A few weeks ago, I went to go see a friend in Chicago. I normally don't talk on planes, because I’m usually busy trying to covertly write erotica without the people next to me seeing the word “nipple,” but I’d struck up a conversation with the kind-faced boy beside me that had resumed on and off throughout the trip. As we got off the plane, he walked me down to meet my friend, who rolled her eyes good-naturedly as I introduced him.
“This is Scott!” I chirped. “He’s in IT. We totally worked in the same Department of Water Resources building in 2008!”
“Co-ool,” Andi said, mouth quirking as she ushered me toward the El. “I knew that was going to happen,” she murmured to the friend she’d brought along.
“What?” I said, twisting over my shoulder to wave at Scott.
“She said, ‘Kate’s going to come off that plane with a friend,’” Andi’s companion chimed in.
“And you did,” Andi finished. “Surprise!”
I’m always a little taken aback when stuff like this happens because it makes me sound like a mouth-panting hug machine: Someone who names her dog Pynchon and believes in the power of adventure. Which is totally fine; I love hanging around people like that. But it’s not me. When left to my own devices, I tend to make angry faces out of my stomach rolls and read "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." I am a fuckin’ curmudgeon.
All the same, though, I really do like making friends. I find lots of people genuinely interesting, and there’s always a journalistic part of my hindbrain screaming, “Story angle! Story angle!” every time an acquaintance reveals that she sculpts sangria pitchers out of mud made from every season’s first rain or whatever. And in a city like San Francisco, where people drape themselves in their hobbies like bright raincoats, there’s always someone newly fascinating to talk to.
It is surprisingly difficult, however, to make the leap between “Dude With A Pet Rat on the MUNI” to “Dude With A Pet Rat Lounging at the Informal Neighborhood Soiree.” In our busy, busy world, lots of people just don’t have time to take the friendship plunge. I hate to say it, but a first friend-date can make or break a future-fantasy of you and a potential friend holding hands and solving crime together.
A few weeks ago, some of you asked for a how-to guide on the navigation of the First-Time Friend-Lunch. Caveat: I am a huge, awkward creeper whose first impulse, upon meeting people I like, is to earnestly but forcefully ask, “Do you want to be my friend?” (I wish this came from an automatic consent-seeking place, but it … doesn’t.) So perhaps I am not the expert.
Here, though, are five tips that have helped me take the shaky first steps toward drunkenly calling someone at 3 AM to declare them your Bro For Life:
1. Know Thy Purpose
This is absolutely key. Just last week, I went on what I thought was maybe a date-date and what turned out to be a networking endeavor. I’d met this person very briefly at a party, where I’d clearly done more earnest discussion of my writing-related career plans than I remembered. I’d hardly sat down and leaned forward ever-so-slightly before she was shoving her business card between us.
Luckily, I don’t think she realized that for me, waterproof mascara basically means I’m preparing to possibly go to some pretty sweaty lengths later in the evening. A little well-placed fake partner mentions here and there smoothed the remaining tension out of her shoulders, and we ended up having a lovely chat. No harm done -- but it could have been mighty awkward.
In that light, try your best to determine beforehand whether this date is of a professional, platonic or romantic nature. Not only will this determine your outfit -- I’d worn a pencil skirt on this particular occasion, for godssakes -- but it can help to take the pressure off the whole affair. This purpose can be flexible, but I find it’s most helpful to set an intention (as the yoga-types say it) at the beginning of the affair. When in doubt, aim for fewer possible orgasm scenarios: if you're unsure if it's a romantic date, treat it like a friendly one until you're proven otherwise.
That way, you can set the tone for the entire affair without making anyone feel threatened or uncomfortable.
2. Pick an Activity (and a Conversation Topic)
Oh God. Maybe you’re capable of letting silence hang in a conversation, but I am absolutely not. To avoid a Kate Conway-style panic monologue (“Do you like guinea pigs, I like guinea pigs, did you know they run in herds in the wild? I also have some facts about crows I’d like to share!”), pick a structured activity that doesn’t require too much fast moving around or stress. I like things like gallery exhibits or aquariums because I am a big nerd who loves both lionfish and Cindy Sherman, and because they allow the two of you to have some quiet time if things are getting a little too intense.
Failing that, I always come to friend-dates with a few nuggets of information to share with the person in question. This can be as simple as scanning the news a few minutes before leaving the house (“Yo, did you hear about Ryan Lochte and Prince Harry’s naked billiards competition?”) or as complicated as reading the Wikipedia page for the cashew nut. I think of these as my trivia security blankets, but they’ve helped spark many a memorable conversation.
3. Let Them Do Most of the Talking
This goes right along with #2. This is a cliché, but it’s also incredibly true, at least among most self-absorbed twentysomethings I know: People like to talk about themselves. You don’t have to pepper them with questions, but now’s the time to practice those active listening skills you honed in the 4th grade and then never used again. Pick out key words or people they mention and ask them for clarification.
If you’re at a structured activity, ask them what they think of the composition of the blue-ringed octopus, or whether they’ve ever seen a Hopper in the wild. If you’ve found yourself on a boring friend-date (and they happen), you can pretend you’re Anderson Cooper’s assistant interviewing people for his talk show. If it’s going well, you’re accomplishing what you wanted in the first place: learning more about fascinating people.
4. Make ‘Em Run the Weird Gauntlet
Most people I know have a Freakout Button. They’ll be totally normal, cool and collected, fluttering coy glances at their dinner partners from under their eyelashes, and then -- BAM. One person mentions "The Secret Garden," and they’re suddenly under the table keening with emotion and mumbling, “Dickon,” over and over through choked, snotty tears.
I call this reaction “Making People Run the Weird Gauntlet,” and it’s my very favorite activity. I have about a zillion Freakout Buttons thrumming right below the vaguely charming surface, and all it takes is for someone to, say, even mention Neal Stephenson before I’m clutching at my own shirt in dystopic novel-related ecstasy. This has pushed away the faint of heart (I’m looking at you, boy from voice acting class), but I think it gives people a good idea of what they’re getting into. Because you have absolutely nothing to lose in this relationship, now is the perfect time to abandon all pretense of normality if that’s just not natural for you. If you’re secretly a giant weirdo, might as well let your freak flag fly now rather than later.
And if their Freakout Button just happens to be one of your own, well, your friend-date just turned into a Life Partner date. Congratulations!
5. Have An Out
But what if the unthinkable happens? What if, 20 minutes into the whole affair, you suddenly realize that the dude keeps trying to plant kisses on your jaw line? What if she turns out to be a Todd Akin supporter? What if the magic just isn’t happening?
Just like on a romantic date, it’s vital to have an out. That aforementioned fake partner mention, previously employed to reassure others of your platonic intentions, can also be used to derail an oncoming flirtation-train. Well-placed political hints are great, too, though tread cautiously to avoid sparking a political debate. If you’re at all in doubt, I suggest preemptively scheduling another activity roughly an hour after this first one begins. That way, if things start to go south, you won’t even be lying when you tell her you’re late for your book-binding class.
Have faith, though! At the end of the day, it’s just coffee with a stranger. What have you got to lose?
If you have any other tips for friend-dates, share them in the comments! Soon, we’ll all be indulging in shopping montages and building forts made out of John Keats first editions with our new best buds. Mazel tov!
Kate is giving you the Eager Friendship Eye over at @katchatters.