Updated: Jan 18
Greetings from San Francisco! I started off my 2023 by doing one of my favorite things ever: traveling ;) I am currently writing this article from the library at Stanford University. One of my friends whom I met during my time in New York City just started Law School here, and I hadn't seen her in several years. One of my personal intentions for 2023 is to invest more time in maintaining old friendships and developing new ones. So to kickstart my new year, I decided to go on a rather impromptu trip to the USA.
The past few days have been filled with interesting conversations. And the topic of friendship has been on my mind a lot. Because I have been struggling to make meaningful friendships in the new environment I found ourselves in at the start of this academic year. I went to a Law School event with my friend, where I got to know this year's cohort of Law students. I got introduced to many of them, and the event mostly consisted of small talk. We spoke about the weather, and the torrential rain this region of the world has seen this past week (California truly isn't always all that sunny). There were conversations about the ski trip many of these students are about to go on. There was talking about how everyone's break had been over the holidays. And as I stood in this room amidst all these lawyers-to-be, I could feel myself zooming out and observing myself from a distance. I noticed this tall, European-style overdressed woman (even at parties, it's not uncommon for Californians to be wearing yoga pants and hoodies), trying the best she could to smile, engage in small talk, give shoulder-hugs to strangers while saying 'Omg, it's so nice to meet you!!', and make her voice sound enthusiastic enough to fit in with the rest. I could observe myself performing what I know sociability to look like in these types of contexts. I simply observe others, get a sense of how this social space works, and adapt like a chameleon. I've become rather good at it, these days. Such situations used to stress me out big time. Because I used to be insecure and care a lot about what others would think of me. These days though, I no longer care that much. I know who I am, I know I'm an interesting person to talk to. I know I have good stories to tell, yet I feel no need to impress anyone. And that energy? It's attractive. Others around you can feel it if you don't care about what they'll think of you. It's called confidence. You'll find that people are actually more drawn to you the less you care. I realize this may sound like I'm contradicting myself: for how would I both be 'performing' sociability to adapt to the setting and at the same time not care about whether or not I fit in? Well, let me tell you this: it's so much easier to put on a social performance when you know deep down inside that other people's opinions don't change anything about your worth. Making small talk is something I avoid as much as I can, but I cannot completely avoid it altogether. That's also not the goal. There will always be parties, receptions and networking events to attend. Some of them I genuinely enjoy. Others not so much, but I've found a way to make it entertaining and interesting for myself, and that's precisely by observing how other people behave and then perfecting my own performance of those same behaviours. When you turn it into a game of sorts, without attaching your self worth to the outcome, it can truly be quite a fun and stimulating exercise. Give it a try!
When it comes to friendships, I spoke to my friend about how I had found myself in an environment with a lot of high school type of dynamics. Think cliquishness, including some and excluding others, gossiping, etc. (Unfortunately, even as people age, these behaviours continue to occur in all kinds of environments). Here's a helpful mindset shift for managing such situations: any time you find yourself experiencing social anxiety about fitting in, any time you find yourself stressing about whether or not this group is including you or pushing you away, and any time you catch yourself doubting about whether a potential friend actually likes you, ask yourself this: Do I like this person? What do I think about them? Do I actually want to be a part of this group? How does spending time with these people make me feel? Is this potential friend making me feel safe, like I can fully be myself? You see, there is nothing wrong with performing social behaviours at parties and receptions. But if you find yourself constantly performing when you're with people who you consider to be friends, then it's time for you to reconsider those relationships. Turn your gaze inward, and firstly find a sense of rootedness in who you are. That should always be your starting point. Because let's be honest, you are a pretty amazing human being! With so much passion to share, so many interesting thoughts to discuss, and fascinating conversations to be had with. You can't build true friendships when you're performing, masking, hiding, and adapting. Feeling the need to do those things is a clear sign that you need to start looking for other people to connect with.
To summarize: there is nothing wrong with performing sociability when you are consciously using it as a strategy. It can be a suitable tool for networking. But it can never be a suitable foundation for building meaningful friendships. So it's time for you to start caring a lot less about what other people think of you, and to start focusing on what you think of other people. Not from a place of judgment, but from a place of self-care and respect for your own self-esteem. You deserve to be friends with people where you can be your authentic self, because you are truly amazing when you are yourself! It's an utter privilege and true pleasure to be your friend, always keep that in mind.