Monday 10 June 2024

Social cohesion... in life?

Making friends used to be easier.

In high school, there was a bunch of people the same age as me who I saw stuck with for eight hours a day. Some of them were bound to be on the same wave length as me. Some weren't, which could be challenging, but I still had a few friends I could count on.

University was even easier to make friends - people who had similar academic pursuits and cultural interests. Student clubs, theatre groups, choirs... my life was never more socially engaged as it was during those years. Friends, creative collaborators, lovers, housemates... to be honest, I didn't have to try that hard, I just had to be there, and be open to social connection.

And then, it all ends. I started working full-time hours. Uni friends start settling down, starting families, moving away interstate or overseas. We used to have a social group that met weekly at the pub... it continued impressively well, but eventually dwindled. Very occasionally, there's a big birthday party from that social group, but the last one I went to was in 2019. It was a lot of fun, and I caught up with lots of people I hadn't seen in years.

I found new ways to make friends. Back in Melbourne, I started swing dancing in my early 30s and that created new and interesting social connections. It was a thriving scene where I could attend classes a few nights a week, and go social dancing at least twice a week. It also became a great skill to take with me as a traveller, both interstate or overseas. I've been known to show up to a social dance in a random place, from Osaka to Transylvania, from Ireland to Iceland, and if you're a dancing from out of town, everybody will line up for a dance and a chat.

Being an expat, living in the Pacific, Asia and the Balkans, there were also no shortage of social opportunities. Life as an expat in a developing country can often be challenging, and so people in my social bubble definitely stuck together for regular catchups and social engagements. You could hit anybody up for dinner or a coffee or a drink on any given day and there'd be a taker for some company.

Now, I live in Canberra in my 40s. People talk about how Canberra is a hard city to make friends in. It took me a few years, but I found my niche in the local community theatre scene. But it's a double-edged sword - when you're in a show, it's rehearsal three times a week, and creating close creative connections with talented people. I did that almost continuously for two years. The hard thing they don't tell you about is that, due to the very nature of auditioned shows, not everybody can get in. And if you're not in, then there's a huge social gap in your life.

I thought I'd be sufficiently emotionally mature to handle not landing a particular role I had my eye on - after all, I'd never be so arrogant as to assume I deserve a role over anybody else. But the thing that stings is the social exclusion that comes from it.

But the thing is, I think it's a widespread social trend that many people, at a point in their life, just stop being open to hanging out. It would be easy to blame the cost of living crisis, but the reality is that it feels hard to just contact a friend and say, 'Hey, let's go get a coffee before work some time this week.' Especially if you've already fallen out of regular touch, and feel awkward about being a bad friend.

So, my personal commitment - next time I say, 'We should catch up some time' - I'll mean it and actually set up a time.

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