A year of pandemic living put friendships to the test. But finding and making friends as an adult was already hard enough — especially in a transient region like Tampa Bay.
For example, meet Grethel Hodovanec. The 26-year-old nurse has spent most of her life in Tampa. But now all of her friends who were bridesmaids, except for her sister, have moved to different states.
“It’s not you at your core. It’s just sometimes with new careers, with new marriages and children ... so many different layers will affect whether your friends come and go, or stay or grow,” she said.
Hodovanec knew her social life needed some extra help when she was going through a bad friendship breakup. That’s how she found out about Tampa friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson.
A publicist and former high school English teacher, Jackson spent years listening to people talk about conflicts in their relationships. When she decided to become a life coach, she knew she wanted to focus on friendship. There’s plenty of demand for her services.
“Research says our friend group grows very rapidly until age 25, and then it declines very rapidly,” she said.
“We’re starting to see friendship as a luxury that we push to the margins of our lives. ... It feels like it happens very suddenly and it’s like, ‘Man, I’m lonely! I miss my friends,’” she said.
Jackson launched the podcast Friend Forward and wrote a book called Give It a Rest: The Case for Tough-Love Friendship. Her friendship advice has been featured in Psychology Today, Huff Post and SHAPE Magazine. She also offers tips as @thefriendshipexpert on TikTok, where over 137,000 people follow along for guidance on topics like feeling left out and making conversation.
Whether you just moved to town, are looking to rekindle an old friendship after the pandemic or just need some human connection, Jackson shared a few tips.
Reconsider people who are already in your life
Chances are you already know someone who would make a good future friend, whether it’s an older neighbor, a co-worker in another department or a mutual friend you’ve met once or twice before.
“Making new friends is not necessarily synonymous with meeting new people,” she said. “And who says that has to start from scratch?”
Jackson said many of us dismiss people who are already in our networks. She recommends reaching out to the people you already know and enjoy. Does someone seem nice, clever or funny? They could be a friend.
Go to meetup groups that interest you. Then go again.
While it can be awkward to show up to a Meetup group alone, it’s worthwhile to try. After all, everyone is there to meet new people.
The key to actually making a friend through one of these groups is repeated exposure — that’s why we often become friends with people like neighbors and co-workers. Jackson suggests going at least two or three times to establish familiarity.
“So many times we’ll go one time, and kind of say, ‘Oh, that was lame,’ or ‘I wasn’t feeling it,’ and ‘I didn’t vibe with anybody’ and never go back,” she said. “But it doesn’t give an opportunity to build on something.”
Be honest about what you want
Vulnerability starts with saying what you’re looking for. Jackson recommends thinking of it in terms of a romantic context: If you were actively dating, you’d probably let your intentions and goals be known. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people and announce that you’re looking to make new connections.
“You’ll be surprised that a lot of other people are doing the exact same thing,” she said.
“I think the fear of rejection immobilizes us from seizing opportunities to reach out and connect with other people. But research shows that we tend to underestimate how much people like us, at least from that first meeting.”
Open communication also helps as the pandemic winds down. Don’t be afraid to discuss your comfort level and preferred coronavirus safety precautions while making plans to socialize. Jackson starts with a conservative suggestion — like a virtual happy hour — before building up to an in-person, outdoor meetup.
“It’s just a weird time and we all have different boundaries and comfort levels,” she said. “But I think communicating what you’re cool with, and giving a person a chance to let you know what they want instead of making assumptions, might be helpful starting point.”
Circle back to old friendships
It’s not just you: Many people had friendships change or end during the pandemic.
“We’re dealing with different stressors and we quite literally don’t even have the mental capacity to sustain all the friendships we had going in, because of our daily stressors like financial worries, and helping our kids with e-learning and issues with the boyfriend because we both work from home,” she said. “Friendships look different right now. And that’s okay.”
First decide what you want. Do you want to hang out again with someone you used to see before the pandemic? Did you have a falling out with someone? Or do you feel bad about being too busy to check in over the last year?
“I think you have to get really clear on your purpose before your outreach, so that they understand,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that you would emotionally be okay with any of the possible outcomes.”
Find small opportunities for connection
Some people think they need more friends, but they may actually just be lonely. You might be craving positive interactions and the feeling of being connected to another human.
Achieving this can be as simple as saying hello to a stranger while waiting in line or complimenting a barista on their haircut. Leave your phone in your pocket when you go on a walk, use public transportation or are running errands. Volunteer with an organization that does something good for others. Or get in touch with your spirituality.
“Sometimes that leads to friendship, but you need to feel more connected,” Jackson said.
“I think this is just a very sensitive, challenging time for everybody.”