The Art of Friendship: How to Establish Connections with Online Pals – Shondaland.com

The Art of Friendship: How to Establish Connections with Online Pals – Shondaland.com

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If you want to become closer friends with a digital acquaintance, follow these steps to build a genuine connection IRL.
Friendships are love stories too. In the Shondaland series The Art of Friendship, we explore and appreciate the beauty and complexities of friendship, as well as what makes it so powerful. From expert tips on how to navigate conflicts and deepen your friendships to uplifting stories of reconnections and advice on making new friends, these stories are reminders of the joy, value, and meaning that companionship brings to our lives.
It started on Bumble BFF in the summer of 2021. Brittany Grose downloaded the social connection app after moving to Orange County, California. Like many other adults, she was looking for local friends after planting roots in a new place. Nervous but eager, especially as someone who had never even tried a dating app, she decided to take a gamble on the platonic version of the platform. Grose started building a profile to connect with potential pals nearby.
“They say that the truth is stranger than fiction,” says the 29-year-old former nurse about the first few months of seeking friends online. After a meetup gone awry and being ghosted by another match on the app, Grose began to grow discouraged about digitally finding friends. Her head flooded with fears of being unlikable or undesirable, and her confidence was shot, but she resolved to keep persisting.
In January 2022, someone named Sam Brown matched with and reached out to Grose. They found themselves engaging in conversations that felt easy and smooth. After two months, the duo exchanged numbers. Soon after, Brown invited Grose to a meetup with a few other women she also met through the app.
The five women met in an Irish pub the day before St. Patrick’s Day and immediately hit it off. Grose knew something was unique about this connection. They all came from different backgrounds and had a wide range of personalities, but they quickly connected over moving to a new area, their bad experiences on the app, and their obsession with Love Is Blind. Before they knew it, they were closing the pub down. It was then, as with any love story, that Grose realized she was destined to crack a few bad eggs to find a good one.
“Each time we hung out, it wasn’t superficial conversation,” Grose says. “It was deep conversations that made me feel like I really know these girls. I remember after the fifth time we hung out, one of the girls was like, ‘I think I love you guys.’ It was really sweet. And I think it’s mutual between all of us.”
Grose and the girls have become a tight-knit group since they met, seeing one another at least once a month. They’ve celebrated holidays and birthdays together, have regular group text conversations, and continue to bond over events like paint-and-sip events, movie nights, make-your-own-pizza gatherings, lake days, and dinner dates. “We ended up getting so close that [Brown] invited us to her wedding,” Grose notes.
A core reason many people are afraid of reaching out online is, as in Grose’s case, rejection. “Any time we reach out to anyone in any way, shape, or form, we are putting ourselves out there,” says Melanie Ross Mills, a licensed therapist and relationship expert. “For some of us, it’s more of a risk.”
To some people, it falsely confirms fears that they are not worthy of someone else’s interest or attention. However, this is not the case. A 2021 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “conversations between strangers felt less awkward, and created more connectedness and happiness, than the participants themselves expected” for both parties involved. “It can be intimidating, [but] it can be stretching us in new ways,” Mills adds.
Yamel Belen, a 42-year-young doula and mom of five from Tampa, Florida, knows this very well. Belen met one of her best friends through Instagram three years ago. When starting her business One Love Doula, she wanted help expanding her business and resources. She reached out to The Doula Toolbox via private message and received a response from the co-owner, Rebecca Bakker. They both worried that they would have nothing to offer the other but found that wasn’t the truth.
Through helping each other, Belen and Bakker built a friendship without even realizing it. They learned over time that they had major similarities, especially in motherhood and as business owners. After career changes and losing loved ones to Covid, it dawned on them one day that they were actually major support systems for each other. “I needed to talk through with someone that cares that can give good advice,” Belen says, “and she was very much that person.”
Three years of being connected flew by, and although they hadn’t yet met in person, they nurtured their relationship through virtual wine nights, short phone calls and voice notes squeezed in on busy days, and long Zoom calls after the kids were put to bed. Belen and Bakker put it on their vision boards that they would meet in person one day. Earlier this year for Belen’s birthday, with encouragement from her husband, it finally happened.
Belen flew to Canada to meet Bakker. “It was literally like we all knew each other in person all this time in real life,” Belen says. “There was no awkwardness. … It just sealed the deal for us. I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re stuck with each other forever now.’” They both brought along their kids, who met on Zoom and became pen pals. “It’s very important to me for them to see not only my hard work in my business and my career, but also seeing the work of relationships,” Belen says, “and that includes friendships.”
Connecting with someone you’ve crossed paths with on the internet can be a powerful act, although it can be easy to think that someone doesn’t need more people in their life or they’re not looking for connection, community, or affirmation. But Belen and Bakker are proof that a great friendship can materialize anywhere or at any time.
“The common narrative is that the internet is ruining our social skills and is preventing us from connecting with people,” says Jillian Richardson, a connection coach and the author of Un-Lonely Planet. “It can be such a lifeline.”
There are many positives that come along with making friends online versus IRL, including getting to know a little bit of backstory before reaching out. “I’d say a big benefit is meeting people who share an interest that might not be so popular, or meeting people who might share an identity of yours that you might not be comfortable sharing so much in everyday life,” Richardson says. “I hear this from people all the time of people who are disabled that connect with people who have a certain disability online super-easily, or people who are queer who might not want to openly share that, and people who have any sort of minority identity. You’re going to be able to connect with a ton of those people in one click and feel deeply understood and heard in a community where you don’t feel that deeply understood and heard often.”
