On this week’s episode of The Cut, producer Noor Bouzidi ventures out in search of a new social life. She goes on friend dates with strangers she meets on Bumble and talks to friendship expert Dr. Miriam Kirmayer and lifestyle vlogger Katherine Berry about how to connect when one is self-conscious about being the kind of person who needs to connect.
To hear more about how to make adult friends and why everyone feels awkward about it, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
NOOR BOUZIDI: Last month, I downloaded a dating app for the first time in a few years. But I didn’t do it looking for love — I’m already in a relationship right now. I’m using the app Bumble — not the part where you swipe for love or hookups or whatever. I signed up for Bumble BFF. Because I need some damn friends. I know this is a place a lot of people are finding themselves in right now.
A lot of what I’m kind of trying to overcome right now is the fear of coming across as desperate because I even find myself being judgmental of the new friends I’ve met if I start to get a read on them that they’re kind of lonely and they don’t really have many friends. I’m one of their only sources of connection.
NOOR: Yeah …
KATHERINE: It does put a weird feeling on you of, “Oh, why don’t they have more friends? Are they not a cool, fun person to hang around?” And I can’t really explain how I’ve been conditioned this way or why those thoughts come up for me, but they do.
NOOR: I totally have that insecurity, like when I’m first meeting somebody. Are they going to know that they’re the only person that I can hit up to go do stuff?
NOOR: And does that seem weird? Does that make them feel weird?
A lot of us are feeling really raw right now when it comes to making and keeping friends. And that’s because the pandemic and lockdown forced a bunch of our friendships through these kinds of stress tests that they didn’t survive. Friendships that we thought were solid didn’t hold up when the pandemic changed the ways we interacted with each other. Katherine, for example, watched one friendship slowly topple downhill.
KATHERINE: We met through a mutual friend.
NOOR: They were casual friends — not absolute besties, but they’d hang out sometimes.
KATHERINE: Those types of relationships are easier to keep going when you’re in person and you can just go to dinner or go to a movie and there are other things that entertain you. But when you step digitally, now you’re just on FaceTime for an hour. You actually have to talk about what you have in common and the things that you both care about. When the pandemic hit, I sort of entered into this political radicalization and shift in the way that I imagined my relationship with my work.
NOOR: I watched this change happen, actually. Katherine’s a tech worker, and a lot of her old content centered around vlogging her workweek. Mid-pandemic, though, she joined this wave of online creators that started talking more about socialist ideas — which her friend wasn’t into.
KATHERINE: We would still talk, but I just found that we were conflicting a lot politically because my political identity had transformed so much. I think that really alienated him because he just felt like he had to basically walk on eggshells in order to maintain the relationship.
NOOR: I also talked to Dr. Miriam Kirmayer about this.
DR. MIRIAM KIRMAYER: The emotional distance for many people is what’s actually most detrimental. That is where I’m hearing a lot of heartache and conflict. So friends who don’t see eye to eye with respect to what’s happening, or how best to handle things right now, feel as though a friend isn’t showing up for us in the way that we’d expect, or isn’t able to relate to what it is we’re going through — feeling uncomfortable opening up in that way, feeling judged, judging our friends.
NOOR: When all of our friendships went static in those early days of the pandemic, they were kind of put through the wringer. They needed to hold up against regular adult life obstacles, but also against how we were each handling this major societal shift. And so a friendship that used to be able to survive on surface-level interactions was at a real risk of falling apart when it went digital.
KATHERINE: I figured out how to set the boundary of like, “I don’t really think I can support this relationship. I don’t think it’s fair to you to say we’re friends if I’m not going to actually put the work in. So I’d like to take a step back from this,” basically. I wouldn’t say it ended amicably, but I think it was inevitable. At some point, we would have had to come to terms with our incompatibility as friends. That really needed to happen, and I don’t think it would have happened unless the pandemic hit.
NOOR: While we come to terms with how our friendships have changed, a lot of us have found ourselves needing some fresh connections. After the break, I shop for a new friend.
DR. KIRMAYER: As chaotic and stressful as the world is right now, there can also be a certain level of monotony that characterizes our relationships right now, that we’re not having those new exciting experiences. There isn’t any happenstance. There isn’t uncertainty — the kind that we like and crave, not the kind that makes us feel unsafe and anxious. And that’s hard because it feels like we’re always talking about the same things. It feels like we’re kind of on autopilot when it comes to connecting with our friends.
