Guest Post! Question #91: Moving vs. Staying. Instructions for finding Your People and Your Place.

Would these three have become friends without the influence of Big Evil Danger?

Commander Logic took this one on for me.  All hail Commander Logic!

Hi there Captain Awkward,

Following your great advice to my previous queries, here’s another that maybe could just have gone into the comments thread of ‘You don’t have to make it work out‘.

So, my lab supervisor took up a shiny new position in a city an hour’s drive away. He moved all his post-docs but not his PhD students, on the grounds that most of his students are coming to the end of their second or third years (PhD’s here take 3-4yrs) and that therefore it wouldn’t fair to uproot them at such an important time. I however am only coming to the end of my first year and therefore have another three years to go.

I’ve not done well in this city. I don’t fit in very well and lack the small close group of mates that I need to keep me sane. It’s not entirely that my social skills aren’t amazing because where I was before I did fit in and did have a great group of mates, and it didn’t take me long to find them. Yeah, I get on with the other students/people at work fine but they’re not people I can easily go crying to when life’s getting on top of me. I’ve got somewhere half-decent to live for the time being and work is going ok at the moment. I feel now that I can survive in this city whereas a month ago I felt that if I didn’t get out I’d explode. I just don’t think I’m ever going to thrive here. But maybe I’m being too pessimistic?

I tried to explain this to my supervisor and it’s not a conversation we’ve finished having but basically he’s concerned that I’m treating the potential move to the city down the road as a magic cure for my problems settling in. I don’t get on with the post-docs there as well as I do the PhD students here, and the atmosphere in the office here is more relaxed, but I’m not getting the supervision here that I need. On the other hand, he’s away a lot and very busy (the joys of being a leader in the field) so I won’t necessarily see that much of him even if we were in the same city. There’s also my secondary supervisor here who I’ve not made anywhere near as much use of as I should.

It seems like the choice is between somewhere I know but don’t much like and somewhere I don’t know but will either like much more or fall on my face just as I did here. Also, it’s a choice that needs to be made sooner rather than later because if I’m going to go it needs to be before September rolls around and I go into second year. There’s also the argument that it takes about a year to settle in anywhere.

Logic says that it’s better to stay in this city, somewhere that’s not amazing but will probably get better and isn’t really too bad after all I suppose, and maybe I’m jsut being too harsh on the city for something that isn’t really its fault… blah, blah, blah. But my gut is saying go! Go before I get trapped here forever (or at least the next three years). Go somewhere new with potential for new friends! Go somewhere where there’s an Industrial clubbing scene and alternative folk walking the streets!

So, better the devil you know than the one you don’t?

This isn’t the clearest letter ever but I trust that you and the readers will get what I mean, and your advice/viewpoint is always appreciated.

Yours sincerely

Out of the frying pan into the fire?

Dearest Frying Pan,

I sense two questions in your one question. The one you’ve spoken is “How do I decide which place to live?” but the one unspoken is “How do I find where I belong?” They sound similar, but they’re super different. Moving won’t necessarily mean you’ll belong at last, and staying doesn’t mean you will never belong. But! Let’s start with the spoken question, ’cause that’s actually pretty easy.

You could live in either place. You’ve made a great case for both locations! Neither would be the “wrong” choice. I’m serious. Even if you go/stay and are miserable for a while, your life is longer and richer than that period. This choice will not ruin your life, because your life will always be changing. You could choose to go, and a tornado rips through the town you just left. Or it could rip through the town you’ve moved to. Not because you’ve made the right or wrong choice, but because shit just happens everywhere. But also WONDERFUL things just happen everywhere.

You don’t know who is waiting for you in the future in either city. You don’t know even 1% of the people in either city. You don’t know for a fact that you’ll thrive in either city. You don’t know which of your friends now will still be your friends or even closer friends in a year (not because they’re fickle or anything, just that life and work and relationship adjustments happen).

So focus on the things that you actually know.
– How difficult is it for you to move?
– How expensive is it for you to move?
– Is it professionally wise to move?
– What is there in the new place that is drawing me to it?
– What is there in the old place that makes me happy?

Then you weigh your options. And then you ask yourself: “What am I going to do?” And listen to the answer.

NOW we get to the hard part: Where do I belong?

You can belong anywhere. ANYWHERE. But belonging can take some work.

You say you want a small, tight group of very close friends, that you and your current co-students aren’t super-tight, and that formerly you HAD a close cadre that was easy to come by.

But was it REALLY easy to come by? Or did all the time your Close Friends spent getting Close kind of telescope in on itself in retrospect? Did you all meet in undergrad? Because that is a hothouse for close friendships and romantic relationships that doesn’t really have a parallel in The Real World. It seems like Captain Awkward and I have been besties forever, but we were friends-of-friends for a LONG time before we ever hung out one-on-one. Do you hold up potential new friends against the glory of your Close Friends? ‘Cause that’s gonna be weird. And impossible for potential new friends to compete with.

