Ryan Kriger, author of How to Make Friends as an Adult, describes the approach he used to develop a group of friends after moving to Montpelier from New York City. He also shares advice for maintaining friendships, even during a pandemic.
Mentioned in the podcast:
Ryan Kriger: We’re in a weird moment right now where a lot of my baseline advice like “Get out to the house, find where people are gathering, walk up to random people, and say hi.” Obviously, that doesn’t apply in the middle of a pandemic. But I actually think a lot of this really kind of does still apply. In fact, some of it’s in a way easier, because if you’re trying to meet new people and you’re trying to meet people online, then you’re not even limited by geography.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Ryan Kriger is an author, lawyer, teacher and sometime comedian who lives in Montpelier. When he moved to Vermont about ten years ago, he decided that he needed to develop a plan for meeting people. That led to what he calls his “New in Town Project,” and eventually a nonfiction book, “How to Make Friends as an Adult.”
We recently spoke with Ryan Kriger to learn his suggestions about starting new friendships as a grownup.
Ryan Kriger: My full time job is I’m a lawyer and I teach at UVM, but I have kind of had this side project, which I’ve been calling the New In Town Project, about helping people learn how to make friends as an adult and to find community. And it’s based on my experience about 10 years ago when I moved from New York City to Vermont and I didn’t know anybody.
What was that like? First of all, when did you move? Did you go to Vermont for a job?
Ryan Kriger: Yeah, I got a job working for the state and it was kind of my dream job. So I had been living in New York City for nine years. I’d only ever lived in cities. I lived in D.C. and Seattle and Boston. Really the only thing holding me back from coming was I was in my mid thirties and I thought, “Do I really want to start over again from scratch at this point?” My first job out of college was in Seattle, and I was there for six months and I did not make a single friend while I was there. Seattle’s kind of an introverted place, and I think people are so transient that a lot of people don’t really…if they know you’re not sticking around, they don’t really bother too much. That was my experience at least. And I was just very unhappy in those six months. And so I took that as a lesson. Is this gonna be another Seattle situation? And yeah, that’s what I was really worried about.
The stereotype of Vermont is that people keep to themselves or at the very least, we live inside six months out of the year and don’t really see each other. Did you find that stereotypes held true in your first couple months in Vermont?
Ryan Kriger: No, not really. I made a plan. I made a strategy to get out and meet people, to aggressively meet people, even though I’m kind of an introvert and it was a little bit outside my comfort zone. I sought people out. I talked to people in restaurants, people working behind counters, and just random people in the street. I live in Montpelier. I lived downtown and was constantly going around introducing myself to people and things like that.
Could you describe the plan? What were some of the points on the plan as you developed it?
Ryan Kriger: The first part was just meeting people wherever they were, maybe making a point of introducing myself to people and striking up conversations wherever I could and then getting their contact information. And then just be very blunt. “Look, hey, I’m new. I don’t know anybody. You seem cool. Maybe you wanna grab a beer or get a coffee sometime?” And surprisingly enough, a lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people were open to that. And as I went through this, what I figured out was that a lot of people want to meet more people. A lot of people want to make more friends. So if someone asks you, “hey, you’re cool, I want to hang out with you,” a lot people are like, “that’s great, that’s exactly what I want as well.” Not everybody is going to react that way. And the book and my talks go into a lot of that as well. How to do it right. How do it wrong. People aren’t going to want to be your friend. That’s OK. Dealing with rejection that sort of thing. That was the first step.
Ryan Kriger: I used to walk around with a piece of paper because I have terrible memory and I can’t remember names. Whenever I met somebody, after we were done, I wrote down their name and some identifying characteristics that I saw. I didn’t always ask for their number the first time I met them. That’s the thing about being in a small community. You’re going to see them again. You’re going to see them around town. So really you’re building to eventually meeting people and then establishing those relationships.
Ryan Kriger: We’re in a weird moment right now where a lot of my baseline advice like “Get out to the house, find where people are gathering, walk up to random people, and say hi.” Obviously, that doesn’t apply in the middle of a pandemic. But I actually think a lot of this really kind of does still apply. In fact, some of it’s in a way easier, because if you’re trying to meet new people and you’re trying to meet people online, then you’re not even limited by geography. And if you’re trying to connect and build community, then it doesn’t matter where you live. You have this pool of people through Facebook or whatever, and you can connect with them more so than you would if you were ignoring them because you’re focusing on the people around you.
A reflection, just hearing what you’re saying, is there’s this technology that’s evolved around dating people where there’s sites that you can create a profile and say, these are my interests. Maybe there isn’t anything that exists if you just want to meet people as friends.
