I had an interesting conversation with someone a few months ago about friendship and different culture across the U.S. We'd both moved to the West Coast from other states -- me from the Midwest and her from the South -- and we both found the culture here to be very different from the ones where we grew up: she found it less friendly and I found it more so. The more we talked, though, the more I realized I didn't think this difference in perception was a matter of northern vs. southern U.S. reacting differently to California so much as it was a matter of introverted vs. extroverted reactions.
I explained that for me, the socially obligated friendliness in the middle and southern parts of the country always seemed forced and cold (it certainly always was for me), and since nobody here seems to feel obligated to chat with strangers, when they do, it feels much more genuine. She felt that the lack of socially obligated niceties made everyday interactions feel colder to her. This led further into the introvert/extrovert discussion, where I explained that I prefer to go about my business not interacting with strangers I'll never see again, that I'd rather spend my social energy on people with whom I do or may have a connection. She asked, "But how do you know if that connection is there unless you talk to them?" And, after two paragraphs of preamble, that's where I want to go next.
I began thinking through my friendships, the ones that have lasted, the ones where I still want to keep in touch with them and go out of my way to spend time with them -- the people I choose, joyfully, to spend my social energy on. Absolutely none of them were chance encounters. They all arose naturally out of people who I was already around.
There are the New Lifers, who traveled with me 24/7 for up 10 weeks at a time (or 30, in the case of my friend Jessica).
There are the Rinkies, with whom I sat silently in a chatroom with for years, occasionally interjecting comments and playing bot games, before I considered them my friends.
There are my college friends, who did theater with me and studied for finals with me and carpooled to practicums with me.
There are friends I met on various special interest sites, such as penpal sites for preteen girls, sites for young writers, Christian teen chatrooms, sites for playing trivia games. But all of them came out of a common interest, and we were both there looking for a writing buddy or someone to talk to. This is important, because I have to be emotionally and mentally ready to socialize, and if you try to be friendly with me when I'm not prepared, I'm going to come off as weird at best or rude at worst -- not because I'm trying to be, but because I have to shift that entire section of my brain over.
I can not think of a single friendship I've formed that sprang up out of nowhere, where I just happened to meet somebody and we happened to become friends. There was always an initial jumping-off point, a reason in common that we both were where we were, and, inevitably, a slow burn of acquaintanceship before we ever got to the level of friendship.
I make friends slowly, and I can't possibly know after a single chance encounter with someone if I'd like to be friends with them. To me that concept is as implausible as the idea of love at first sight. Some people, I believe, do forge connections that quickly, but I do not, and I cannot. Until I've known someone for a long time, they are still basically a stranger to me. (This became a joke with one of my friends at college, when I brought this up and pointed out that despite doing shows with her and being in several classes with her, I probably wouldn't actually consider her my friend until our third year of knowing each other. She thought this was hilarious and proclaimed us "kind of friends" our first year, "almost friends" our second year, and "finally friends" our third year.)
So to address the title of this blog specifically, how do I make friends? Well, if I'm looking to make friends, I seek out activities where other people might be. I meet up with people for board games, I chat with locals online, I go to church (sort of... sometimes... that'll be a blog for another day). If I go around trying to struck up a friendly conversation with everyone I meet, I'll just use up all my social spoons very quickly and not be any closer to making friends than I was at the beginning of the day. It's just the way I'm wired.
For an introvert like me, this area of the country is immensely freeing. Nobody cares if I talk to them or don't while I'm checking out groceries. The only people who try to strike up conversation with me seem like they for real want to talk to me. There are plenty of activities and meet-ups where, if I want, I can try to meet people who share my interests and could maybe eventually become my friends. I am more socially comfortable here than I have been in any other town I've lived in. It may not be for everyone, but for someone who makes friends slowly and has very little use for obligatory socializing... this is pretty perfect.