My first year in Chicago was lonely. Bone crushingly lonely. Curl up on the futon weeping myself to sleep because I hadn’t talked to another human for three days lonely. It took a year and some friends of mine from college moving to my city for me to have friends. And another year to meet new people and consider them friends, though not close ones. Ten years on, I have a goddamn village.

Diana Barry and Anne Shirley wearing excellent hats.
Don't order people to be your best friend 10 seconds after you meet.

Now, I am a gregarious motherfucker. I can meet people like a champ. But meeting them a second time is the challenge. Finding people you like and hanging out with them until you’re friends is the challenge. Confiding in those friends your problems and dreams and stupid goofiness is the challenge.

I look at developing friendships a lot like I look at dating. All the basic Captain Awkward rules apply. They are just other humans, who don’t owe you their friendship or attention, but could potentially be fun to hang out with, given time and exposure.

Your People are everywhere.

You say that both of these places are “cities” so that implies to me that there’s a population over 10,000, and also because you are an academic, that tells me there’s a hoppin’ college/university life happening in both cities. Your People are in both cities, and you can find them, but only if you look, keep an open mind, and give them time.

Your People may be students, townies, single, married with kids, older than you think, younger than you think, churchier, anarchistier, louder, shyer, teetotalers, luddites, technocrats, knitters, blue-collar, ravers, and so many other things that you wouldn’t expect from Your People. To find them, you need to go where people are doing something you love: craft fairs, poetry readings, special screenings, exhibitions, karaoke nights, lessons in anything, churches, block sales, concerts, author book signings, fan conventions, literally anything that you would go to for fun anyway. And then you introduce yourself. A LOT. Or at least as much as you feel you can personally manage, and then talk to ONE more person than that.

“Hi! I’m Frying Pan! How did you hear about this event?”
“Hi! I’m Frying Pan! I’m trying to get to know people around here; how long have you lived here?”
“Hi! I’m Frying Pan! I’m looking for the best coffee in the three block area. Do you know where I could find it?”
“I love [thing person is wearing]! Where did you get it?”
“I’m in [neighborhood] but I’m looking to move, what’s your favorite neighborhood? What do you love about it?”

Praise. Ask advice. People fucking love to give advice. Or be snarky, if that’s your flavor of interaction. If the conversation flows, you might be friends! If the conversation stalls, you might not be, and in an emergency you can Napoleon Dynamite it out of there, and that’s okay. The thing is, your first goal is not “to make friends.” No. Your goal is “meet a lot of people.” Then if someone asks you something like “Why do you want to know?” you can answer “Just trying to meet new people.” If you say, “Just trying to make friends,” then the pressure is on! They might be friend material! Oh noes! I don’t even know if I like you yet! You aren’t friends yet, but you ARE new people who have met. SUCCESS!

They don’t have to be your friends right away. Or ever! The entire extent of your relationship may be that one meeting, or maybe they’ll introduce you to someone who will become your friend. But you are in charge of who you maintain contact with.

Megan McCarthy from Bridesmaids
Awesome people are everywhere and sometimes they befriend the shit out of you.

And when you meet new people that you like, date them. You know, friend-date them. Until you either become friends or drift apart. This process can take a very long time, but you still have your original Close Friends to support you. Heck, two of my closest friends haven’t lived in the same state as me for five years or more. The internet is a wonderful thing.

Now, I just had an illuminating talk with a dear friend of mine who, a long while back, I had given all this belonging-friend-making type advice to before. I found that at the time, she kind of resented it, and I completely get why! How DARE I say it was easy! How DARE I say that she was being narrow in her assumptions of who Her People could be! How DARE I tell her she wasn’t looking hard enough! It’s like the Friend version of the old dating saw “Well if you’d just put yourself out there.” *GAG FOREVER*

But she’s, if not thriving, doing way better now! Not because of my advice, but because she changed her outlook from big picture to small. In her own words: I changed my math-head from “I went 15 hours surrounded by people today without a soul to talk to” to something more like “who did I talk to today? Oh yes, Carolyn! She’s so nice!” Never mind that she and I spoke for maybe four minutes, or that maybe she was the only person I talked with that day. It’s not like it’s up to me to *make* every interaction positive/productive (cf “you don’t have to make it work”), but it is up to me to really love it when it is.

You don’t have to be friends with everyone you meet, but connections, interactions, are your opportunities. And she still belongs in Chicago, because people who care about her are here.

You’re going to be okay, Frying Pan. You will belong where you are. You already belong here.

