Making friends

Illustration by Lauren You/The Gazelle

It's Week Four, and I Have No Friends

Navigating friendships at NYU Abu Dhabi can be hard. Here's what you should know if your conversation starters never seem to work.

Sep 18, 2016

On Aug. 3, 2015, in the momentous summer before freshman year, I wrote myself a note. It was a brief note, typed quickly into my phone, where it still remains. It was a strange note, haiku-like, mysterious. It was a cryptic note, and it comprised three lines:
''Tell them that you really like sand. Ask them if they have any enemies. Say something funny about communists."
Just three lines, and a title. Marhaba Week Icebreakers.
It all began some weeks before I departed for my first year at university, when I was gripped by a sudden, overwhelming fear that I would not be able to make any friends. My fears were not unwarranted. As you can probably tell from the contents of my notes, I am a terrible conversationalist. Most of my conversations consist of the other person doing all the talking, while I nod wisely and say “Indeed” or, when I’m in a particularly chatty mood, “Yes, indeed.”
So I decided to do my homework. I made a list of cool icebreakers, pun intended. I rehearsed conversations about sand. I visited the WikiHow page titled How to Make Friends, with pictures; yes, the pictures helped immensely. And I’ll probably lose the few friends I currently have when I confess this, but I actually stalked some incoming fellow students on Facebook to scout out potential friends.
My fellow sophomores, if you’re reading this, I probably have some detailed notes about you. And your hobbies. And your family.
But let’s cut to the chase: none of it worked.
It’s not that my fellow students thought of sand — and the people who talk about it compulsively — as being uncool. NYU Abu Dhabi is a very accepting place. No, the problem was that I didn’t talk about sand at all. I didn’t talk about anything at all. I didn’t talk, because I was shy.
So when I recently came across an NYUAD Confessions Page post by an anonymous freshman who was finding it difficult to navigate friendships on campus, I was fondly reminded of my childhood self from one year ago. I was filled with an overwhelming desire to comment “INDEED!” on the thread, but my better judgement told me that wouldn’t be of much help to this struggling freshman. So I certainly hope the following thoughts will be:
####The Problem of Relativism
When you’re at the Dining Hall, sitting on one of those high bar stools that don’t let your feet touch the ground, it’s easy to think that you’re all alone in this world. After all, everyone else seems to be sitting at the large tables with large groups of diverse people, enjoying themselves in diverse ways, thus embodying the true spirit of NYUAD. Everyone else seems to have friends. So why don’t you?
This is a classic East Dining Hall fallacy, brought about by a combination of FOMO and the feeling of utter helplessness created by those darn high chairs. It’s true that everyone around you is friendly and well-adjusted. But invariably, the people you’re seeing are the outgoing extroverts, who were born this way. What you never actually see are the shy kids because they, like you, hide in their room or, like me, hide in the palm trees and spy on extroverts to learn all their secrets.
And if you still don’t believe me, if you still think it’s possible for most people to make friends at college within the span of three weeks, let me offer you my timeline in comparison. It took me two months to have my first real conversation, where I — believe it or not — used more than two syllables to hold up my end of the interaction. It took me an entire semester to make my first real friend: the cashier at the Convenience Store. And it took me one year of unconditional love and gentle petting to get the campus cats to stop hating me.
Freshman Tip: From personal experience, I can say that unconditional love and gentle petting works on humans too. If you ask nicely.
####The Problem of the High School Hangover
College is very different from high school. The classes are harder, more people have beards and your dorm room is a locker that you also get to sleep in.
But most importantly, it’s much harder to make friends.
I thought I might make friends in my classrooms, like I did in school, but then I came to realise that it doesn’t really work that way in college. In school, you bond with your classmates over lovable class clowns and fun classroom pranks. In college, you have to bond over Nietzsche, who is, arguably, slightly less fun and lovable. Moreover, you go to class for an hour and then leave, and it’s usually the professor who interacts with you, rather than your classmates. In fact, in a bizarre version of Stockholm Syndrome, I left all of my classes in the first week of freshman fall thinking how fun it would be to become best friends with all my professors.
Worse still, in college you have to start from scratch. There are no shared childhood experiences for you to reminisce fondly about with others. And you’re older, which means that you have to make friends through intelligent conversation and culturally-aware dialogue and banter about the space-time continuum. You can’t just hope that your mom talks the other mothers into forcing their kids to play with you, despite your vicious biting problem.
So don’t try to compare your lack of friends in college to your abundance of friends in school. In school, you were only as popular as your mom was persuasive.
####The Problem of Diversity
Before someone starts getting all Oooh, did she just say that diversity is bad? #Scandal #Salty on me, maybe I should clarify that I don’t mean that diversity itself is bad. It’s wonderful. But it may have side effects.
New students might feel a lot of pressure to make friends from every country represented at NYUAD. They may feel the gnawing compulsion, coming from external sources, to look outside of their ethnic group for friends, which is ultimately a great thing; we are, after all, here to make friends from everywhere. It’s almost our motto. But it becomes a problem if the pressure to make a specific sort of friend from a geographical area outside one’s own is making it harder — for some — to make any friends at all.
In a situation where it is stressful enough for new students to make friends, the criticism that is mounted time and again on nationality and ethnic group-based, so-called cliques seems unnecessary, and frankly, unhelpful. The word clique, with all its negative associations, unnecessarily predisposes the concept to censure. For many freshmen who feel homesick and displaced from their home culture, making friends from their home region is simply a comforting place to begin. It hardly seems useful to fling battle cries of diversity and internationalism at a struggling freshman trying to create a small support system during a tumultuous period of change.
I know how much of a relief it can be to make even one real friend at university, and this sense of relief is a stepping stone to other fulfilling friendships, both international and intercultural. In making your first real friend, ethnicity or nationality shouldn’t bother you, no matter what people say or expect. That’s what true acceptance is, and that’s what this university aims for. Our diversity affords amazing opportunities, but it should never feel like a constraint.
####The Problem of Relativism, Revisited
What if I told you that you don’t need any friends at all?
I guess you’d probably stop reading this. But wait! Consider this for a moment: have you ever thought about how many friends you really need?
Research has found that many highly intelligent people don’t like having friends. Friends make them uncomfortable. I am certainly not suggesting that you are highly intelligent. But I am suggesting that you may not need as many friends as you think you do.
Some of the people you see in the Dining Hall may need large groups of friends, who give them a sense of comfort and make them happy. That doesn’t mean you need that too. Maybe all you need to be happy is one or two friends. Maybe you don’t even need friends, just acquaintances to hang out with once in awhile. Maybe, just maybe, all you need is a volleyball named Wilson. Or a Cat with No Name. Or a jar of Nutella.
Everyone has different friendship needs, so evaluate yours and make that your goal. And give it time: a semester at the very least. Or, if you want to speed up the process, shake up the palm trees, gather the shy introverts that fall out and play a fun card game — cough Cards Against Humanity cough. If there’s one heartwarming thing about ridiculously inappropriate games, it’s that they bring people closer together.
And if all else fails, just shoot me a message. I promise I’ll let you use one of my icebreakers.
Supriya Kamath is Copy Chief. Email her at
gazelle logo