Ryan Kriger: There are Web sites like FriendFinder.com and Bumble, which is a dating site, has a Bumble BFF function so you can get friends instead. Now I would urge caution with these things because social media is rough. There’s all sorts of studies linking social media to depression and all sorts of other things. Anytime you’re going in a place where everyone’s presenting their idealized self. It’s like, in a way, it’s like high school, like like to the fifth power, you know. It’s everyone trying to pretend to be something they’re maybe not. And if you realize that it’s a lot easier.
When I first met the young man who was going to become my best friend throughout my teenage years, I was like, oh, my goodness, what a nerd. My first impression was I have nothing in common with this person. Our families went to the same church and in time we became absolutely inseparable. Maybe when it’s a little more close to commodification, you’re not living with those chances long enough for a friendship to develop.
Ryan Kriger: That’s a critical point that I put in the book, is that we all learned how to make friends in school. And in school, there are a million…you’re basically like stuck with this cadre of people who are all your age, probably similar demographics, similar interests. And you’re spending six hours a day with them every day. And so, yeah, you’re going to connect with some of them. Even if you didn’t connect at first, over time, just the shared experience is going to bring people together and create those friendships. In adulthood, everyone exists in their own little bubble. You just don’t have that natural bringing-together that gives people the time to figure out beyond first impressions, beyond superficial impressions, that this is a worthwhile person I want to get to know.
Ryan Kriger: What people do is as adults is they assume the same strategy that should have worked for them as kids should work now. And remember, when you’re a kid, you’re taught: don’t try too hard; don’t seem desperate for friends; that’s the last thing you want to do, that’s going to drive people away. But as an adult, being aloof and not trying means you’re just gonna be alone. You actually have to put in the effort. You have to kind of be a little vulnerable and say, “I’d like to hang out” and set yourself up for rejection. You know, if you are a kid and there’s “you wanna be my friend?” That works when you’re like three, but it doesn’t work in high school. It actually can work as an adult to be a little bit more upfront about it. And you kind of have to put in that effort. You can’t just assume it’s going to happen organically all the time.
Did you have different results in Montpelier than what your experience was in Seattle?
Ryan Kriger: Absolutely. The first thing was in Seattle, I used to go to work and then I went home and watched TV. I wasn’t putting myself out there. I wasn’t putting myself where the people were. The way our lives work is we’re scheduled and we have jobs. When the job is over, we’re tired, and we have errands to run. If you have time once a week to meet with someone, that is the time you have to devote to that person. And if no one’s willing to do the scheduling and follow up, you’re not going to connect with people. That’s the second part of it, you meet people and then you have to actually schedule things. You have to reach out and say, let’s hang out.
Ryan Kriger: I had a friend in New York, Cindy. I called her a nexus because she knew everybody and she loved to throw parties. I realized, after nine years in New York, a huge amount of my social circle just came from knowing her. My friends were basically her friends. She was the mayor or whatever you want to call them. She was the one who did the organizing. I showed up and these were my friends. When I came to Vermont, I realized I would have to do that. I have to be the nexus because no one was going to just randomly invite me to things because they didn’t know me. I’d have to be the one who did that. When I got here, I discovered that there were a lot of people, like I said, who had one friend or two friends. They had lived in Montpelier for 10 years and some of them were like hardcore introverts. Some of them just didn’t know where the people were. It was all people in their 30s and 20s. There were some older people or some people in their 40s, 50s. At one point, someone said, “You have this young professionals organization.” I’m said, “No, no, no. It’s not networking.” That’s not what this is about at all. There’s nothing wrong with networking. Networking is when you go to an organization with a business purpose in mind and everybody knows you’re doing that. Great. That’s wonderful. This is a very different thing.
Ryan Kriger: I started organizing events like, let’s go to a movie, hey, let’s go have a picnic or let’s go meet up at Three Penney or at the Black Door when it was around. One thing I learned from that was that when you’re organizing an event, you have to be really specific with what you’re organizing. You don’t say, hey, does anyone want to do anything? Because people basically wait to see what the opportunity is and then they decide whether or not they’re going to do it or not. And if you’re vague generally speaking, people are not as responsive. But if you say, hey, at seven o’clock tonight, I’m going to be at Three Penny. If you can get one other person to commit so you can say, “Hey, Cliff and I are going to be at Three Penny.” Now it’s a thing. It’s, there is an event. Then fear of missing out kicks in. Then people want to be there and it works.
