Making New Friends During a Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles. Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and maintaining, pandemic friends.

It took a pandemic, a layoff and last year’s racial-justice protests to impel Margo Gabriel, a travel and food writer, to finally fulfill a long-held aspiration: to move to Lisbon from Boston. “I was like, ‘OK, I really need to think about next steps,’” Ms. Gabriel, 34, said recently. “I’m getting older.” She applied for, and was accepted to, a two-year master’s program at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa. She arrived in October.

Forming new relationships in Lisbon was a priority, but she worried about making the connections she needed to thrive in her new home, especially during the pandemic. “I’m an introvert by nature,” Ms. Gabriel said, “so I’m easily overwhelmed.” An editor she frequently works with recommended she reach out to another expat. They hit it off over coffee, finding solidarity in their shared identity as Black American women in Portugal. “We’ve been hanging out ever since,” she said.

The pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles: Perhaps you’ve moved yourself, or maybe you’re looking up after a year of social distancing to find your close friends are the ones who have relocated. And the guidance of public health officials to keep your distance, to mask up, to limit gatherings and to remain six feet apart? None of these are helpful for meeting new people and nurturing new friendships.

Nevertheless, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has studied friendship for more than three decades, has anecdotally observed what she described as an “explosion of friendships” last summer, particularly in her own Manhattan neighborhood — a display of optimism in the face of our oxymoronic collective isolation. It just takes a little more intention and a little more openness.

Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and keeping, pandemic friends.

“It’s a difficult time to connect with new people,” said Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. “The first question you can ask yourself is, ‘Is there someone you want to reconnect with?’” According to one study, rekindling “dormant ties,” or those you’ve lost touch with, is often easier than making new friends, because the individuals already trust one another. Look through your phone to see who you were texting this time last year, or reach out to a high school or college club you were affiliated with.

Lean on existing networks of friends and acquaintances, too. Though chance meetings in corridors or cafeterias may be infrequent these days, you can still turn casual connections, whether neighbors or work colleagues, into friends, or reach out to new people through shared acquaintances.

Or if that fails, join a virtual book club or a volunteer effort to connect with a stranger over a shared pastime. (It’s still possible!) Last year, Emily Beyda, a novelist, joined a roller-skating club with two other women in Los Angeles. It has since blossomed to around nine members who share techniques for new jumps, spins and tricks and linger after their practice has ended, just to talk.

And, with no clubs for dancing or reasons to go out, the group’s members have taken to dressing up: “Everyone’s showing up at 1 p.m. on a Sunday just looking gorgeous,” Ms. Beyda, 31, said. “Leopard-print bell bottoms, a gold lamé jumpsuit — dressed to the nines in the public park.”

Even if you feel as if your social muscles have atrophied, don’t brace yourself for rejection. Approaching strangers in public places might not feel so welcome these days, but “in general, people underestimate how much strangers like them,” Dr. Franco said.

Writing letters, sending voice memos, scheduling phone or video dates — keeping in touch during the pandemic doesn’t have to be impersonal, even if it’s not in person. Not long after Catherine Smith, 34, moved to rural Abingdon, Va., from Philadelphia, she started trading favorite hiking routes and local tips with a new friend over Instagram. A quintessential social media meet-cute, with one pandemic-specific hitch: “We still haven’t gotten to meet in person,” Ms. Smith said.

Aminatou Sow, who hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and wrote the book “Big Friendship” with Ann Friedman, suggested that friends try to avoid communicating over the same airwaves used for work. So if you video chat all the time for your job, don’t video chat your friends.

“We are two friends who love the Postal Service,” Ms. Sow said of herself and Ms. Friedman. Letter-writing can even be a way to meet new people across distances: In the spring, the writer Rachel Syme started a pen pal exchange called Penpalooza that has since connected more than 7,000 participants.

However you choose to stay in touch, keep it consistent: Send monthly postcards, tiny gifts or whatever baked good you’ve been perfecting recently, or get a weekly phone call on the books.

A year ago, frequent, granular discussions about how you handle exposure to disease weren’t especially common among even close pals. Now, they’ve probably become hallmarks of your relationships. Having open, candid conversations can help buoy friendships along by establishing shared expectations and trust.

“Part of making friends in adulthood — in general, but particularly in this moment — is trying to figure out how you fit into someone’s life,” Ms. Friedman said.

Ms. Sow added: “The stating of intentions is the first place to start. In this pandemic moment, I think that is also really important to remember because so many people feel lonely and so many people feel overwhelmed and so many people feel scared.”

This means setting aside time to have conversations about how much friendship you’re looking for — whether a mere running buddy or a BFF — while still allowing for the relationship to evolve. Talking about the Covid-19-related precautions you’re each taking can also make any in-person meet-ups more comfortable.

“I tend to overcommunicate, especially now,” said Amanda Zeilinger. In July, Ms. Zeilinger, 23, moved in Minnesota to St. Paul from Northfield to start a new job at a mosaic workshop in the Twin Cities. She had anticipated it might be harder to make friends in a new city amid shutdowns, but that hasn’t been the case: Recently, she formed a pod with two colleagues so they could foster their friendship outside of work. “I think people are so starved for human connection that we’re that much more open,” she said.

“One of the defining features of our friends is that they’re exclusive,” Dr. Franco said. That means you have shared memories and experiences. So if you met through work or school or a club, plan a one-on-one virtual teatime or socially distanced walk. “Repotting” friendships, or moving them from one setting to another — a term the digital strategist Ryan Hubbard uses — can also help them gain momentum.

Developing a new friendship is not dissimilar to entering a romantic relationship, and initial meet-ups with a new friend can feel “sort of like a first date,” said Jordan Bennett, 31, a communications professional who lives in New York City. “You have the same nerves.”

Several of Mr. Bennett’s close friends left New York last summer; this, combined with a natural tendency to be “very, very social,” led him to start exchanging messages with a new friend through Bumble BFF. They met for the first time in September, and though it was platonic, Mr. Bennett said, he was also unsure how this prospective friend might react upon learning he is gay. “You don’t know if someone is an ally, or how comfortable they are,” he said. The subject emerged organically, producing a comfortable conversation about relationships; they’ve since ventured out to bars, the gym and watched the vice-presidential debate together.

After a successful initial get-together, make plans to continue meeting up regularly. Several experts agreed that consistency strengthens bonds. “Ritual is really important when it comes to connection, especially friendship,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of the forthcoming book “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.” Attaching friendship to a shared goal — a regular yoga practice; keeping up with a TV show — can help reinforce the relationship and your new habit.

“Being intentional, being available, being reliable and being excited are all things that work in your favor,” Ms. Sow said.

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