On Aging
1:58 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

Recipe For Good Friendships: Best If Formed By 30

Originally published on Wed July 18, 2012 1:17 pm

Making close friends after college can be challenging. As the days of dorm life, dining halls and synchronized schedules fade, it can be tough to form solid bonds. Once marriage and children enter the scene, adults have even less say in choosing friends.

In a piece for The New York Times, writer Alex Williams explores his own changing friendships and his sometimes failed efforts to connect.

As we get older, Williams tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, busy schedules force us to adjust our expectations for relationships and categorize friends into different categories. "Maybe I just have to downgrade and have ... a tennis friend or a cocktail friend or whatever," says Williams. "But you're not going to make those absolute ... best friends for life."

He talks about why actual close friends — the kind you call in a crisis — are in shorter supply as you get older.


Interview Highlights

On the necessary conditions for good friendships

"Since the 1950s, sociologists have been looking at this issue, and they've settled on basically three important conditions in order to make close friends that have to exist. One is proximity; one is repeated, unplanned interactions; and one is you need to be a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.

"And, obviously, college is perfect for that sort of thing. You're thrown together. You're going to run into same people day after day.

"But in adult life, you really don't have that. I mean, you might make work buddies, you might go out for drinks or whatever with the guy, you know, every three months. ... You have to have scheduled it. Sometimes, it's three weeks out. Sometimes, it's three months out. And at the last minute, you know, one person always seems to cancel because of a work conflict, and so that's what's missing. It's that environment. It's friendly toward making friends, which it's tough to achieve as an adult."

On the inspiration for the piece

"About four years ago, my wife and I had dinner with some — a couple friend that we sort of — they're acquaintances. The guy and I in particular hit it off to just a spectacular degree. I mean, halfway through the dinner, we were finishing each other's sentences. We had all the same taste. We liked all the same lines in movies. We liked all the same music. And I remember it was just such a strong sensation that I remember walking away from the dinner thinking, you know, if I had met that guy in college, he might have ended up the groomsman in my wedding.

"... But, you know, it's been four years, and we've basically seen each other four times. And it's not that, you know, we're both interested in being friends but, you know, it's very difficult to get that momentum going after a certain age. He's got kids different ages. I've got, you know, we're in slightly different industries. ... Life gets in the way."

On prioritizing relationships

"The easy answer is that ... life is more hectic, life is busier. But I don't think its laziness. I think mostly it's just a matter ... [of] having to re-prioritize things, not putting friends as the third or fourth priority but bumping them at least to ... first or second.

"...The work days are getting longer, and people are always connected through their iPhones and BlackBerrys and that sort of thing. And it's really tough to take any break at all. ... That is all part of the changing landscape that complicates things."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Making close friends after college can be tough: no more dorm life, less free time, shifting priorities. And if you have kids - well, they're often the ones who pick their friends, and you're just grateful if you like their parents. But there are lots of interesting people out there - at work, or on the school playground. So why is it so hard to bond? Writer Alex Williams takes on the question in a recent New York Times article, exploring his own changing friendships and his sometimes-failed efforts to connect.

We'd like to hear from you: What obstacles have you had to overcome, to make lasting friendships after your 20s? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Alex Williams is a New York Times columnist, and author of the article "Friends of a Certain Age." He joins us from a studio in the New York Times Building. Welcome.

ALEX WILLIAMS: Hi. It's great to be here.

LUDDEN: So you open your piece talking about - did you call a date? you and your wife had with another couple; and some of the friend chemistry that happens, or doesn't. Tell us about the experience.

WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, that story was one of the inspirations for the entire article, really. About four years ago, my wife and I had dinner with some - a couple friend that we sort of - they're acquaintances. The guy and I, in particular, hit it off to just a spectacular degree. I mean, halfway through the dinner, we were finishing each other's sentences. We had all the same taste. We liked all the same lines in movies. We liked all the same music. And I remember - it was just such a strong sensation, that I remember walking away from the dinner thinking, you know, if I had met that guy in college, he might have ended up the groomsman in my wedding.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

WILLIAMS: But, you know, it's been four years, and we've basically seen each other four times. And it's not that - you know, we're both interested in being friends but, you know, it's very difficult to get that momentum going after a certain age. He's got - kid's different age; I've got, you know - we're - slightly different industries. It's - life gets in the way.