Ryan Kriger: I started arranging to hang out with people every Wednesday night. It was never a plan; like, I’m going to do a Wednesday night thing. We got together on Wednesday, we had a good time, and said, hey, you wanna do it next week? We did. It became a tradition. Eventually, 20, 30 people were showing up to this thing. People who I didn’t know were showing up and saying, “I heard there’s a thing.” Someone titled it not me, but someone else titled it the Wednesday Night Drinking Club. That eventually dissipated and people moved away or went the other way. But now here in Montpelier, I have this core of friends I made then. I don’t need to do the organization like I used to do. I don’t do that as much anymore because that was about building the community and making the friends. And I did that.
There’s another book I’m aware of that I haven’t read called Bowling Alone. It talks about these changes in culture where there are traditional ways of meeting people: work, church through your kids, school, and these organizations, Elks or what have you, the Grange Hall, are less important culturally than they than they used to be. People are having fewer kids or are choosing not to have kids at all. In a way, it strikes me as a little bit like the diet where we still eat like farmers; even though we’re no longer burning these massive amounts of calories, we’re still eating meat and potatoes. We still have this idea about how you form a social circle that’s based on things that have changed and aren’t really there. It sounds like you need a strategy like what you came up with, which seems really pragmatic and not like magical like it used to happen, perhaps.
Ryan Kriger: Part of it might be, I’m a lawyer. That’s what we do. We say here’s a problem, how are we going to strategize a solution, to figure it out? You mentioned all these different places where people meet and things can happen somewhat organically. Interestingly in Vermont, I think it’s bars. Those are kind of like the late night places where people go and gather. We don’t have a ton of late night coffee houses or others. That’s really unfortunate if you don’t drink or for whatever reason, don’t want to be hanging out in bars, it’s probably the place where people are most open to just walking up to a stranger, saying hi, and striking up conversations. You’ve got to be careful, obviously, talking to people in bars. One of the things I talked about in the book is if you are a single person and you are actually looking for friends, you really have to put romantic stuff out of your mind because people go into bars and some of them are looking to meet someone. The problem is if you’re focusing on all the people of the gender you’re are attracted to, then you’re ignoring half the bar who might be the people who might be your friend.
That’s a good point. What surprised you the most in in doing your experiment, if you want to call it that in going through that process where you had the Wednesday night gatherings?
Ryan Kriger: One of the things that surprised me, was how easy it was. I really it worked far better than I expected — maybe it was a lightning in a bottle situation. I don’t want to promise people, but I moved here in on January 1st, 2011. I threw myself a birthday party in early May, four months later. I looked around my apartment. I counted and there were 26 people in my apartment. I never had that when I lived in New York City. You’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process.
I’ll ask what did you learn about yourself if you don’t mind sharing.
Ryan Kriger: Oh my. Well, since I’ve moved to Vermont, I’ve learned that I’m a lot more of an introvert than I thought I was. I learned that I actually like organizing parties to bring people together. I don’t actually like being at parties. I will organize a party and then hide in my bedroom for about an hour during the party because it just gets overwhelming. It’s just too much. When people invite me to parties, I’ll go and I always leave early.
Ryan Kriger: Early on, I was always trying to hang out with people and get together. I think a lot of that came out of a sense of anxiety and uncertainty at not having a community and feeling alone. Once you have the community, once you feel stable, then you don’t need to see everybody every week. You know, they’re there. You know, you have solid relationships and you’re coming at it from a foundation of confidence. If you haven’t seen someone for a few weeks, it’s fine. I’m now at a stage where I actually have to kind of take my own advice more and remind myself — because part of the advice, too, is relationships require maintenance. You can’t just assume they’re going to keep going. You’ve got to keep calling people and checking in and scheduling things.
Ryan Kriger: There was actually a study on a college campus about friendships and what distinguished those acquaintances from best friendships. And all it is, is time. It’s the more time you spend with someone, the closer you become with them. And I think it said…what was the number? It was something like it takes 100 hours of interaction to forge a best friendship. That’s not actually that hard. If you think about it over the course of a year, you find yourself hanging out with people more and more. You have to have that common foundation of experiences and having been through things together. You’re not going to have that with everybody, which is fine. You have to put in the effort. It takes effort to forge friendships. And in school, that’s easy. One hundred hours is the first few weeks of school…you’re all together.
There was a little bit of a joke at the beginning of the stay at home order. The order was don’t go out in the evening, don’t go out to eat, stay at home, stay indoors, don’t get together. And it was like, oh, this is just life in Vermont. At least in the wintertime, this is how how we roll. I guess the question I’m getting to is there’s an element of what we’re going through right now with virtually everyone in North America and a lot of the world being isolated. But there’s aspects of that to Vermont life, especially if you live rurally and especially during the indoor months. Maybe there’s things that we can learn about connecting now that will help us out in living in a rural state.
