French fries are more delicious when you’re not eating them alone. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Oakland, my schedule was wide open, and I wanted to share some time with a friend. The only problem was, I didn’t have anyone to hang out with. I had recently moved into my own apartment, so didn’t have a smattering of roommates around anymore. The few local friends I had were already promised to other commitments they’d set up weeks before—which seemed to be a recurring pattern. To help myself feel less alone, I posted a message on Facebook: “Who wants to go eat french fries and talk about life with me?”
In that moment, my tiny wish felt impossible to fulfill. Nearly everyone who replied to me on Facebook lived in another state. And there was a bigger wish behind my post. I didn’t just want to eat snacks and talk about life. I was craving a different kind of life—one that would give me abundant access to friends who wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see them.
I’d been living in the Bay Area for a year and a half. I loved my job in San Francisco and my neighborhood on the border of Oakland and Berkeley. But I was lonely. Loneliness was an unfamiliar feeling, and its arrival in my life puzzled me because I wasn’t socially isolated. I was surrounded by smart, funny, interesting people who I was constantly meeting at every brunch, meetup, and dinner party I went to. On weekends there were dozens of exciting events and activities to attend. I had a great time at potlucks, meetups, and events but I rarely got to see the people I met there anywhere else. The person-to-person intimacies didn’t grow. When I wanted someone just to hang out with, aside from a couple of roommates who were often running around with their own lives, I was usually on my own.
When I moved into my own one-bedroom apartment, I was thrilled beyond words. I’d wanted my own little sanctuary for so long. I thought that having my own place meant that I’d be able to have people over all the time, but it only happened a fraction of the time. Often when I asked my local friends to hang out, they weren’t free and wouldn’t be for a while. Life seemed to be telling me that I had crossed a new milestone of adulthood:
18th birthday: You get to vote!
21st birthday: You get to drink!
35th birthday: You get to make plans six weeks in advance
any time you want to see a friend!
So in the summer of 2015, I did what I thought any normal person would do. I started a couple meetup groups around topics that matter to me. (I’ve since been informed that this is not what any normal person would do.) I organized a professional community group for other Black people who practice design (my line of work) and I created an event called Better than Small Talk for people who value good conversation. Both meetups were successful, accumulating hundreds of members, and Bay Area Black Designers was even profiled in Forbes. Running both groups over the next four years required a herculean amount of work, and ironically, they only provided me with a few reliable friends that I got to see away from the meetups. When I wasn’t running those groups, I devoted time and energy to deepening connections with my tiny set of local friends. Turning lovely acquaintances into close friends was my passion project.
One day I wrote down the names of all the people I really liked and wanted to be better friends with. One by one, I set out trying to nurture and develop each friendship. I’d contact the person and set up a get-together for tea, a meal, or an activity. We’d share conversation and get to know each other better. Repeat.
It worked with a few people:
• Adrian became a good buddy, but then he started a business. All his time got sucked into doing that, understandably.
• Jabu became a dear friend that I admire and love deeply, but then she moved from the overpriced Bay Area to a gorgeous house for half the price in the southwest United States.
• Marjorie became a semi-regular hangout buddy for about a year. Then we both got into relationships and found ourselves spending more of our free time with our partners. Our texts and hangouts went extinct.
• Once, someone on a listserv that I was in wrote the group saying that she was looking for a roommate. I saw that we lived two blocks apart. I emailed her and said that I didn’t want to be her roommate since I already had a place to live, but asked if she wanted to be neighbor friends? She did! We got dinner at a Thai restaurant on the corner, and had a great conversation full of laughs and things in common. But then the new friendship spark fizzled out. We texted a couple times after that but we never managed to hang out again.
• Feeling like I’d struck gold, I got lucky when a few friends moved to the Bay Area from other cities where I’d previously lived. I tried especially hard to nurture these pre-existing friendships. But most of these friends moved away less than two years later. Going-away parties became a regular occurrence, and with each one, more air was let out of my balloon.
I made attempts with many more people, with similarly frustrating results. Making friends as an adult, I’d discovered, is work. It’s not like being a kid on the playground where having the same color sneakers or a fondness for swings is enough to call someone a friend. It’s not like being in high school where simply sitting around the same people every day in class is enough common ground to knit you together during the afternoons and weekends too. And it’s not like college where being roommates or classmates is enough to cement your common bond and then, poof, you’re best friends for life.
Nope. Building friendships and community as an adult—especially in a new city—is hard work. It’s such hard work that some folks have told me they’ve given up trying, and they’re not the only ones. The average American hasn’t made one new friend in the last five years. But the price we pay for giving up is just too high. As we age, research shows that we get more isolated from the people around us. We feel more lonely, and have a harder time making close friends. Nearly half of Americans say they feel alone or left out most of the time. One in four Americans don’t feel like there’s anyone who really understands them. The loneliness and isolation epidemic flies under the radar, damaging our health and wellbeing every step of the way. Loneliness and isolation wreak havoc on our internal systems: shortening our lifespan and increasing our chances of a multitude of health problems. According to former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, loneliness puts as much stress on our body as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
I believe that the experience of community and human connection are as important to our health and well-being as having access to clean air, water, and food. We can live in a vacuum of isolation or a web of connection; either situation will significantly impact how we live our lives and how much happiness, health, and fulfillment we experience along the way.
