Updated: Jun 14
As a child, I was terribly, painfully shy. Over the years, we've shared some laughs in my family about my mom's attempt to enroll me in kindergarten a year early. After going through a series of tests, the teachers recommended I wait. It wasn't because of my academic skills, but because of my social skills-- I was so quiet and unsure when connecting with others.
This is probably surprising to anyone who has met me as an adult. I'm definitely an extrovert. I love to be around people. Yet, still to this day, one of the scariest things for me is to walk into a room where I don't know anyone. It can take me right back to kindergarten.
Moving to Geneva, I appreciate how comfortable I'd gotten in Milwaukee with my network of friends. Being new is hard. But, it's also been a good reminder for me that networking and making new friends is a good skill to continually keep in practice. Life circumstances often change when you least expect it, and then you're learning how to be new again. I still clearly remember helping my grandfather-in-law move into a new retirement community a few years ago. Though he was in his 80s, it seemed similar to the experience I had moving into Ogg Hall at UW-Madison.
The opportunities I've had to live different places and the discomfort I try to avoid in unfamiliar spaces has been a great motivator to sharpen my skills at getting to know people. And especially in the last few months, these muscles have had some practice!
So, whether you're starting in a new city, at a new organization or just looking to continue to expand your network, here are my best tips for making connections and friends:
Make a List - When you're in a new situation, it can be tempting to do what is easy and comfortable.. staying in vs. going out, returning only to places you know. I have found that making a list of restaurants, museums, events, etc. helps motivate me to try new things. You can challenge yourself to check something off every week. And as bonus, whenever you feel bored - you have a list of inspiration waiting for you!
Tell Your Network Where You're Going - The world is much smaller than we realize! Before each of my moves (DC, Milwaukee, Geneva), I had friends and friends-of-friends reach out to connect me with people they knew living there. Even if you just meet once for coffee - it can be incredibly helpful when you are navigating a new place!
Sign up for a Class - Classes often have a regular schedule which gives you a chance to get to know people. I've also found that the vulnerability you share in learning a new skill helps you get to know others even faster-- especially if there is reason to practice outside of sessions. One of my favorites over the years has been improv classes with Washington Improv Theater.
Teach - Is there a skill or subject you're an expert in? Whether you teach at a professional event, at a social event or with a volunteer group, teaching and helping others can open a lot of connections for you with people who share your passions.
Seek Out Group Activities - I've found I'm much more comfortable breaking the ice with people when there's an activity involved -- going for a walk, to a concert, a book talk, a basketball game. Activities, in my experience, give you more things to talk about and also make silence more comfortable. In Geneva, a friend recommended glocals and InterNations - which have lots of options each month. Meetup is another very popular site for finding people with similar interests.
Volunteer - Nonprofits and social groups are always on the lookout for new members! I find when I have a role it can feel more natural to talk to people. And, often through an orientation you'll have a chance to connect with fellow volunteers. When I moved to Milwaukee, Junior League of Milwaukee was so helpful in connecting me not only to volunteer opportunities, but to new friends and helping me to know the city itself.
Say "Yes"- Sometimes you'll get invited to things where the activity itself may not interest you, or some other aspect makes it easier to say no... maybe it's on a Saturday you had planned to run errands or it's an invite to lunch when you planned to work at noon. When someone invites you, try to say yes - because sometimes it's the only time an invitation gets extended. And, most often find that the time is much better spent than being alone.
Go It Alone - If you can't find someone to join you for an activity you want to do on your own, go by yourself! If it's something you genuinely enjoy, you'll have a good time and often your excitement will end up connecting you to others when you arrive.
Contribute to Your Community - Think about the gifts that come naturally to you and how you might share them. When my grandfather-in-law moved to a new retirement community after living his entire life on a farm -- he signed up for a raised bed and started sharing gardening tips and the vegetables he grew with his neighbors. A simple gift can be great ice breaker!
Follow-up - Exchange contact information with folks you enjoy chatting with and send a follow-up note suggesting another activity based on your mutual interest. This is often what moves things from acquaintance to friendship, try to push past shy!
Ask for Advice - Folks that are well-established had to start somewhere in building their networks - ask about the groups they joined and how they made their friends.
Find a Buddy - If you find yourself in a place where there are also a lot of new people, find someone who is also interested in connecting with others... you can encourage and support each other in growing your networks together.
Remember What it is Like to Be New - Before you know it, you can find yourself with a tight network of friends and soon you'll be seeing solo folks looking for a group to join or a place to sit. Remember what it was like in their shoes and welcome them warmly!
Consider Your Friendship Origin Stories - Give yourself grace that meeting new people can feel a little unnatural and a little awkward... but it often makes for a good story! My friend Jordan and I connected at an event where she had forgotten her wallet and I didn't have a car -- sometimes the ways we need and help each other in the first times we meet are the seeds for what blossoms into a great friendship.
And one final inspiration from my friend Scott... "remember it's a blessing when someone breaks the ice" - it's easy to forget sometimes that the people who go to networking and meetup events are there because... they want to meet people. Though it can feel awkward, making conversation is exactly the reason you came!
So grateful for the friends I've made in Geneva so far using these tips! What other tips have worked well for you?