LUDDEN: I mean, do you have like, periods of time where you're actively trying to get together, and it's just a full calendar? Or do you just not think of him for stretches? What happens?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I mean, he's a busy guy. He works in the movie business. He's out on location a lot. I mean, I've got a busy, you know, I've got a 2-year-old son and a busy career myself. But, you know, literally, we talked in July. We said, OK, finally, we have to have that long-delayed dinner. And we both looked at our calendars, and we came up with September.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Now, you also talk about the difficulty with couples. It's a dual thing; you've got four people who need to get along.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's really one of the big challenges, is that after the age of 30 or so, a lot of people have already started coupling up, having families, are very locked in to careers. And so the friend-making process - which is such a huge priority when you're in high school or college, or even your early 20s - suddenly becomes slightly less of a priority. And with couples, it's particularly tough because - I mean, suddenly, you have twice as many complications. It's dating for four instead of for two, essentially. And so each four person - each of those four people have to get along, click, have chemistry. And if one doesn't like it, the whole thing can just kind of, you know, hit a wall.

LUDDEN: So you talk about situational adult friends. Is that what some people turn to? And what does that mean?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think a lot of people take the attitude that, you know, when they're younger, you may - maybe you're more idealistic, maybe you're romantic about the idea of friendship; but your friends are like your brothers, your sisters. I mean, they're people - they're siblings - they're people you can call on a crisis, that you can lean on at any point. But I think once you, you know, you start to - you know, you've been through some failed relationships, you've seen things go awry, you've learned more about your own limitations, that sort of thing; you start to realize that hey, maybe going for those sibling-style friends, it's just not realistic with a busy schedule. Maybe I just have to downgrade and have, you know, a tennis friend or a cocktail friend, or whatever. But you're not going to make those absolute, you know, best friends for life.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get some listeners on the line here. Jennifer is in Madison, Alabama. Hi there.

JENNIFER: Hey, how are you guys doing?

LUDDEN: Good. What's your story?

JENNIFER: Oh, my story is, I actually read this article over the weekend. I had seen it linked to - actually, on Facebook. And I was reading it and going, oh, my gosh, that's me.

(LAUGHTER)

JENNIFER: I can't believe that - I was beginning to think it was really - there's something wrong with me and my - and, you know, myself as a person; like, what's wrong with me that I can't make friends? But I'm beginning to think now, it's less that and more just, this is the life that we're in, at this age. And we just can't really do a whole lot about it.

LUDDEN: Am I guessing right, you have kids?

JENNIFER: I have two. I have one that's 9 months, and the other one is 4 and a half.

LUDDEN: Wow. You know, my favorite cartoon - I kept by the phone for a long time - a woman with a babe on the arm and one at the hip, and she said, can I call you back in five years?

(LAUGHTER)

JENNIFER: Yeah, that's how I feel sometimes. And you know, I'm really fortunate because my husband and I both - we trade off evenings that we can spend with friends. But, you know, I don't have that friend that I can call at any hour and say hey, what are you doing? Why don't we go do this or that. Because everyone's, you know, covered in small children, or they're at work or whatever. And it's just very - it was starting to be, starting to make me feel like there was something wrong with me; like I was doing something wrong.

LUDDEN: So did you read the article and think you need to do something differently, or did you just find comfort in the commiseration?

JENNIFER: Well, I found comfort in it, and I discovered that it was probably better for me to be OK with having compartmentalized friends rather than having like, the one, true friend - because, you know, there are so many different facets to my life - having two kids; and I play tennis. And my husband and I, you know, have friends that we spend time with when we can but, you know, I'm not working at the moment. So I'm like, I'll just be OK with, you know, different friends at different times, and not be so focused on the one-true-friend-type thing.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, Jennifer, thanks for the call.

JENNIFER: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: And let's get one more in here. Jill is in Orinda, California. Hey, Jill.

JILL: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good.

JILL: Good. The reason I called in was that I have moved 10 times in my adult life, both within the country and overseas. And I found it very easy to make friends when my children were small; and you meet other moms at the playground. And then also when - in a lot of expat communities; I've lived in Moscow twice, Libya and the - London and Aberdeen, Scotland. But a lot of expat communities, they are very welcoming. And you make friends very easily because no one knows - has a big friend base when you arrive.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm, right.

JILL: People tend to live in a place for maybe three years. And so there's a lot of moving in and out - which is difficult because you leave your friends, and that's very hard. But when I find it difficult to make friends is coming back to the U.S. So I'm living in California, and I meet people, but they already have their own activities, their family, their friends. And my family is in the - you know, the other part of the country. And so I find it - yes, it is difficult; especially, I think, being older. I'm in my early 50s.

LUDDEN: All right. Jill, thanks so much for the call.

JILL: OK.

LUDDEN: And Alex, I've had that, too. It's much easier overseas. It's almost like - a college-like situation. You're bonding in some foreign locale. I don't know. In the states, are our lives just too - kind of boring, and there's nothing, no drama to bond over? (LAUGHTER) We can't...

