How to Start Meaningful Friendships in a Socially Distant World
5 creative ways to cultivate stronger relationships
Funny story: this time last year, I set an “intention statement” for previous year vowing that it would be the “year of relationships.” Ha! Ha ha ha.
As a perfect example of life throwing curveballs and things not always going according to plan… the pandemic made it difficult to cultivate relationships in the way I was used to (happy hour with coworkers, meeting friends for coffee, traveling, etc.).
Nurturing friendships, meeting new people… this is often challenging for me as an introvert, and that’s why I knew it needed to take priority in previous year. I crave connection like anyone else. Little did we know, 2020 would be the year we needed it most.
Connection is like a daily vitamin for our mental health. And in a time of overwhelming anxiety, stress, and loneliness, our friendships are lifegiving.
I realized that I couldn’t wait around for things to return to “normal” before making good on my promise. So I asked myself, how do I adapt to this new environment and continue to be “social” even when we can’t be together physically?
I’ve been intentional about nurturing existing relationships and making new ones. I wanted to grow in areas I’ve previously been neglectful — being the first to reach out, responding promptly to messages, and scheduling time to catch up. Rather than asking, “Want to catch up soon?” I’d say, “Hey, I’d love to catch up, let’s FaceTime this week — what day works for you?”
Frequent FaceTime calls are a given, so I thought I’d share some of the more creative ways I’ve made meaningful connections this past year (which I plan to continue in 2021!):
Go Old School and Write Letters to Someone on the Other Side of the World
There’s something really freeing about writing to a stranger. You get to know each other through your words, rather than your carefully cultivated, outward-facing social media.
I was enchanted with the idea of exchanging handwritten letters with a pen pal and learning more about different parts of the world in a time when we can’t visit new places ourselves. I created a profile on a site called PenPal World, which at first seemed a little sketchy but has been around for a long time.
Please remember to be cautious (internet safety!), especially when it comes to sharing personal information with strangers. You’re encouraged to exchange messages through the platform first before giving out your email, social media, or address.
I set up a brand new email account specifically for writing to my pen pals. If you want to exchange handwritten letters but are hesitant to share your address, consider getting a PO box. I’ve received mail from only one of my pen pals (she lives in Germany!), and her letters are beautiful! She decorates each envelope and writes in a loopy script, and always includes a postcard from different parts of the country.
Image by the Author
Join a Facebook Group or a Community of Like-Minded People
When nobody in your circle shares your interests, joining an online community of like-minded people is a great way to make new friends. Some of my interests include photography, Young Adult fiction, creative writing, and freelancing. Let me assure you there’s a Facebook group for just about everything.
My mom, for example, got really into true crime this year and joined a Facebook group when she began following a newsworthy murder investigation.
Many online courses now boast exclusive communities, like private Facebook groups or similar spaces for interaction and discussion. When I started writing on Medium, I took Tom Kuegler’s “Medium Mastery” course (FYI, affiliate link) and joined his private Slack channel for students.
Start Your Own Virtual Book Club
Need an excuse to schedule regular get-togethers with friends? Look no further. A book club gives you something to share, as well as an automatic topic of conversation. And you create the rules. There don’t need to be any stuffy, intellectual debates (unless that’s what you’re looking for, then by all means…).
If it’s too intimidating to start your own club, go online. I took part in a virtual book club led by YA author Alexandra Bracken. She calls it the “Brackfast Book Club” (very clever), and participants vote on a new book each month.
You’re invited to join a Slack channel to take part in fun chats about the book during “live” weekly sessions. But you can also log on at any time to add to the conversation or chat with other members.
Find an Accountability Group
We need people in our lives to hold us accountable, whether personally, professionally, spiritually, etc. Plug into a group of peers that have made a pact to support each other.
Before the pandemic, I joined a biweekly Bible study with a group of young professionals from my church. I didn’t realize how much this group meant to me until we began meeting virtually in March, and our discussions helped me make sense of what was going on in the world.
It gave me a safe space to open up about how I was struggling in those first few months of quarantine. These friends and mentors held me accountable during a difficult season, offering encouragement and pointing me toward Christ.
Sign Up for the Professional Networking Equivalent of Speed Dating
Virtual speed networking… don’t cringe just yet! Networking from the comfort of your own home is not nearly so awkward as it often is in person.
I’ve attended several online conferences and participated in “speed networking” sessions, which automatically pair you with other attendees for a 3-minute face-to-face chat. This short time frame was just long enough for us to introduce ourselves and decide whether to continue the conversation outside of the conference.
I’ve made many new LinkedIn connections, but I’ve also scheduled several follow-up phone calls and Zoom meetings, as well. Virtual networking has also helped me get my freelance writing business off the ground, as this is how I connected with several of my clients. My speed networking sessions gave me an opportunity to practice my “elevator pitch” and gain confidence as a beginning freelancer.
Making friends and nurturing relationships doesn’t look the same anymore. But it certainly doesn’t mean we should give up when it comes to meeting new people or seeking social connection.
When the game changes, we have to adapt. That often requires creativity. But if I’ve learned anything in previous year, it’s that going outside of my comfort zone is absolutely worth it when it comes to making meaningful connections.