Ryan Kriger: First off, a lot of it is about communication. And this can apply pandemic or not. Just texting someone saying, how are you doing? Communicate to that person that you were thinking about them. When you receive a random text from somebody being, “I was just thinking about you. How are you doing?” That feels really good. That is going to lift your mood. That is going to make you feel like someone is thinking of you. And I think everyone right now could probably think of an old friend who they haven’t talked to in a year or in six months. And how difficult is it to pick up your phone and just shoot a quick text? That’s all it takes. People can do that year round; they can do that in the winter months. And also, we’re in this era now that makes it so much easier. When I was a kid, we would talk on the phone. Right? You picked up the phone and if the phone line was available, you had to talk to them. Now it’s so funny. A lot of people have the notion that devoting an hour of your day to specifically talking to one person on the phone is kind of weird, but with texting, you can talk to them and they’ll get back to you when they get back. It’s not a huge imposition on your time. There are virtual happy hours going on now. I know someone who is doing a virtual book group. She just went on Facebook and said, or someone on Facebook said, “Hey, let’s read this book together.” And so they’re doing that.
Ryan Kriger: I’m hopeful that Zoom and all these new tools will become more a part of our day to day now that people are getting more comfortable with them; which means that people will be able to connect face to face with old friends. Your community might actually expand beyond just your neighbors. I do think that it’s still critically important to have those relationships with your neighbors. And have, you know, real life relationships. But one thing we’re gonna learn from this is how much we really do need each other. How much isolation is not good for us.
Ryan Kriger: Making friends is not just great for your mental health. It’s great for your well-being, obviously, but it’s also great for your physical health. There have been studies that show that social isolation can have the same impact on mortality as obesity or smoking. It can shorten your life. If someone is having trouble motivating to put in the effort – because it does take effort – think about the effort that people take to go to the gym or go for a run or to eat healthily. Making friends is part of your health regime. Maybe that will help people think of it as more of a necessity than a nice thing to do.
Ryan Kriger: And similarly, there’s an ongoing study, I think was a Harvard study, they had been tracking these kids since the 1910s, 1920s, and they’d been tracking them in their family for the past 80 to 100 years. They found that the number one correlation as far as outcomes in longevity was relationships. It wasn’t wealth. It wasn’t activity. It wasn’t anything like that. It was the people who had the relationships in the community lived longer than those who did not. So it really is. And especially in a place like Vermont where we do have issues in terms of mental health crises, we have a fairly high suicide rate, having a community, having a support network is critically important in those areas. It is really kind of a matter of life and death. It really is a health issue.
Have you been doing things to get together physically with your friends during this time?
Ryan Kriger: I’ve had some friends over, not during the really bad time, when everyone was supposed to be totally isolated. More recently, people have come over and we’ve sat on my porch like six feet across from each other. We’ve gone for walks in Hubbard Park with our with our masks on and our dogs and whatever. More recently, I’ve been going for walks. So yeah, trying to do that. I had my birthday in May. We had a Zoom birthday party. I actually went and I got a cake at Birchgrove and I cut it up and I drove around town with my girlfriend and we handed out cake so that everyone had a piece.
That’s a great idea.
Ryan Kriger: That was cool, too, because it gave us an opportunity to check in and just say hi for a short amount of time.
There’s these stories that people are looking for real estate in Vermont and some people are buying things sight unseen because they see how our state has fared comparatively better during the crisis. And we have this very low population density so there’s a way in which we’re safer. So potentially we’ll be having new neighbors. What can we do, we who live here, when people new are coming in so they might not need to come up with a plan the way that you did?
Ryan Kriger: Montpelier is a pretty transient place. I think it’s not typical necessarily of Vermont communities. I think that one thing we can do is kind of let go of the whole how many generations have you been here thing. Like “I’m legitimate and you’re not just because you’ve only been here two generations instead of seven” or whatever. Kind of like that. So we need people. We want to be welcoming to people. I believe in Burlington at one point it might not be doing it anymore, but they’re actually working on creating kind of a welcome wagon organization to reach out to people as they move into the community and approach them. I have had people come leave baked goods on my front doorstep. I think that’s one of the nicest things you can do. You have a new neighbor, someone in your neighborhood. You bake a banana bread and you go over and you bring them the banana bread.
Ryan Kriger: You want a diverse group of friends and you want to be very open minded about who you want to be friends with. Don’t just look for people your age, your ethnicity or whatever. Be open to be friendly with everybody. There’s a wide world out there. It’s amazing who you can meet.
That’s Ryan Kriger, the author of a nonfiction book, “How to Make Friends as an Adult.”