- Michael Thompson
The two men waiting outside my apartment were an unlikely duo. Ishmael, the leader of the two, was a former cop, while his side-kick, Ventura, had the look and laugh of a seasoned criminal.
“Come on up,” I yelled through the intercom. “The front door’s open.” Then, as if I was preparing for a first date, I gave myself one last look in the mirror before making sure the coffee I’d made and the chocolate croissants I’d bought were arranged perfectly on my kitchen table.
Normally, I wouldn’t have gone to such extremes to accommodate a couple of guys I’d contracted to renovate the bathrooms in the apartment my wife and I had bought a few months prior. Being that we’d just moved to a new town in Spain though — and I was working from home and hadn’t yet met many new people—their non-stop banter over the preceding weeks had become a welcome reprieve from my normally lonely workdays.
But the moment Ishmael handed me the invoice and we said our goodbyes, a deep sadness washed over me. “Is this what it’s come down to?” I wondered to myself. “Is this what happens when you decide to work fully remote? You get excited about paying two handymen to install a new toilet in order to get a dose of human connection?”
At that very moment, I knew something needed to change.
If I was going to make my new town feel like home, I’d have to get off my ass and make some new friends — or at least a few that didn’t charge me for their time.
Fortunately, this wasn’t the first instance where I’ve had this revelation. As a constant-mover who’s lived across three continents and in nine different cities or towns over the last two decades, I’ve become pretty good at quickly making friends in new places.
In fact, despite growing up painfully shy with a debilitating stutter, making connections both online and off is a big part of my job—to the tune where I just wrapped up a manuscript on this very topic for my book publisher.
If you’re like me and believe life is best when shared, here are some tips and tactics I’ve picked up on my journey that may help you on your own.
Rather than push yourself onto people, pull them towards you
I recently read an article about someone challenging themselves to talk to one stranger a day for a month. I’ve got nothing against doing this as it has done wonders for some of my friends. But it’s not for me. Instead of potentially pushing myself onto someone, I prefer to put myself in a position that pulls people into my world.
For example, rather than going directly to other parents at my kid’s school to strike up a conversation, shortly after moving to my new town, I began playing daily football (soccer) games with my two boys and their classmates in our local park. In the span of a month, despite all the other parents initially sitting on park benches staring at their phones, two dads joined in.
A year later, one of those guys is my closest friend here, while the other is my bi-weekly running partner. On top of this, countless parents have come up to me after the games to say hi. Each morning after dropping my kids off at school, I make a point to continue the conversation with a few of them — a handful of whom have moved past mere acquaintances to become my weekly hiking partners.
Maybe you don’t have kids. Or maybe you don’t like football. But think about ways to get yourself in front of people on your own terms while doing something you enjoy.
This one simple act of getting on the field instead of sitting on the sidelines has done more for my social life than just about any other thing I’ve done.
Immerse yourself in something that challenges you
When my wife moved from her hometown at the base of the Pyrenees to Barcelona, she took an introduction to belly-dancing class as a way to meet people. Even though she initially felt ridiculous, she quickly learned she wasn’t alone. After each class, she and the other women bonded over how uncomfortable they felt over drinks at the bar next store to the academy.
When we try new things, we often feel out of place — like we’re the only ones who are experiencing feelings of self-doubt or flat-out embarrassment.
But this is rarely the case.
This is for the simple fact that other people are also trying something new and are most likely filled with these same feelings.
What’s something you’ve always wanted to do or learn more about but haven’t made it a priority? Maybe it’s taking up yoga? Or learning a new language?
Being brave enough to put yourself out into the world and having the stones to laugh at yourself and admit you don’t have all the right moves in these circumstances, has a funny way of attracting the right people to you.
Hitch onto a connector
The first day at my kid’s school I saw this guy bouncing around saying hello to just about every parent around. I assumed he was born and raised in the town, but to my surprise, he and his family had just moved here as well.
When the two of us eventually crossed paths one day at a cafe, I asked him how he learned to work crowds like Obama. “The first thing I did when I moved here was I volunteered to be a part of the parent’s association at school,” he replied. “In a matter of a few weeks, I’d met not only the other volunteers but also their partners.”
Since that encounter, a few days a week, after dropping off my kids and his eldest daughter at school, I walk with him and his youngest daughter to her pre-school. Most mornings though, we aren’t alone as being that the guy is a magnet, other parents have joined in making it easy for me to get to know them.
We often overestimate how hard it is to make friends while underestimating how impactful focusing on making one new friend can be.
Hitching yourself to a community insider can seriously help you to feel like less of an outsider.
Be the person who creates recurring meetups
One of my best childhood friends, Bart, may very well be the best friendship maker and retainer I’ve met. His go-to tactics? When spending time with his friends, he makes a point to schedule their next hang-out before parting ways to ensure they stay in regular contact, and most of all, he organizes recurring meetups.
This past summer, stealing a line from Bart, I invited a group of people I’d connected with throughout the year to get together every Tuesday evening throughout July and August at the same spot on the beach while encouraging them to bring their families and friends.
The first week I was nervous no one would show up, but to my relief, over a dozen people were there before I even arrived. The number one reason people told me they came? They too were looking for an excuse to be more sociable — and since the meetup was at the beach where people were coming and going — it made the ever-important 10 percent hurdle when doing something new easy to cross.
Why not organize a hike in your area for every other Saturday with the people you are meeting? Or a dinner party or game night with some of the people you are meeting if you enjoy those things?
If you know someone who will most likely say yes, you can team up with them beforehand so you aren’t going at it alone.
Become a master of the follow-up
When I began my career in sales, after every call my manager would run over to me and say, “Is the person you just spoke with married? What’s their spouse’s name? Do they have kids? Tell me you heard a dog barking in the background. I love dogs! What’s his dog’s name? Come on Mike, you gotta know this stuff!”
I will never forget this lesson. But instead of just applying it to work, over the years, I’ve built the habit of taking notes about the people I come into contact with on the street as well.
It’s hard to not like someone who checks in on your elderly mother who’s struggling with health issues or any other challenges they’re facing. The same goes for remembering their kids’ names or any of the other details they’ve mentioned.
Just last month, I told my friend Agatha, a Polish woman, how much I loved perogies from the time I lived in Warsaw. Shortly thereafter, she made a batch for me and my family — which made all of us like her that much more.
Make the effort to jot down the “little things” people say in passing and put in the effort to follow up.
When it comes to making new friends, the details aren’t the details — the details are the thing.
All of the above is worthless if you don’t do this one thing
A few years ago, during a particularly stressful time, I told my coach Justin how guilty I felt about prioritizing work over my family. His recommendation was so simple it’s genius. “On Sunday nights, before thinking about your work, get your non-negotiable family time on your calendar first.” He went on to add that maybe this looks like blocking off an hour or even thirty minutes each afternoon to play with my kids before dinner or choosing to make one of my weekend days tech-free.
When it comes to making new friends, the same rule applies — you have to make it a priority.
Block off just an hour a week to get involved in your community. Take a class on something you’ve always wanted to learn. Put yourself in positions to attract people who have similar interests. Maybe this bites into your work time, or if you’re self-employed, even your finances.
But you have to ask yourself, “What matters most?”
I’ve reached the stage of my life where no matter what country, city, or town I’m living in — it’s not the place that makes it feel like home — but the people.