A Guide to Making New Friends (in Grad School and also Real Life, probably)

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(It was over 100 degrees when this photo was taken.)

I hadn’t needed to make new friends in a while.

Most of my friends from college stayed in the Portland area, and though we left our campus, our connections remained strong. This group of close friends made it possible for me to seek out additional friendships–people beautiful and positive in their own way–without feeling the desperation of “if I don’t make friends now, I have ZERO FRIENDS.” I was in a great place socially, surrounded by a network of people who were supportive, loving, and ridiculous in the best ways.

Well, then I moved to Texas. I left all of those people who knew me intimately and totally, those comfortable relationships that felt cozy like a favorite sweater, and I moved to a place where NO ONE WEARS SWEATERS. The metaphor is imperfect, I realize, but I stand by it, because I am really missing sweaters. (UPDATE: I stand corrected. People do wear sweaters, because every building is overcompensating with air conditioning. Cardigans are a must. Texas: the more you know.)

Thankfully, my grad school experience has been socially amazing thus far. My department has so many crazy wonderful people who will go out of their way to welcome, include, and enjoy everyone around them. It’s unique compared to most grad programs here and elsewhere, and I’m grateful because I would be lost without these people.

In walking this windy path of intentional relationship-building, I’ve learned a few things…or I’m trying to learn a few things. For one who loves being a student so much, I’m not very good at learning social lessons. And so, here is the grand total of the knowledge I’ve tried to accumulate regarding making friends in grad school (and, well, life). 10 whole things.

1. You are still you, regardless of where you go, so be that person.

This is the major difference I’ve discovered between undergraduate and graduate school. Starting undergrad, you’re excited to change, to be a different person, to throw off the shackles of high school and be that person you’ve always wanted to be. In grad school, you’re totally aware that you are who you are, and you’ve got to find people who are okay with that. I didn’t move to Texas and suddenly become awesome; I’ve been my own particular brand of low-key subversive awesome all along, and now Texas gets to experience it. So be your brand of awesome, and see who flocks to you. For me, this is often done with snarky remarks, a long vaguely humorous email, and maybe a blog post about what’s totally insane about Waco. Some people will love it; others will ignore it. Find the ones who love it and stick with them.

2. Don’t posture, brag, or assert your expertise.

It’s such a temptation for smart kids to assert their excellence, especially in something they are passionate about, in order to claim, “This is who I am and you should listen to me and be my friend!” With literature people, it often revolves around summer reading. “What books did you read this summer? Oh, the Iliad? Moby Dick? War and Peace for the seventh time?” You likely didn’t mean to brag; you DID read War and Peace for the seventh time, but all of a sudden everyone else feels dumb because they’ve only read War and Peace six times. At first, all of us smarties are subconsciously jockeying for position, trying to fit in and find our place. We’ve always been the smart ones in the class; what if everyone in the class is the smart one? WE CAN’T ALL BE THE SMART ONE. And that’s okay. So lay off on recounting your extensive knowledge about Yeats and ask other people questions instead.

3. Also don’t self-deprecate or tell everyone your faults.

This is my weakness. I prefer to tell everyone my faults early so that they’re not surprised when I do something stupid or unintelligent. I also play to the lowest common denominator, just to underwhelm everyone; hopefully then I’ll exceed their terribly low expectations. Which is dumb. It’s great to know your faults, but it’s not easy to get to know people if you keep talking about them. People tend to be scared off by this for some odd reason. Self-knowledge is a dangerous tool; use wisely.

4. Do things. Together.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that my current university is in a … non-metropolitan area. It doesn’t appear to have much in the way of “culture.” And yet, there are pearls hidden among the swine. Unfair analogy, unless swine refers to barbeque places, in which case it’s totally fair. It’s important to explore; otherwise you’re going to go mad. Explore with people. Listen for events and then invite people to go to them. It’s more fun to laugh about getting lost and having expectations too high for the level of event when you have a bunch of people who are along for the ride. I highly recommend making anything into a social interaction, even grocery shopping.

5. Volunteer to bring things (i.e. people, dessert, alcohol).

If you want to become popular, bring things to events. People LOVE it when you bring things, whether it’s wine, brownies, or a carful of people. It shows you’re interested, invested, and willing to become part of the party, not just a spectator. Also, if you’re like me, I tent to want to bail on events right before they happen because I get nervous. If you’ve already said you’re bringing someone or something, it’s way harder to bail and way easier to walk into a crowded room. And people are glad you’re there, if only because the wine’s almost gone.

6. Ask. Just ask. That’s what email is for.

You may think email is for contacting friends, clarifying instructions with professors, or receiving seventy different announcements about the same on-campus event. Well, yes (especially the latter), but it’s also for passively contacting people about maybe doing a thing together without the fear of face-to-face rejection. Reply-To-Alls, folks. That’s where the magic happens. And you’ll be surprised at how many people will say yes because they also want something to do.

7. When the opportunity is presented, dance.

This is less of a metaphor than you’d think. Recently, I attended a fairly epic social event at which the last phase of the party was dancing. Let me be clear: I do not dance. I don’t have a good sense of my physical body, an abstract and awkward way of saying I have no rhythm and no idea what to do with my arms. Generally, the only times I dance is when someone I love is in a big white dress and glaring at me from across the reception hall. And yet, sometimes the opportunity is right in front of you: dance or hide in the kitchen with the leftover bruschetta. For goodness sake, if people are dancing, especially poorly, join them. Yes, it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, but what brings people together in greater unity than shared embarrassment? In my experience, absolutely nothing.  I made a big deal earlier about being yourself and stuff, and you might not be a dancer. You might be a big bruschetta fan, and I want to recognize that, but also, you never know: there might be part of you that you didn’t even know that really loves to attempt to “Gangnam Style” with a roomful of Ph.D. students.

8. Find out what makes people passionate.

I learned this early on in my college career when I was in love with a reserved young man who spent a lot of time not talking to the other people in the room. Unless you asked him a question about what he was passionate about. Then you could not shut him up, and you didn’t want to because he changed when he talked about his passions. So I loved to ask. I did this just the other day with baseball. I personally do not enjoy baseball, but I do love learning new things and asking dumb questions, and boy oh boy, do people who are passionate about something love answering dumb questions about it. Not only do you get to learn, you get to peek into someone’s heart, just a little bit, and find out what makes them glow. And people love being around people who let them glow.

9. Bond over shared experiences.

This can be fairly easy around anyone who loves literature: just mention a book and someone will likely have an opinion about it. Also, most people I’ve met here have either been to or lived in England. Duh, we’re book nerds. It’s fun to talk about places you’ve been and what you’ve experienced there. Same goes for theatre, music, movies, television shows. (If they don’t watch television, you probably don’t need to be their friend [I’m just kidding…ish]). If you can’t find any shared experiences, make some. Take photos. Share them on Facebook. Say, “Let’s do this again sometime.” And then do it again.

10. Don’t lose track of those other people you’ve invested in.

I’m still trying to figure out how to do everything above and plus this last one. I love my people, those people who know me down to my toes and still like me. I’m not easy to like sometimes, and so I tend to hold onto those folks who have taken a shine to me. With modern technology, it’s easy to stay in touch, but it’s also hard. It takes so much work. And there’s really only so much time you have and so much you can do. Continue to love on the people you left, even as you start to love the people around you. (More on that to come in a few days…)

So basically I’m an expert on making friends and I’m totally popular down here.

No, not really. I’m still finding my way, trying to navigate through personalities and support systems and conversations, both hilarious and deep. And I’m finding people willing to navigate with me, which is all I can really ask for. It’s all we can ever ask for.

So ask.

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