"So, how do you know Nicole*?” I shout to my companion over the lunchtime din of the crowded food court in the city. “We worked together,” says the woman in front of me, barely glancing up from her salad. I nod encouragingly, mentally prepping my witty anecdote for when she asks how I met Nicole. My nod slows to a standstill.
Instead, Alison turns back to her salad. Despite the roar of a thousand office workers, the silence is deafening. I try again: “So, how long have you been married?” Alison: “About a year.” Back to the salad. Oh.
“Have you guys bought your place or are you renting?” Alison: “Bought.” Waiter? Cancel the tonic, double the gin.
It’s not Alison’s fault. She’s perfectly pleasant, if a little shy. But she clearly feels like she’s at a job interview, and who can blame her? I’m on a mission to find a new best friend and Alison is today’s candidate, nominated by our mutual friend, Nicole. It’s like I’m running my own version of Best Friend Idol and Alison’s got stage fright.
I do have friends – I’m not a total Nigel No Mates – but they’re scattered all over the world: in my home town of Adelaide; in London, where I lived for five years; and a few here in Sydney. While I’m super grateful for the pals I’ve got, I’ve only made two or three new friends since I moved to Sydney with my husband in 2007. Three new friends in five years – I’m not exactly the prom princess of popularity.
What I really feel the lack of here in Sydney is what the kids call a BFF: a Best Friend Forever. I want a friend who not only gets why I think spending an entire Saturday watching a Teen Mom marathon is a valuable use of my time, but who will rush to be at my side should disaster strike at 4am on a Wednesday.
I want someone who makes life’s mountains look manageable. So I’m going to spend a month doing whatever it takes to find my new best friend.
First, the set-up. Because my husband and I have been together for a million years, I’ve never had to enlist my girlfriends’ help in that age-old ritual: matchmaking. I think they owe me.
I dash off an email to all the women I know, from close friends to work acquaintances, asking them to set me up with women they think I might click with. Part of me expects to be met with radio silence. Will my friends want to share their friends with me? Won’t they think Best Friend Idol is a bit, well, sad? Surprisingly, the responses are overwhelmingly positive.
For added moral support, I speak to American writer Rachel Bertsche, who went “friending” for an entire year and chronicled her adventures in her book, MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search For A New Best Friend (Random House, $27.95). She found friends through blind dates and online meet-up groups, by taking courses and even “chatting up” strangers in restaurants and shops.
“I didn’t want to tell the world, ‘I have no friends!’ It felt so embarrassing and pathetic,” she tells me. “We feel we’re supposed to have friends – that’s the easy part. It’s meant to be finding a romantic partner that’s harder.
“It was once I started to talk to people and realised it wasn’t just me that I was able to make it public. I started getting emails from people saying, ‘Oh my God, I thought I was the only one!’”I find myself wishing I lived in the US – I could totally be best friends with Bertsche. But back to the task at hand.
While I begin the email dance to work out times and locations with my set-up friend dates, I turn to the one place people congregate more than anywhere else on the planet: the internet.
I log on to Meetup.com, the world’s largest online network of local groups. Meetup is a free service that lists more than 2000 special interest groups, whose members meet regularly for everything from salsa dancing to philosophical discussions.
I take matters into my own hands and start a writers’ group. If I can’t find women, then they can find me. I book a room at my neighbourhood centre and advertise on Meetup.com. Advertising for friends. It feels like Best Friend Idol has hit a new low.
I exchange emails with a few interested would-be writers, but I’m still terrified that no-one will turn up on the night. So I can hardly believe it when more than 20 arrive – it’s standing room only! But writers tend to be an eccentric bunch and some of these folks are, in the nicest possible way, just plain weird. There’s the elderly Letters To The Editor fan who bores us rigid reading out his missives. Then there’s the nervous woman who tells us she intends to write a novel about travelling back in time to colonial Australia. My eyes dart sideways and meet the similarly discomfited stare of a smartly dressed woman, and we each stifle a smile. When our time-travelling storyteller has finished her talk (“And then I married Ned Kelly!”), I walk over and introduce myself. Jackie is a public servant who dreams of writing teenage fiction. She agrees to a coffee after the meeting and we’re both pleased to find we have lots in common – not least our mirth at the strange scribes from the meeting. I’m putting this one down as a tentative success.
The next week, I’ve arranged to have lunch with Anni, a beauty blogger and make-up artist. She arrives at the cafe wearing the most fabulous rainbow sunglasses. If there’s such a thing as friend love at first sight, this may well be it.
Anni quickly begins ticking my BFF boxes. Obsessed with Instagram? Check. Chronic cyberchondriac? Check. Able to explain in detail how to do a fishtail braid? Check!
Before I know it, she’s invited me to a baking party at her friend’s house. Ordinarily, spending my Sunday evening baking with a bunch of strangers would be up there – along with watching all six Star Wars movies back-to-back – on my list of things I really don’t want to do. And yet I find I’m thrilled. It’s one thing to meet up for lunch with a stranger at my behest. But a counter-invite says Anni likes me enough to allow me in the same room as her proper friends!
Buoyed, I confirm and attend three more set-up dates and all – with the exception of Alison the reserved accountant – are remarkably fruitful.
I also convert one of my Twitter friends, journalist Rhiannon, into In Real Life (IRL) friend, and discover that she’s just as much fun in person as she is in 140 characters. There may not be a BFF in there, but the “contacts” list in my phone is looking pleasingly plumper.
Why do we find making friends so much trickier as grown-ups than we did as kids? Bertsche thinks it’s because the friendships we forge in our formative years are more about proximity than common interest – you’re sitting at the next desk, therefore you’re my friend. But in our 20s and beyond, we have to work a whole lot harder at friendships.
“When you’re at school or university, a lot of forced contact means you become close really quickly,” she says. “When we’re adults, we have all these things pulling us in different directions and it’s hard to see someone enough to build a close connection. You have to actually say, ‘Let’s get together again.’”
There is one area of adult life where “forced contact” is still in play: work. According to a Gallup study in the US, 30 per cent of employees say they have a best friend at work. As a freelance writer, I spend most of my work time alone at home. My work pals are my dogs. It suits me, but it does mean no water cooler chit-chat. Time to change that.
I worked for Danielle briefly years ago, writing for a magazine she was editing. She left to have a baby and we largely lost touch. I call to suggest we catch up over coffee, but I’m worried we won’t have much to talk about. After all, Danielle is a stay-at-home mum with a toddler. Am I going to have to talk about breastfeeding and day care?
“I’m so glad you got in touch” are the first words out of Danielle’s mouth when we meet. “I haven’t made a new friend in ages and now I really miss it, despite not thinking about it much before. Mothers’ group didn’t work for me and my husband and I are really lazy with cultivating friendships. We’ve been in a bit of a bubble and I miss people!”
That’ll be a “no” on the breastfeeding details, I note happily. Two hours later, I’m “friend crushing” hard on Danielle. We are telling each other stuff we’ve never told anyone else. I feel giddy.
Bertsche believes these friend infatuations are common: “I took a trip with a friend from work and when I got home I said to my husband, ‘I think she’s The One!’ and then the next week it’s like, ‘No, it’s not her.’ Everyone is a potential friend – you don’t know where the next person is going to come from.”
As for me, my month has yielded almost a dozen first “friend dates” and three follow-up dates, with several more in the diary. I’ve flung myself out of my comfort zone in ways I never imagined and spotted potential new friends in places I’d never thought to look. I’m sure my new BFF is out there somewhere. Best Friend Idol has been a runaway ratings success.