Commander Logic

20 thoughts on “Guest Post! Question #91: Moving vs. Staying. Instructions for finding Your People and Your Place.

  1. Oh Frying Pan, my heart goes out to you. I need as much alone time as the next introverted lady, but I was SO LONELY for my first few years of my PhD program. In fact, I didn’t really feel like I had a peer group or network until my third year. (This was not quite true, but I had gotten quite used to being lonely and miserable, so I forgot to recount my blessings for awhile there.)

    When I found to my surprise that I had friends, this is where they came from:
    -My PhD program (but only like two of them. PhDs are hard to befriend, sometimes).
    -Friends/mates of my PhD colleagues. (In fact, one colleague’s S.O. is such a friendly, dynamic person that she had introduced me to several other dearest friends, as well as a network of karaoke-lovin fools.)
    -Other work. I held a few part-time jobs during my degree, and one brought me a BFF for life.
    -OKCupid. I’m serious. One boyfriend, one BFF, and the previous owner of the cats I now own all arrived as part of the Peer Package of one dude I met platonically on OKC.

    The moral is that the friendiverse is out there, it just sometimes arrives through unexpected vehicles.

    And you do have to ask for it. Commander’s introducing-yourself route is key. The next step is asking.
    Hey, are you hungry? Want to grab a bite after work?
    Hey, you said you do yoga? Where do you go? I’m looking for a good studio, do you mind if I come with you once?
    Hey, there’s a lecture tomorrow. Who’s going?

    I bet some of the people you ask (perhaps especially the PhDs?) will be so pleased to be considered.

  2. A possibly relevant note here: You say you’re working on a PhD. If you’re ultimately aiming for an academic position, it can actually be a benefit to not like the place too much. Academic institutions often prefer to hire people who got their degrees elsewhere, which usually requires moving.

    So if you succeed at building connections in the place you’re in, that’s great and it will enrich your life. But if you don’t, two to three years is not that long and then you could very likely be moving anyway.

  3. I moved to San Francisco from North Carolina just over a year ago, and I didn’t start feeling like I had much of a friends group until just at that year mark. In NC I was living as an introvert with a large number of friends; I didn’t go out all that much but it was always easy to find someone to grab coffee with or see at a small, low-key party. I love SF, but the largeness of it does seem to make finding “my people” a little more difficult, even though there’s so much going on.

    One of the first social things I did out here was attend a monthly crafting meetup run by a woman whose crafting blog I had read for years; we’re now friends and I’ve met a good number of crafty/creative people through her. I also started going to a trans-related support/discussion group early this year and have met some fantastic guys through that. It takes time – I’ve only really started to feel like my social circle is larger in the past few months – but seeking out groups related to your passion and interest really can help. A lot of these groups are free, too, which makes it easy to stop in and get a feel for a group’s members and culture without committing to much.

    Some commenters above made a good point – even if you aren’t meeting capital-f Friends everywhere you go, the more people you know the more likely it is that you’ll find a friend-of-a-friend you can really click with.

    1. I realize I am a few months late to this thread, but would you mind posting the name of the crafty meetup? I’d love to meet some crafty people!

  4. I agree that it can take quite some time before you feel that you belong to a place. However, it’s just a move. So, I say…what the hell, move. You can’t keep feeling that the grass is greener every time, but this part: “Go somewhere where there’s an Industrial clubbing scene and alternative folk walking the streets!” suggests that the other city may have more of what you like in life, anyway.

    Move, then. But remember that you have to put the time and work in to meet people, if you do.

  5. Reposting:

    Hey, Captain Awkward, you’ve alluded to living abroad:

    Do you have any advice on how to do this in a foreign country? With a different language and some awkwardness-inducing cultural differences, especially as regards socializing? I have been trying and failing to turn in my Hermit card lately, and would appreciate some advice. If it’s not a derail.

    1. The Cap’n will probably have more relevant advice than I, but here’s my take:

      1 – Seriously, everyone loves to give advice. When you are in a new situation, learn the phrase in the local language for “Can you please help me find [thing you are interested in].” Also, “I want to do things properly/authentically, so how do I [action] like a real [nationality]?” This immediately puts the askee in a position of authority and prestige, and they are going to be inclined to both help and like you.

      2 – If you’re going to be there for a while, and don’t know the language that well, find other expats to help you out. They can point you to language learning centers, friendly locals, and generally make your transition easier. Google for [nationality] expats in [nation/city] and you’ll find at least one blogger to touch base with. They may not end up your friend, but they can be a valuable toehold.

      1. Oh, at this point I’m proficient. It’s mostly a problem of, well, you know how it goes if you’ve traveled for a long time: after a certain number of hours/days/weeks, my brain just can’t handle talking in a foreign language anymore. It creates some stress in social situations, too.