Mills, on the other hand, believes a benefit of the internet is also opening yourself up to new types of people. “People say when making friends online to go find people with the same interest as you or who can relate to you on this level,” she says. “What if you opened your mind and found someone who’s a little different than you? That could open a great friendship.”
If you want to introduce new pals into your life, get comfortable with being bold. Don’t merely observe activity. Be an active participant in your online community and reach out to the kind of people you want in your life. To meet future pals online, here’s where you can start.
For those who are hesitant at the idea of reaching out cold via a message or comment on social media, seek out a structured space built for people who are searching for connections. “There’s the Meetup app, Bumble BFF, Facebook,” Mills recommends. “Go look for things surrounding similar interests.” The therapist says we have to remind ourselves that other people are also looking for friends. “If we can first and foremost remember that, it helps you reach out and not feel as intimidated, vulnerable, or risky.”
A simple way to attract good people to you is by sharing what it is you like about them or by giving them a shout-out. “It’s so rare for people to receive really direct compliments like that,” Richardson says. “When you thoughtfully respond to people’s content and do it a few times, they really like that.” Telling someone how you feel about them can put you in their direct path and serve as a springboard into conversation.
“Say you use Instagram a lot,” Richardson says. “Go on your Instagram stories once a week and be like, ‘Hey, here are some [people] who I really appreciate and why.’” Whether you choose to express your gratitude privately or publicly, letting someone know what they mean to you or why they inspire you can not only create a portal to connection, but it’s proven to boost your own overall well-being as well.
Similar to sharing why you appreciate or admire someone, helping others — whether formally or informally — is excellent for your physical and mental health and improves your shot at making a new friend. You can offer yourself as a resource or recommend resources to them, like a book, podcast, or documentary you think they may enjoy or that could help them.
If you’re the creative type, a fruitful avenue to finding a new pal could be uplifting folks’ work through a monthly newsletter or promoting other people in your industry or field on social media. “You can become an asset to the people who you really admire, so don’t undersell how valuable your thoughts on someone’s work can be,” Richardson says.
If you want to deepen your bond, it’s important that you stay in touch regularly. Richardson recommends kick-starting a consistent virtual project or event that gives you an excuse to connect with others on a regular basis. Not only is it a small reminder that people in the universe can be good, but it’s also a wonderfully effective way to meet individuals with similar interests or values.
Initiating a group of some sort, like a book club, wine night, or weekly discussion, is another great idea that provides momentum and time together — two ingredients crucial to growing a true and deep friendship. “Any relationship, you have to invest in,” Mills says.
When you establish that you’d like to build a relationship with someone, figure out the best and most effective way for you and your potential pal to connect moving forward. If you meet on an app or social media, level up to phone calls, video calls, or voice texts to show your commitment to cultivating a friendship. “That’s the only way that we grow, learn, and get to know people no matter where we live,” Mills says. “It’s just like if you have family that lives in other cities. You find a way to talk to them.”
Like Grose and her friends, it’s not uncommon for people seeking friends or connections to host a gathering or throw a party for this purpose. Richardson recommends, after chatting for a bit online, hosting an event in a public space, like a picnic or a happy hour, and inviting people whom you’d like to get to know better to a group setting to take some pressure off.
You can simply announce that you’re having a meetup for people seeking new friends. “Many times, people who follow each other on the internet want to meet up, but they feel shy,” Richardson says. “A group gathering is a great way to soften the edges.” From there, you can transition into one-on-one hangouts to build your trust and connection further.
When deciphering whom you want to form a true bond with, Richardson recommends separating small touch digital friendships from big touch digital friendships. With small touch friends, you may not hang out in person, but know that their presence in your internet world makes it better. You might comment on each other’s posts, email back and forth, or give valuable feedback to each other. “It doesn’t have to become anything bigger than that,” Richardson says.
With big touch, similar to Belen and Bakker’s story, you may want to transition your relationship offline and meet in person. “We can’t turn every internet person into a real-life best friend,” Richardson says. “That would be exhausting.” Remember that if you meet an internet friend in real life and don’t click the same way, it’s okay to stick with a friendship in the digital realm.
Another aspect that holds people back from reaching out to others online is that they don’t feel good enough. For better or worse, the internet has made people into their own sort of curated brand or in some cases celebrity. “It’s easy to forget that there are real human beings behind all of these accounts,” says Richardson, which can make the idea of finding friends online scary.
“Don’t make somebody better than you,” Richardson adds. Whether it’s asking someone to be a part of your project or simply asking them to meet up, the author says to be very specific about why you like that person, why you want to talk to them, and how they are valuable. “Be like, ‘Hey, I saw your work and that you value X, Y, Z thing. I think we’d have a lot of fun. Do you want to do this at this time?’ Make it as easy as possible.”
Mills says reaching out to potential connections is like placing a poker chip in the game. “You put one chip in by going to a meetup or this social group,” she says. “You might have to put two chips in because people get busy or distracted. If they’re not putting any in, you move on. Go to the next meetup, or go to the next social group. Just keep going.”
People not responding or being too busy to engage is part of the process. “I tell my coaching clients all the time that the more people you reach out to, the more you’re going to hear no,” Richardson says. “That’s just numbers.”
Regardless, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you if it doesn’t work out. Remember that a friend is out there waiting for someone like you. You just have to be willing to keep on keeping on until you find them.
Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.
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