WILLIAMS: Well, I think - sorry. I was going to say that yeah, I think being abroad does sort of emulate college in a very important way. And that's - basically, since the 1950s, sociologists have been looking at this issue. And they've settled on, basically, three important conditions in order to make close friends, that have to exist. One is proximity; one is repeated, unplanned interactions; and one is, you need to be a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.

And obviously, college is perfect for that sort of thing. You're thrown together. You're going to run into same people, day after day. But in adult life, you really don't have that. I mean, you might make work buddies; you might go out for drinks - or whatever - with the guy, you know, every three months. But really, it's - every single interaction is not unplanned. You have to have scheduled it. Sometimes, it's three weeks out. Sometimes, it's three months out. And at the last minute, you know, one person always seems to cancel because of a work conflict. And so that's what's missing. It's that environment that's friendly towards making friends, which - it's tough to achieve as an adult.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get another caller in here. Martin in Santa Clara, California. Hi there.

MARTIN: Hey, thanks for taking the call. I've noticed that in my own life - I'm in my 50s now - is that earlier, people outside of, you know, my circle of friends - when you talked about things, you talked about your activities; you know, chess or tennis or bowling, or whatever. And I notice now that anyone I talk to, it's all about work. Everyone, all they talk about is their work environment. And it's hard to really understand what they are as a person - right? - and what they value and stuff, unless you very specifically ask oh, what are you into? and things like that.

The other aspect of it is that, you know, of course, the distance. Where I work - you know, I work in the Bay Area, and people travel as far as, you know, a hundred miles to work. So even if you find a common interest, they're so far away that, you know, make - getting together, or even trying to come up with some common area to meet, becomes very, very difficult. Anyway, that's my comment.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much, Martin.

MARTIN: But I noticed that it changed over - definitely over the last 30 years. My ability to make friends has changed significantly.

LUDDEN: Well, thanks for the call. Alex Williams, did you talk to people who are finding different ways to try and overcome all these barriers we've been talking about?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, my article was more - focusing on the challenges. I think the sequel's going to have to be about the solutions. But - I mean, I think really, once you indentify the problem, you start to move past it. I mean, if you realize that you're not being able to nail down a friend because you keep seeing each other no more than every six months, you just have to make that extra effort. I think that's the first and most important step - is actually making a commitment to changing the way things are going.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get one more, quick call in here. Dee is in Houston. Hi, Dee.

DEE: Hi.

LUDDEN: We just have a couple minutes left.

DEE: OK. I just want to comment. It's funny because he said you have to make the effort and really, that's been my problem. It's just as I've gotten older, I just don't have the energy to make friends. I mean, you have to call them.

(LAUGHTER)

DEE: You have to see them. You have to answer the phone, and you have to return text, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

DEE: It's so much work.

LUDDEN: That's - thanks for that fresh blast of honesty there, Dee. Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: It is kind of a job in itself, yeah.

LUDDEN: So are we just too lazy, then, Alex?

WILLIAMS: That's a good question. I mean, I don't think we're lazy. I mean, I think, you know, the easy answer is that, you know, life is more hectic; life is busier. I mean, you know, that's probably - the easy answer is true, in this case. But I don't think it's laziness. I think mostly, it's just a matter of, you know, having to re-prioritize things; not putting friends as the third or fourth priority, but bumping them at least to, you know, equal - you know, first or second.

LUDDEN: Well, we do get more tired, though, as we get older. (LAUGHTER) I mean, a weeknight dinner, it's a killer, man.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Oh, it's really tough. It's really tough. And, I mean, you know, the work days are getting longer, and people are always connected through their iPhones and BlackBerrys and that sort of thing. And it's really tough to take any break at all. So yeah, that is all part of the changing landscape that complicates things.

LUDDEN: So have you changed your own approach? Anything you've taken to heart here?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think, yeah. I mean, I'm blessed. I got married four years ago. My wife is a wildly social person, so there's no real shortage of people walking into our door, which is a blessing.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: But, I mean, this article came from a - you know, personal experience as well. I mean, I identified the challenges, and I think what I do is just - again - just make it a priority.

LUDDEN: And do you just keep calling if someone can't connect, can't - but, I mean, have you been able to deepen relationships with friends, to kind of match what you had in college?

WILLIAMS: I think so. I mean, I don't know if I've made new friends as close as those I made in college. But I think I've achieved a more - sort of realistic view of who fits where in my life. I mean, lots of people are valuable, but they're only valuable at a certain level. I'm not sure if I've made any of those absolute lifelong, lasting friends. But I'm not giving up because I think it still can be done. It's just tougher.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thanks for letting us know that it's not just us.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: Certainly not.

LUDDEN: Alex Williams is a reporter and features writer for the New York Times Style section. His piece "Friends of a Certain Age" ran last Friday the 13th, in the New York Times. You can find a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio in the New York Times Building, in New York City. Thank you so much, Alex.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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