While starting over in a new city is exciting, it frequently means struggling to satisfy the basic human need for belonging and connection. Meeting new people and forming strong positive connections takes constant effort, and results aren’t guaranteed. Cultivating friendship is like nurturing a garden. You clear a patch of land, prepare the beds, and assess which seeds and plants are the best fit for the location and season. You make sure that you’ll have the right amount of water, soil, and light. You plant your favorite seeds. And then you invest time and energy into caring for these newly growing things. As they send out shoots and start growing, you hope like hell that you don’t forget to water them or get struck with a heat spell—either of which could kick the life out of these baby sprouts and leave you back where you started with bare earth and a handful of tiny wishes. We Should Get Together is your guide to becoming a green thumb at cultivating friendships that last.
Over the course of writing this book, I spent a lot of time talking to people about how they experience friendship and community as adults. In my day-to-day life, I’m a professional user experience designer. In simple terms, that means that I investigate the challenges people face when trying to accomplish a certain task, and then I design solutions that solve those problems. Based on my experiences and those of the people I spoke to, I realized that adult friendship has a user experience problem. Despite having more ways to meet and keep in contact with friends near and far, many people have fewer close friends and less fulfilling experiences of friendship than ever before. Intrigued, I threw myself into understanding this conundrum. I used a range of methods to help me understand how the problem manifested itself in people’s lives, and what allowed some people to transcend it.
I used four types of qualitative research to investigate this problem: generative (defining the problem), descriptive (describing the problem), causal (figuring out what causes the problem) and evaluative (identifying what solutions exist and how successful they are). To answer these questions, I conducted one-on-one interviews, group discussions, telephone interviews, and email interviews. I spoke to hundreds of people about this topic over the last five years, and surveyed sixty-five of them in depth. I bolstered my qualitative research efforts with an extensive literature review of quantitative studies, as well as books and articles. I pored over existing research about friendship, happiness, loneliness, health, technology, and the effect of cities and modern life on interpersonal relationships. In doing so, I was able to learn about patterns of human connection and disconnection for adults living in cities, logged from as far back as 1938 to as recently as 2019.
I’ve attempted to summarize academic findings while also retaining the heart, humanity, and emotion that are at the core of this topic. To create a manageable scope, I focused on how people who live in larger cities experience adult friendship, as opposed to those in the suburbs or rural areas. Many people were kind, brave, and extremely candid in sharing their personal stories with me during the events and interviews that led to the creation of this book. To protect their privacy, their names have been changed, except for when they gave permission to use their real names.
Throughout the book, you will find firsthand accounts from some of the people I spoke to, as well as practical strategies that have worked well for me and other people living in similar conditions. I talked to people across a wide variety of ages, genders, ethnicities, and occupations. I’ve listened to their stories of connection and disconnection, their feelings of isolation and hopefulness, their struggles with achieving the kind of closeness that would let them feel like they know others deeply and are deeply known in return. I’ve heard people recount feelings of helplessness while watching burgeoning friendships stall out, break down, or never fully attain their potential. I’ve heard others tearfully describe the heart-breaking collapse of long-term friendships. And I’ve heard people describe the feeling of triumph that comes when they are feeling truly connected with their deepest friends—or when they’re feeling something deeply friendship-like with a total stranger.
In addition to being a user experience designer, I’m also a facilitator. Over the last eighteen years I’ve led workshops, gatherings, events, and facilitated sessions designed to help people cultivate their creativity and connect authentically. I often call upon my facilitation skills whenever I encounter problems in the realm of human interaction.
For example, it was really hard for me to form durable friendships during my first few years in the Bay Area; I was also frustrated by the neverending surface-level chit-chat at every social gathering I went to. So I created an experimental gathering called Better than Small Talk. I don’t ascribe to the belief that people need weeks or months of time to arbitrarily pass before they can move from superficial conversation to topics that are deeper, more thoughtful, or more personal. It’s absolutely possible to cut through the chit-chat and connect authentically more quickly. I know it’s possible because I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
I first learned this in 2006, when I trained as a facilitator with an organization called Partners for Youth Empowerment (formerly The Power of Hope). Over the next several years I led hundreds of hours of workshops and programs with them. I’ve facilitated community-building workshops for youth and adults everywhere from middle school classrooms to conferences and weeklong overnight camps. I’ve seen the power of creating safe environments where people can express themselves and be fully seen and accepted for who they really are. It can dramatically transform the way people relate to each other.
One of my favorite activities from my time working for Power of Hope was called Milling. You take a room full of people and instruct them to move around the room—sometimes in creative ways like pretending to walk through waist-deep molasses or imagining that they’re tiptoeing through the house to sneak out at midnight. Periodically we’d interrupt and pair people off to answer questions. We’d ask questions that ignite the imagination and invite people to share more about themselves, like:
• What’s something you gave up to be here tonight, and
something you’re looking forward to?
