better.

But how does small-talk shift over to “getting to know someone?”  The trick is to be honestly curious about your potential friend and reveal enough of yourself to give the conversation meaning.  

First, let’s talk about getting to know the other person.  That involves listening and asking questions.  People tend to warm to listeners and love talking about themselves, so yeah listening is key to making friends.  As the other person speaks, pay attention.  Then try to connect your next comment to theirs.  Consider the following questions.  Examples have been provided for some.

  • What do they do for a living?
  • Where are they from?  You say: “I’m from Hawaii but moved to El Paso because I prefer the desert.  Where are you from?”
  • How do they feel about X subject?  “How do you feel about decaffeinated coffee?  Personally, I think it’s sacrilegious!  Or am I wrong?”
  • Do they have any interests?  “I like underwater basket-weaving, but my true love is knitting.  What do you do in your spare time?”

As you get to know the person better, as conversation starts to flow, here are some deeper topics and examples.

  • Are they married? Do they have kids or grandchildren?
  • What are their dreams and goals in life? You could ask: “Here’s a question: if you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?”  “Where do you want to be in ten years?”
  • What motivates them? “You seem so put-together! What keeps you going?”
  • What do they value in friendship?

You’ll notice some of the examples above involve revealing something about yourself before asking a question.  Don’t ask question after question without sharing a little bit.  Friendship is based on self-disclosure.  But, remember, sharing information isn’t about confiding all or nothing.  It’s a spectrum. You can open up a little without revealing your deep-down secrets.  As always, take your time.  Open up slowly.  Establishing trust enough with another person to share everything takes years.

Step 5.  Repeated contact. 

Friendship is arising, conversations are real, and you’re starting to feel a connection.  If you haven’t already, it’s time to ask your new friend out.  You have to get together every now and then.  First, ask for contact information.  A name and number or email address should be fine.  Next, reach out and invite!

How do you arrange a get-together that first time around — without hitting yourself over the head with anxiety?  Here are some ideas.

(a) Computer outings.  Start by keeping in touch by texts, instant messenger, or email.  You’ll be surprised how virtual communication can help friendship blossom.  Invitation by text is acceptable these days.

(b) Group outings. Consider inviting your new friend along for a group activity, like a party or night bowling with family.

(c) Low-stress, nonconversational outingQuiet outings. If you’re very nervous, consider inviting them on one of those low-stress, non-conversational outings, like movies, theater, concerts, church, dance lessons, lectures by guest speakers, noisy video game nights, etc.

(d) Short outings. Arrange short engagements… you have 30 minutes of free time to stop for coffee?  Invite them to join you.

That first get-together hopefully leads to another and another.  You don’t have to meet every day or every week.  Even once a month can be enough to get a friendship going.  Just make sure you give the other person room enough to reciprocate without pressure.

And voila… you’ve turned a stranger into a friend!


Rejection:

How to know when the other person isn’t interested.

Friendship involves two people.  It’s super-important to assess whether the other party is interested in connecting with you.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone wore a Friendship Meter on their forehead?  Red for “no,” orange for “maybe,” and green for “absolutely!”  Unfortunately, science hasn’t advanced to that level, so we have to gauge interest through observation and conversation.  Here’s the trick.  You know the stranger isn’t interested in friendship if the following are true:

  • They don’t make much eye contact.
  • They seem distracted.  They’re not giving you their full attention.
  • They don’t ask you questions.
  • They don’t seem to want to get to know you better.
  • They offer one-word answers to your questions and won’t talk about themselves.
  • There’s no interest in exchanging phone numbers or making plans to get together.
  • They’re rude or cutting.
  • They’re manipulative, false, threatening, insulting, or aggressive.

Sometimes a stranger isn’t friendship material.  You’ll feel let down at times, but don’t take it personally.  Perhaps the person just doesn’t have time for friendship.  Alternatively, they’re overwhelmed with a life situation and too distracted to engage.  Maybe you caught them on a bad day.  It’s possible they’re just not a good person.  Rejection happens for many reasons, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with you.

When rejection hurts too much

Reaching out to strangers and making new friends means risking rejection, and rejection can feel worse than that bucketful of icy, cold water.  Pause a second.  No one likes to be turned down for friendship, but are there healthier ways to look at the situation?  Remember, being rejected doesn’t mean you’re worthless or destined to be friendless for the rest of your life.  The other person doesn’t know anything about you and could be missing out on the greatest friendship in their life.  That’s okay.  It’s their loss.  Don’t take it personally.  Instead of beating yourself up over the loss of a potential friend, give yourself credit for trying and get back out there.  In this world of billions, there are tons of  potential friends who would walk a tightrope backwards to get to know you


When nothing works.

Perhaps, despite following the outline in this post, you’re still having problems finding or maintaining friendship, or rejection is so unbearable you shut yourself in your room for weeks at a time each time it happens.  If so, consider reaching out for help.  Touch bases with a psychotherapist.  They can help you build self-esteem, deal with rejection, and make sense out of relationship difficulties — and if you’re struggling with Asperger’s Syndrome, give you a reboot on social skills and walk you through the intricacies of making friends with non-spectrum individuals.  Consider this article a starting point.


Conclusion

Friendship isn’t easy to find and establish.  Sometimes getting to know people is like maneuvering through a complicated video game — or worse, since the rules seem to keep changing depending on the variables involved.  Hang out here, do this, not that, provide a little bit of small talk here, ask a few personal questions there, reveal but don’t reveal, repeat process until you get it… really, I’m surprised there aren’t more classes on the subject.  But, in the end, what is the best way to make friends?  Meet people and talk to them.  If you need to, take a thousand years to get from “Hi-Bye” to “What are your deepest dreams?” but talk to them.  Be kind and interested, and talk to them!

That said, thanks for reading, and pleasant stranger-to-friend making.

 

 

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