Living in Singapore on a Fulbright, it is not uncommon to be at a dinner table where every person present is from a different country. I recently went on a weekend trip with friends: our group was from Sweden, India, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Mexico and the States.
Singapore has a local population of roughly 3.8 million and an expat population of about 1.5 million. With so many transplants and expats in the country, with so many people looking for a new community, there is an openness to friendship that I haven’t experienced since college.
Developing or sustaining friendships is often discarded in the twenties and thirties. At the very least, friendships take a back seat as a great deal more importance is placed on romantic pursuits and career aspirations.
But creating a mindset that friendship should no longer be a priority is denying one of the richest relational experiences we can have.
Allowing new people to enter your life alters your thinking. Friends from childhood or college can be incredibly valuable, but like family, old patterns can set in. These friends encountered us at a specific time and specific set point of our maturity and self-awareness. As we grow, our self-perception hopefully changes, as do our life stories.
In her insightful book, The Defining Decade, author Meg Jay (Phd) writes about the need for creating social stories about ourselves and why we hold on to them: “As we become capable of–and interested in–abstract thought, we start to put together stories about who we are and why. As our social networks expand across our teens and twenties, we repeat these stories to others and to ourselves. We use them to feel a sense of coherence as we move from place to place.”
The problem is, we can cling to these stories for security and coherence as we make transitions–even if they are outdated and no longer apply to our current experiences. They can be crutches.
Jay goes on to say that, “Twentysomething men and women…usually have untold, or at least unedited, stories. These stories originated in old conversations and experiences and, so, they change only through new conversations and new experiences.”
While older friendships can and often grow, they can also hold us back or remain unchallenging. When we know people for a long time, we are not necessarily obligated to present our best selves. We can fall back on habits we might otherwise be challenged to outgrow. With new social circles, we are connecting as our most present selves, from our most present experiences.
This gives us the opportunity for re-definition, for renewal–with less pressure than is put on romantic relationships. In new romantic relationships, there is high pressure, on multiple levels, in how we present. In friendships, with less at stake, we are more free to explore, test out, “newer” parts of our personality.
In graduate school, I made friends who taught me how to camp down the Grand Canyon, when previously, my inner social circle had been entirely urban. Discussing the U.S elections in Singapore has been expansive, as friends from all over the world discuss Trump and Clinton and Sanders through the lens of Swedish health care or Indian media.
But besides living in a foreign country with a big expat scene, what are ways we can expand our social network?
Start breaking habits. Allow your newest stories to catch up with outdated self-perceptions. Seek out groups, lectures, classes that may not fit with your older sense of self or current group of friends–but fit with who you are now or perhaps who you now aspire to be. Go down the random paths, the hobbies and interests that intrigue you, that might not fit with how long you’ve allowed yourself to be defined. Allow people outside your normal social circle in. When with old friends, bring your most current self. Allow for your opinions–be it on politics, art, sex, to change.
It’s not replacing friends (the roots of old friendship are often so valuable and rewarding) but more about expansion. The need to renew, to create room for new personalities, for new self-definitions, new stories.