        But that’s a vicious circle, innit?

        The second tip is an excellent one for my situation, though–I’ll see if I can’t find other bloggers in my area.

      2. And thanks.

        I guess…hm. Okay, so it’s like this: I’ve been here for a year. I’m not sure if I’m going to stay in this specific location for very much longer. But I’ll be approximately here for a long time yet, maybe several years, and I need to learn some second-stage expat coping habits. I need to start living here as though it’s my home, rather than just a place to kill time. And I don’t really know how to do that. I haven’t been backpacking around for a few years now, but my life is about as transient and shallow.

        1. I haven’t stayed anywhere more than a year, so I don’t quite know the next level – I know that my friend in the foreign service gets really engaged in lessons/mastering new hobbies – in Indonesia he studied rock climbing with Indonesian instructors, I know he’s studied piano, joined churches, etc. So maybe take a class or lessons?

          Whenever I’ve lived abroad I’ve been thankful for the way that American movies spread like the plague – an evening in the dark NOT having to struggle with language is healing.

          I’ve found a lot of comfort and community around food shopping – going to farmer’s markets and getting to know the vendors, having people I see every week keeps me grounded. A few years ago when I visited Paris I rented a tiny studio and made the vacation about 75% about establishing cool life routines and 25% about museums/eating ice cream every day, so by the end of the week I had my croissant guy and my wine guy and my cheese guy. This is one of those times that Commander Logic’s suggestion of asking for advice/recipes/instructions comes in handy.

          The Hidden Kitchen in Paris started with the couple who runs it decided to make friends by having a weekly Sunday dinner party. They developed chef skills and interests and began charging money, and while their food is AMAZING what’s really memorable are the people you meet around their table. Maybe start a weekly or monthly dinner at your place, invite a few people you’d like to get to know better?

          Is there a chapter of the Hash Hound Harriers near you?

          Is there an embassy of where you’re from where you are? Get on their mailing list for cultural events. (That’s good business networking, too)

          Don’t feel like you have to be “authentic” and only hang out with natives and avoid other expats.

          Finally, don’t be hard on yourself. Culture shock is real, and while you adapt over time it never really fully goes away, it just keeps morphing into something else.

          1. Thanks for the advice. (I’ve been to a Hidden Kitchen event, way back when–it was wonderful. I’m on couchsurfing; I should probably cruise around for some sort of regular event that does not take place in a bar or nightclub. Even here, those probably exist.)

            These are all good, straightforward suggestions, which is exactly what I need. Honestly, the problem might be more homesickness/burnout than anything else. My job is teaching, and I have a ton of students, so I spend the entire week engaged in intense socializing. By Friday, I can’t talk to another human being. Then I sit in my room watching television (in English) and feeling frustrated and useless.

            Probably a good idea to find some potlucks.

    2. Go to
      Type in your zip code
      See all the groups that are in your area.
      Go out and ‘meet up’!

      If you don’t speak the language or don’t speak it well, you can still find ‘ex-pat’ groups.. folks that are not natives of the country you’re in.

      You could join a dining out group, a museum group, a singles group, hiking group… there are groups for every interest – and its easy to start your own group too. So, if you want to start a Tech/D&D/gaming/LBGT/Knitting/Pug/Cycling/board games/’insert interest here’ group – sign up, pay the fee (like $20 a month now) and set up some ‘events’. You could also just join some groups and ‘lurk’ until you feel comfortable enough to go. Don’t like what you see? Unjoin the group and find another!

  6. Frying Pan here,
    thanks for all the excellent advice and supportive comments. It’s good to know I’m not the only one 🙂

    I am moving to the new city after all, in about three weeks. Shiny new flat all of my own aquired. Perfectly timed to match the freshers intake, so hurrah for fresher’s fairs. Also, I’ve drawn up a list of activities I really need/want to take up again – choir, dancing class, tae kwon do/jiu jitsu, D&D etc.

    The other thing I need to remember is that these two cities are only an hour apart and I will be back in city 1 fairly regularly for uni admin/meetings etc. Moving doesn’t mean I get to cut the ties I do have here.

    Also, Commander, your point about switching to small picture is one I definitly have to keep in mind. And, you’re right – I didn’t come by those close friends as quickly as I like to think (took approx. a year and a half in all honesty) and on second thoughts, Freshers year was bone-crushingly lonely too on more than one occassion. Hmmm.

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    1. I’m really glad to hear all of this. One benefit of the academic life is that we get what feels like a fresh start once a year.

    2. Hooray! I do so love to be helpful. 😀

      Shiny new flat! Activities of funness! It just sounds wonderfully exciting, and I wish you all the very best.

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