When I hit the streets of New York City last autumn, asking strangers to be my friend, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The point of my social experiment was to find out if – even in one of the busiest cities in the world, a place where 57% of people feel alone – it is possible to tap into a sense of warmth and connection.
I’m happy to report that it is. After 72 hours wandering the streets of the Big Apple, holding up signs and trying to get New Yorkers to chat to me, my project paid off. I was able to persuade half a dozen strangers I’d just met to join me at a bar in the East Village, for a night of drinks, karaoke and friendship.
I’m still in touch with some of those people now, several months after we all took a risk on adventure and the possibility of making new friends. But what surprised me most was the outpouring of messages I received when news of my campaign spread. After posting the video from my experiment, over 1,200 people got in touch with offers of support, friendship and invitations to meet up. A large majority were from those who resonated with my struggle to make friends as a newbie in the city; they felt my pain.
I’ve grappled with profound loneliness myself in the past, so it was quite emotional to see how many people feel the same way. It made me recognise how – if only we were all willing to be more open about the aloneness we feel – ironically, we’d be less lonely. We could connect and find solidarity in that experience; which is far more common than most of us assume.
I’ve grappled with profound loneliness myself in the past
The messages I received showed people were also genuinely happy and receptive to me being vulnerable in my pursuit of friendship. It’s not often that we’re so open about asking for new friends. But I think a certain degree of proactivity is needed. You have to lose that filter in order to connect. I took that adage to extreme in my experiment, and, from the feedback I got, New Yorkers were inspired to see it.
One message that caught my attention was about someone who approached another person at school when they were growing up, and simply asked them to be their friend. Decades later, the friendship is still going strong. Imagine how many rich connections we are missing out on – simply because of the awkwardness we feel around that kind of upfront ask.
The truth is, I think we’re taught to play it cool when it comes to new friendships. We’re supposed to play hard to get – too not be too keen or obvious in the quest for people we like. But that attitude makes zero sense when you consider that most people in life welcome new friends – even those who have loads already.
What really struck me about the messages that I received is that many adults simply don’t know how to make friends. We crave it, and enjoy it when it happens. But most people lack the confidence, or the know-how, to just get out there and make it happen. And I counted myself in that group, too, before I carried out my experiment (which was also, by the way, one of the scariest things I’ve ever done).
My campaign had a practical benefit, too. I’m currently in the process of moving from London to the US East Coast, along with my co-founder and wife, Radha Vyas. And because of my – very public – friendship drive, I’m now more excited than ever to make the leap. My inbox is filled with messages from Americans, inviting me to dinners, birthday celebrations, for walks around the city, or to play pickleball in the park. Over on LinkedIn, I’ve made 500 new connections in the US, which has opened a lot of new doors professionally speaking.
The whole thing has made me realise that New York City is filled with interesting, optimistic and welcoming people. Contrary to its unfriendly reputation, New Yorkers are very open to making time for one another and chatting about all manner of topics. And from singles to married couples, solo parents and beyond, most people are receptive to the idea of making new friends. We just have to be a little more direct about it than perhaps feels comfortable.
It’s not often that we’re so open about asking for new friends
And that would be my advice to other people who find themselves in the all-too-familiar scenario of being lonely and craving more friends. Flash Pack is currently on a mission to make one million new friendships from our global community of travellers. We understand how important it is to find and connect with other people on your wavelength. It’s why we also run a series of pop-up events in New York (and other global cities), to help like-minded folk in their 30s and 40s network and connect.
The trick is to push yourself a bit. Turn up to events; make yourself go alone and chat to other people. Sure it might feel confronting at first – but it’s like exercising a muscle. The more you try it, the easier it’ll be. Remember to open up, be vulnerable and be a great listener.
My NYC experiment was stressful and scary in parts, and I wouldn’t do it again. But it made me see that, if you’re willing to put yourself out there, the universe usually responds. You too can make new friends, no matter what stage of life you’re in, or whatever else you have going on. You just have to lean in a little, and watch your world open up.
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