Let me set the scene about what it looked like in Washington, D.C. amongst my group of friends to socialize in our 20s. Somebody would send a text, or yell up the stairs in a group house, or send an email, or maybe awkwardly utilize the then-brand-new Twitter to send a tweet suggesting an evening plan. (Yes, Twitter in 2007 was used for stuff like ‘going to dc9 in a few minutes any1 want to join’; this was before it turned into a platform that reflected your career and before any of us had more than 20 followers.) I would estimate that 75 percent of the time we would end up at the aforementioned DC9 — one of the only bars on U Street around that time — drinking pitchers of Miller Lite until 1am and feeding dollars to the jukebox to play a Dismemberment Plan song. Somehow we were never hungover the next day. All told, it was fun, easy, and always spontaneous.
Fastforward 10 years. People have marriages, kids, careers that demand they not be presenting to the board the next day with unwashed hair and a low-level hangover. Some of us try — futilely — to keep in shape, so are spending time at the gym in the evenings or rolling out of bed for early morning runs. We more often live alone, with partners or in our own apartments, so you can’t just yell up the stairs if anybody wants to go grab dinner or expect that every Sunday night, without any formal planning, you’ll be huddling around the TV for whatever HBO drama is playing out.
Socializing with friends got hard.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Enter UPTIGHT PLANNING LADY (that’s me, could somebody create me a logo please and thanks) to tell you about how I’ve managed to still socialize several times a week in meaningful ways with groups of friends. I’m very happy with my social life. I talk to a lot of people daily and I would say, although I’m single and live alone, I probably socialize 3–4 times a week in real life with people, and multiple times a day virtually (which I count).
How do I do it? Here are my secrets: 1. Bucket your friend groups into the ways in which you can socialize with them. 2. Plan everything, preferably around clubs or formal activities. 3. Recognize the ‘activator’ type friends you have, cling to them for dear life, and thank them often. 4. Actually show up when you’re invited to stuff.
Yes, this means that spontaneity no longer exists in your life, but you’re in your 30s, you knew that by now. Embrace structure. Embrace boringness. Embrace plans.
Let me explain by what I mean by #1: Bucket your friends into groups.
As I got older, I started realizing that (duh) certain friends met certain needs. Some were the people I knew would always want to see a concert with me. Some were into cooking and dinner parties, and some were running buddies. Some I could expect to have a light evening of fun with — but not much more — and some are besties that I know I’ll have a meaningful and real conversation with every time I hang out with them. Some friends are my family; some are my coworkers; some could always meet for lunch but never for happy hour; some, despite my advice, would only hang out spontaneously and fail at all planned attempts to hang out.
The key is knowing which activity is right for which friend bucket. I know enough now that I would rarely ask my running buddy to go see a concert with me. My friends with kids I would suggest plans on a weekend morning near their house, but I certainly wouldn’t say, let’s meet up for 12 beers on Thursday night. I have friends who like outdoor activities and camping so that’s what I do with them. I do have a couple spontaneous friends, and even though I’m not at all spontaneous, they’re the ones when, I’m feeling like a last minute drink after work, that I text. When I’m down and need a real talking to, there are the BFFs I know I can ask to meet me who would drop everything to do so — but I wouldn’t ask one of my more superficial friends to do that. (Nothing wrong with superficial friends, by the way. I have plenty, they are great, and I’m sure I fall into this category for lots of other people — it’s just more a realization they are people to have a good time with on an occasional basis, not for life advice and emotional needs.)
This may sound depressing to so strictly categorize HUMAN BEINGS but I’ve found it useful for my emotional friendship needs and socializing. I have a lot of friends and know a lot of people and when I’m in tune with what I want to do in terms of socialness or interest level on any given day, I know who is more likely to be able to do it with me.
Moving on to #2: Plan everything, preferably around clubs or formal activities.
This sounds dorkier the more I write about it, but I’ve found great social success in having any number of clubs. I have a cookbook club. I have a fitness club. I have a book club. I have a single ladies club. I’m in a casual blogging club where we all try to blog once a week (many of us fail but oh well) and we just had our first happy hour, which was a lot of fun. Some of my friends do a Whiskey Club that I join occasionally. I have a Slack Club (IRL friends who hang out virtually and chat daily in a Slack channel, which I find very socially nourishing and totally count as real relationships and friendships even though I don’t see most of them in person more than once or twice a year.) I have my family (which I would consider sort of a club, the Family Activity Club. And I’m very lucky for them — parents, siblings, a sister-in-law and three cute kids are all in the area). I have occasional Cabin Club friends — where I plan a cabin weekend and I have a set group of friends that I know will go with me. I guess I have work, or like, Work Club, which I am also very lucky in — not only is my work fulfilling but I am very emotionally nourished by my coworkers and the relationships I have there.