• What’s something you love about where you
live and something you’d change?
• If you had a microphone and the whole world was
listening, what would you say?
I love seeing how much people open up when asked simple questions and are earnestly listened to. Inevitably, their walls start to come down and they begin to feel connected to each other. Better than Small Talk was designed as an immersive experience around the same premise as Milling. I held it in Oakland, Berkeley, Seattle, and L.A., and experimented with different formats each time. Sometimes the gathering was an intimate dinner for seven. Sometimes people moved organically through a room filled with conversation-starter questions pinned to clotheslines. Other times I led a room full of people through guided meditation and prompted conversation in pairs or small groups. Usually all the participants were strangers.
Participants often said that the conversations they had during Better than Small Talk were deeper and felt more grounded than their conversations with people in their daily lives. Just a couple hours before the event, they were literally strangers, but afterwards many of them said—sometimes with tears in their eyes—that they felt like close friends. Sometimes people would leave the gathering hugging each other, making plans to extend the evening, or trading phone numbers with their newfound buddies. The goal of Better than Small Talk wasn’t to make sure everyone left with a best friend—it was simply to give people access to an alternate reality that provided them with inspiring tools and a shared context upon which connection can be easily built. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that when given the right space and practical tools, friendship and community can develop quickly and abundantly.
I believe that deep conversations, in which we disclose the more sensitive emotions, thoughts, and feelings that we’d otherwise hold inside, are superior in every way to superficial conversation. Deep conversations are also correlated with greater happiness than surface-level conversation, as Mattias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, has reported in The New York Times and Psychology Today.6 The problem is, our lives are too often starved for this type of vulnerable, bonding interaction. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this social deficit and tried to help fix it. In my research during this book, I learned about a multitude of other groups, organizations, and games that exist to help people access deep, meaningful conversation with the people around them. For example: The Ungame was invented in 1972, Conversation Cafe has been worldwide for over a decade, Free Intelligent Conversation is held in public spaces nationwide, Big Talk cards are available all over the world, Chatty Cafe is held in the U.K., End Small Talk (which I did one cross-continent collaboration event with) is held in Dubai, Tea with Strangers is held nationwide. In late 2019 even famous behavioral economist Dan Ariely started selling a deck of No Small Talk cards on his lab’s website. Additionally, there are hundreds if not thousands of meetups that invite people to make new friends via the practice of authentic conversation.
I started my friendship experiments and research in earnest in the San Francisco Bay Area because I felt that there was something unusually challenging about this place and the people who are drawn to it. It is the only place I’ve ever lived where I’ve had a hard time forming strong, reliable friendships. While I do think that it’s especially hard here—and I’ve uncovered research that proves it, which we’ll explore later—I’d found that this is a challenge for people all over the United States and even beyond its borders. Yet we rarely talk about this problem. This quiet desperation doesn’t even have a name, but a great many of us have felt it before.
I call it platonic longing. This book is for everyone who has ever known this quiet ache:
• If you never want to hear the questions “What do you do?” and “Where are you originally from?” ever again because when you’re surrounded by real friends, no one needs to ask that.
• If you’ve ever had to care for your horrible cold, surgery recovery, or chronic pain all by yourself because there wasn’t a single friend or neighbor who would come through your door to check on you.
• If you’ve ever had a stroke of good fortune and wanted someone to celebrate it with, but instead sat with your joyous moment alone because no one was free to hang out.
• If you’ve spent more time watching Netflix over the last six months than you’ve spent talking to people who know the landscape of your inner world.
• If you’ve ever gone on a dating app wondering, “Would this work if I said ‘I’m just looking for friends?” Or if you’ve tried the friend-making apps too and found that the great friendships they promised still haven’t materialized.
• If you spend more time holding hands with your phone than holding hands with a friend.
Don’t worry—this book isn’t only about the struggles. It’s also about the strategies and tools that will help you cultivate robust friendships. We Should Get Together is for anyone who wants to have dedicated, life-enriching friends, and who wants to be that kind of friend, too.
• For anyone who wants to know others deeply and be known deeply in return.
• For anyone who is brave enough to strike up a new kind of conversation, reaching past small talk towards topics that make your heart and brain vibrate with meaningful thoughts and deep feelings.
• For anyone who is improving their cooking and baking skills, and wishing for more great people in their life to break delicious bread with.
• For anyone cultivating their friendship garden: watering the seeds, pulling the weeds, and reaching for the sweet fruit of human connection.
Put simply, this book is for anyone who wants to create more meaningful friendships in their life. In the following pages, I’ll be your guide to making that a reality. I’ll also be right there beside you, going through a lot of the same friendship struggles. We’ll dig into why friendship during adulthood is so often a challenge, as well as strategies that you can start using right away to make things better. I can’t promise that what’s worked well for others will definitely work for you; everyone’s situation is different. I only offer these suggestions humbly in an attempt to provide insights that might be useful to you in your own life. I hope the stories and advice on these pages help you feel less alone and inspire you to find ways to bring more enriching experiences of friendship into your life.