NOOR: And so in search of a new friend and ultimately some freaking spontaneity in my life, I turned to the apps. Which has been… interesting. My first impression was that every single person on Bumble BFF between the ages of 21 and 25’s ideal friend date is thrifting, hiking, and yoga. Full disclosure — all three of those were on my profile too. We were all just regurgitating the most neutral, relatable interests of the hip, mentally stable friend we all think we want. Some people, though, I noticed, kept it a buck fifty. Like this one girl’s bio—
“Just a depressed 21-year-old gal looking for some really cool people to hang out with. Also, if I don’t respond on here, it’s because I have severe ADHD and forget literally everything.”
This girl showed me why I find these apps so weird. Because when you craft a profile saying that you’re lonely and looking for love, there’s nothing devastatingly embarrassing about that — at least not anymore. But when you do the same thing looking for friends, for some reason, it becomes a totally different — way more raw — conversation.
KATHERINE: Maybe that is functionally why Bumble BFF scares me, you’re both in that position. And it’s the awareness of it because for most people it’s still too taboo to be like, “Hey, I have no fucking friends! Want to hang out?” It’s almost like you’re on this little island together just clutching onto each other for dear life, which is not really fertile ground for a friendship.
DR. KIRMAYER: If you were to approach somebody in public and say, “Hey, do you wanna be friends?” the same way we do when we’re in kindergarten, people understandably have a lot of resistance to doing that. But when we’re on these apps, we can feel with some sense of certainty that this person at least might be open to connecting with us, or with somebody. It’s a great starting point.
NOOR: After using the app for a month, the number of people I’ve matched with is definitely in the hundreds. But, surprise surprise — sifting through a sea of other lonely people wasn’t the solution I thought it would be. And I only really started to get that when one morning, I was scrolling on the app, and I came across this one girl’s profile.
According to her profile, she was also a 22-year-old Arab girl whose all-time favorite artists were Shakira and Nancy Ajram. She had a gaming obsession, and also some mommy issues. One of the three questions that she answers is “How would your mother describe you?” And she says “A disappointment” and I’m just like, yeah, that’s exactly where I’m at with my relationship with my mom. On paper, this girl and I are kind of the same person. But the conversation dried up immediately. And I think I’m realizing that this is actually really emotionally exhausting.
There are times where I’m using it and I feel like the red queen, like “off with their heads.” I play it out as a story in my head of how each one could be a wonderfully fleshed out, nuanced relationship that lasts for years. Then I just end it by swiping left.
DR. KIRMAYER: Here’s a question though. Do you think that has more to do with whoever is being shown to you on the app that day or do you think that has more to do with the headspace that you’re in?
NOOR: Those times where I’m being a harsher judge of people and not being able to connect with people have been the times where I wake up and I’m feeling particularly lonely. So I go on this app just so that I can fulfill some kind of desire to be like, “Okay, well I’m doing something to get me out of this funk.”
DR. KIRMAYER: There is this gamification of relationship-making. But it is important that we recognize when we are using them intentionally and when we’re being passive users. Am I in the right place to connect? Am I in the space where I’m willing to accept that this is awkward and vulnerable and uncertain? And if not, then it doesn’t have to be right now, right? We don’t always have to be in that place where we are working to make new connections. It should really feel right at the moment.
NOOR: There’s one girl I matched with through the app named Annabelle. We started by exchanging a few voice messages.
Annabelle’s Voice Message: I broke up with my boyfriend after a year of dating in July. I feel like in that relationship, it was very calm. We didn’t do much. We just hung out with each other.
And I recognized that Annabelle was in the same vulnerable place that I was. So only a couple of voice messages later —
Noor’s Voice Message: If you’re free sometime next week, I really want to set up a time to do something.
We decided to hit up a yoga class. I sometimes find myself wanting to hit fast forward and see if in three years, I’m gonna have found my people. But I’m also not really worried about that. And neither is Katherine, the vlogger in Seattle.
KATHERINE: I’m very aware of the fact that I know when I look back at this time, in three or four years, it’s going to be reminiscent of a freshmen period in my life. When I look back to when I was a freshman, I was making all of these friendships through things like orientation and my dorm and just random people I meet at the dining hall. There was this sense of desperation of just trying to latch on and become attached in any way you possibly can. We go through these freshman periods with our friendships like this all the time — weighing what happened to the old and feeling insecure about the new. Looking back at the end of college, it’s laughable because all of those friendships I only sustained for like six weeks. And those people just lost —
KATHERINE: — We lost touch with each other and it wasn’t a big deal because we found where we were supposed to be.
NOOR: So for now, when I wake up feeling a little stranded, I’ll just go find someone to be stranded with. Like Annabelle, who I met for the first time after knowing only a few basic facts about each other: We both liked restorative yoga and reggaeton, and we both desperately needed a new friend.