I’m in a quaint little west London pub, perched on a stool.
How do you form meaningful friendships in the loneliest city in the world?
Cider in hand, chicken and leek pie with mash on its way, I’m nodding along as my new friend Corey tells me about her office nemesis. We’re deep into personal revelations by now, because this is at least our fourth friendship date. We’ve covered all the essentials: our feelings about love, favourite dog breeds, our strong opinions on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. We met doing a work thing and then casually, courageously, stealthily moved into friendship territory with a WhatsApp emoji exchange, a coffee, a walk in the park and an afternoon at the cinema. We’ve reached that level of friendship where we fully expect one another to attend birthday dinners, be transparent about our mental health and support each other’s decision to have pancakes at 3pm on a Saturday - writes standard.co.uk
My friendship with Corey was part of a larger befriending campaign for me. I have become, by necessity, a serial befriender. Almost exactly three years ago I moved from Sydney to London on my own. I’d just got out of a seven-year relationship and come to the end of a job, so naturally I got on a plane and put 10,500 miles between myself and everything I knew. The drizzle, the proximity to continental Europe, the history in every sandstone building — I was enchanted by it all. But I knew almost immediately that London would make me feel small, that it was a great rollicking big city with a reputation for silence on public transport and a typically British sort of stoicism.
I knew what I had to do to settle in here: get a regular coffee place, learn how to use the Tube, earn a living, make new friends. It was that latter challenge — convincing strangers to hang out with me — that I took to with particular enthusiasm. I knew I just wouldn’t be able to call London home until I had collected a group of kind, funny, smart people who made me feel welcome. I began almost immediately: being overly friendly with people at the first place that gave me freelance editing work, following people my age on Twitter for the express purpose of sliding into their DMs to ask for coffee, fearlessly inviting strangers out for wine. Anything to keep loneliness at bay.
It’s not just me who feels this way, of course. You don’t have to relocate across the world in order to suddenly feel alone. It could be to do with any sort of change in your life: a break-up, a new job, a significant birthday, marriage, kids. For Alice, it was getting to 29 and going freelance. ‘I still met up with my work friends but I’d lost the social hit I got from the office. Some days I’d see no one but the corner shopkeeper,’ she says. ‘I’m naturally quite introspective and left to my own devices can become quite hermit-like — which made things worse as I’d get nervous before social occasions.’ So Alice actually did something similar to me and deliberately set up a befriending strategy.
‘I started seeking out new friends through other means — I took up yoga, tried to say yes to any invitations I received and made a rule not to cancel. If I met someone I liked that I wanted to get to know better, I’d ask for their email and suggest coffee. Now I work in an office again which is very social — and I treasure that. But I make sure to keep up with outside friends, too.’
With eight million strangers to potentially convert into friends, you’d think loneliness would be impossible in London. And yet, a Time Out survey from 2017 found that London was the loneliest city in the world, with 55 per cent of Londoners confessing they feel lonely here sometimes. We are significantly less likely to chat with a stranger (just smile at someone on the Tube to test your resolve on that one) and less likely to bump into friends because of the city’s layout. In fact, according to a study by the Co-op and the British Red Cross, more than nine million people across the UK are either always or often lonely. Loneliness does not discriminate by age, postcode or demographic.
‘Loneliness can be linked to feeling like you don’t have enough, or the right friends,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Abigael San, who sees a lot of clients feeling despondent but sometimes unable to identify their own loneliness. ‘But it can also be because someone has focused all their attention on themselves or become preoccupied with something to the extent that they’re not connecting with people. The first thing I ask them to do is gently acknowledge what’s going on. The first step to not feeling lonely is actually to name what you’re feeling.’
This is certainly true of my experience. We are often frightened to say the words ‘I’m lonely’ because they carry a certain shame, but when you do, you rob that feeling of some of its power over you. The next step, Dr San says, is to take your socialising up a notch. ‘From there, I’d encourage them to relinquish their safety behaviours and challenge themselves to do something towards feeling connected — which might mean taking a conversation with someone past the superficial level and really talking.’
This is exactly what I’ve been doing the past three years: ditching my safety behaviours (for me, spending more time with Netflix than other human beings) and proactively chasing genuine connections. Besides my ruthlessly friendly manner to strangers I like and respect, I also try to make our friendships authentic and profound. The quickest shortcut to that kind of intimacy — the kind that actually banishes loneliness — is to make yourself vulnerable.
When I meet someone out for a cuppa or a tequila, I don’t mess around. I speed through small talk, divulge personal things about myself and ask questions like a friendly investigative journalist, until I feel like I’m actually getting to know someone. I once got every gory detail of a recent break-up from a new friend on our first outing; I could memorise the sequence of events that lead to the broken family of another; and one time I made a work meeting last three full hours because we had so much deeply personal information to exchange. If you want to make a new friend, you’ve got to do it properly — you’ve got to commit.
And so here I am, three years on, with a collection of kind, funny, smart friends. People who go to the pub with me, who check on me when I’m down, who make me novelty birthday cakes, who tolerate my many dog photos, who lift me up and make me a better person. My new London friends don’t just help me avoid loneliness; they help make me the person I am. Just because I have a group of delightful friends now doesn’t mean I’ll stop asking people for coffee. That’s the gorgeous thing about friendships: you can always find room in your life for more.
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