Making friends in unexpected places: advice for men over 30

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Men over 30 struggle to make friends, but travel can help to break down barriers.

 It’s a proven, indisputable fact that men over 30 are bad at making friends.

As is so often the case, science has proven what we all suspected from painful experience. A study published by the Survey Center on American Life last year found that men have experienced a rapid decline in their number of close friends in recent times. Over 15% of men reported having ‘no close friends’, five times the number reported in 1990. Nearly half of men surveyed (49%) stated that they had three close friends or fewer.

While your thirties may bring career progression, all too often old friendships fall into a comfort zone (or comfort rut) where you don’t have the time or energy to revitalise your relationship. You are left with a mixture of old school friends who are great for reminiscing but don’t understand your life beyond 2002, workmates who are fun to have a beer with but you know you don’t have much in common beyond that, and true friends who are simply too wrapped up with work or family commitments to meet up more than once a year. And when it comes to making new friends, men tend to be, sadly, fairly useless.

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As a man firmly on the wrong side of his 30s, I can attest that the struggle to create new friendships is real. On the whole I would consider myself socially competent, but nothing makes me cringe more than the thought of trying to make a friend or remembering my misguided efforts to do so, which resemble dreadful attempts at flirtation.

After one particularly harrowing attempt to make a new friend ended in a conversational cul-de-sac when I inexplicably decided that the intricacies of my self-employed tax return would be a fun topic to break the ice (I was fortunate it wasn’t a restraining order), I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board. I realised that there was one common factor in all the friendships I’d made since leaving my twenties behind: travel.

I met one of my good friends while in rural Mongolia, in the Gobi Desert in a yurt in Gurvansaikhan National Park. We bonded over our mutual disappointment at hearing another English accent over 5,000 miles from home, and our certainty that at some point we’d fall off the camels we had literally no idea how to ride. Once you’ve seen someone wipe out in a pile of camel dung and suffered the same fate because you’re laughing so hard, you’re bonded for life. The nightly ritual of drinking an indecent quantity of airag, or   fermented mare’s milk, probably didn’t hurt either.

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Another of my best mates happened to end up sharing a taxi with me in Kyrgyzstan because neither of us could explain to the surly taxi driver that we didn’t want to. We bonded over our mutual love of Central Asia and the fact we were increasingly certain our taxi driver had kidnapped us as he left the main roads and turned down endless pitch-black lanes.

It turned out the driver was so excited to hear English accents he had decided he had to take us to his family home to show us a poster of his hero, Wayne Rooney – a detour of over half an hour. It doesn’t make any more sense in the re-telling but we relive the story over some beers every few months. We recall our relief and bafflement as we were invited to marvel at a scrappy piece of paper stuck to a wall in a suburb of Bishkek at 3am, while being plied with home-brewed vodka which would certainly have passed as paint stripper.

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Somehow, being abroad and sharing in an experience you know you’ll bore people with for years to come seems to break down the barriers that so often stand in the way of friendships, especially male friendships, developing. The fact you’re both about to hop into a raft in the Costa Rican rainforest or hike across a glacier in Patagonia is a pretty good indication you’ve broken out of your comfort zone, and the you who explores the world is definitely a more attractive you than the one labouring his way through an anecdote about tax rebates.

Maybe it’s the adrenaline or the sense of wellbeing that comes from getting out and seeing the world; maybe it’s just being able to ditch the dreaded small talk, because who cares about the weather when you’ve just abseiled down a waterfall. Whatever it is, when you get out and travel, friendships are fast-tracked.

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