This is more a reflection of my personality perhaps — I’m an activator-type person who’s pretty organized and proactive and likes to Get Things Done. So I’ve created or joined any number of real-life or virtual clubs and consider them the fabric of my social life. I think this works as you get into your mid to late 30s because as you get older, more boring, and make more money (if you’re so lucky, that is) you develop particular interests and hobbies and go deeper into them. Mine are pretty straightforward — reading, being outdoors, working out and cooking. (Probably a real normcore slew of late 30s activities.) So reorienting my social life to be around those clubs that require an investment of time and energy has worked for me.
Speaking of that Get Things Done type personality, next up is the important #3: Recognize the activator friends you have in your life and cling to them like ballast in a storm.
Have you ever taken the Strengthsfinder test? I hadn’t until I came to my current job, and we take this personality test, which is meant to identify your top five strengths, every couple of years. Though some of my other strengths have changed or evolved, one thing is quite consistent: I am, always and forever, an Activator. This basically means that I’m impossibly impatient, I always wanted to get started on a project, I’m often annoying, but that I get things done.
This facet is revealed in my work life but also in my personal life. I’m the one who sets dates, comes up with ideas for the aforementioned clubs, emails people, hustles, encourages, and wants to do, do, do. Likely you have an Activator friend in your friend group as well. They’re the planners, the emailers, the ones everybody relies on to execute on social strategies.
My advice, if you are not yourself an Activator, is to identify that person in your social circle and cozy on up. Latching on to an Activator is going to have a lot of benefits in your social life, because the driving force for Activators both professionally and socially is actually Doing Things. Not just Talking About Doing Things, but making sure they happen and that people are included.
But don’t attach yourself thoughtlessly. I speak from experience: though I love being action oriented and wouldn’t want to be any other way, it can often be exhausting and underappreciated. Planning and nagging takes a lot of work, both emotional and logistical! So if you have an Activator friend, and you’re benefitting from her planning socially and friend-wise, do a simple thing: say thank you. Buy her a drink. Acknowledge in words how important and vital her planning is. And participate in her plans. There’s nothing worse than being an Activator and having a bunch of flakes drop out at the last minute on your thoughtfully-executed social adventures.
Which leads me to my last and, I think, most important piece of advice for continuing to thrive socially in your 30s and beyond: #4: Friendship is a job, and you have to show up to it.
One thing that’s surprised me over the last decade of the erosion of spontaneous friendships is so often we complain about wanting to do more, be more social, keep up better on our friendships… but we almost never follow through on those words with actions that reflect those wishes.
To me that reveals the not-nearly-discussed-enough-fact that friendship — all relationships — take good, hard, honest work. They take showing up when your friends ask you to, even if you’d really rather stay in and binge Queer Eye on Netflix, or you’re tired, or you’d rather get in a bathtub with a hair dryer than get on the subway to go down to that new bar.
Can we be so surprised that friendships erode as we put all of ourselves into everything else — family, kids, romantic relationships, work — but nothing into those friendships that were once so spontaneous and now require attention and routine? This is a boring metaphor, but can you imagine your houseplants thriving when you constantly forget to water them? Relationships with people aren’t any different. They thrive under structure, attention, investment, care. They wither when you ignore their texts for the 15th time or can’t get yourself off your couch for their 35th birthday. (This is what my 35-year-old texting plant tells me, anyways.)
Life is hard, and we all have a lot of responsibilities. People with children, I don’t know how you shower regularly, let alone maintain friendships. (And honestly, I could write a whole post about how single people who have friends with kids need to reframe their socializing structure. You Must Hang With The Kids if you wanna keep that friendship. And you should. Just do it. Your parent friends are barely staying above water and they need your help.)
I really believe that sometimes friendships go through “seasons” — a close friend may become a casual acquaintance but then really reconnect with you several years later. But if socializing and friendships are important to you, you need to take an active part in keeping them going. Take an honest look at the last communications from your friends. Are you always canceling at the last minute, saying you’re too busy to attend an event, or otherwise not doing your part to keep up your end of the friendship job and contract? Thinking of friendship as a job that you want to keep is boring, but it’s real. Make sure you’re showing up to that job and doing your best work.
In short, it’s probably clear from this post that the fact is that I’m just not as spontaneous as I was in my 20s — though I was never really spontaneous, I am UPTIGHT PLANNING LADY after all. But our 20s encouraged and enabled spontaneous hanging out. Which was great. But I have stopped holding on to that wish for always having something social to do at the drop of a hat every single day of the week, and embraced a more structured approach to my socialization. It works for me and if you’ve been struggling with socialization into your 30s, it might work for you too.