It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me

Taylor Swift, ‘Anti-Hero’

And when it comes to loneliness, Taylor Swift couldn’t be more true.

An epidemic

People are talking about the loneliness epidemic. It’s been in the air since 2020 when the pandemic forced us all inside. Sure, most of us exited from our socially-distanced cocoons at speed but that doesn’t mean everything has gone back to the way it was before. We are still lonely according to the data (Campaign to End Loneliness and Friendship Recessions).

But I won’t talk to you more about how this is a problem. Many other voices I respect are talking about the fact that it is a problem and with a few suggestions of how to overcome it.

However, as much as I love these podcasts they’re also all white men speaking. And if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that a woman’s approach to loneliness and socialising is very different to a man’s!

Firstly, not all men

I do also want to quickly say that not all men are bad at socialising. Some do need a little bit of a push but largely they enjoy socialising. It just looks a bit different from the natural female approach to spending time together.

I call it the “side-by-side” method of socialising. Whereas women tend to prefer the “face-to-face” method (coffee is the classic millennial example), men prefer to stand next to each other. Think men gathered around a barbecue or on a hike. While these two methods are not locked to either gender (I wrote a whole post about walking with friends being a very good thing), I think there are enough anecdotes and stereotypes to give it some credence.

However, I’m not here to tell you how to get men to socialise. I have my hands full just with Mr FC and me trying to support each other in social situations where we’re both uncomfortable. Yay for introverts and ambiverts who were discouraged from socialising for almost three years! Instead, I’m coming for us, the women. Because while we may have bounced back with our close friends, there are still women out there who need to be scooped up and befriended.

Or, as one of my best friends claimed she did to me, adopted by an extrovert/someone less introverted than them.

“So yeah, it’s a war. It’s the goddamn fight of my life…”1

Here we are, with two broad frameworks to look at for combating loneliness. And yes, I’m using battle language. Anything else seems to demean the pervasiveness of loneliness and what is at stake if we do not take it seriously. Sure, it isn’t an active force that is out to get us like some malevolent demon. But it will thrive when we are passive about our relationships and community.

We need a plan of attack. Even more so if, like me, you tend towards introversion or shyness over extroversion and/or confidence. This is where side-by-side and face-to-face come into play.

Two Caucasian women hiking through Arches National Park, United States. It is a dry, rocky area with some grass shrubland. The rocks are a reddish colour and tower above the women.
My favourite way to do side-by-side
Photo by Frances Gunn on Unsplash

Side-by-side a.k.a walking together

I’ve kind of already tackled side-by-side by accident in a post I wrote about my experiences during lockdown. In this post, I make the case for walking with friends and family. Want to get to know someone? Go for a walk with them! Even better if you turn up with a coffee for them too.

Fortunately, walking isn’t the only way to spend time with one another side-by-side. It’s time for us to learn from the men in our lives!

Ever rolled your eyes at teen boys getting together for a night of gaming? Or your partner spending hours online gaming with his mates across the country? How about when they all gather around the barbecue or gravitate towards the pool table with their pints? During lockdown, it was catching up with a specific person that kept a friend running because this person was a runner.

Believe it or not, they are still building relationships. In amongst shouting at each other to shoot or duck or whatever (I’m clearly not a gamer!), the guys in our lives are also swapping updates, news, and stories of what they’ve been up to. In between the burgers and kebabs, dads update each other on everything from their kids to their football teams. It’s in this side-by-side, doing-things-together, that relationships grow. And where relationships grow, loneliness gets forced back.

Friendships are built not through snatched conversations before and after church, but when we linger in each other’s company. So what activities do we linger over?

Ed Shaw, ‘The Plausibility Problem’

Now, that’s not to say men are great at this. It is happening less and less because we aren’t actively pursuing “doing life together”. But side-by-side is a starting point for doing life together. And we women can learn from this too! Want to hang out but you’ve both got full calendars? Can you find space for what I’ve seen called an “errand-hang” – doing your own food shops together or doing the Saturday morning errands around town together? It might take more time but you’ll not only catch up but invite them into your life. Or how about a phone call while you’re both doing chores? With Bluetooth headphones, it isn’t as daft as it seems and might make the time go quicker! Take the kids to the playground… Join a parent-friend when they take their kids to the playground… DIY… the list goes on [Some of these ideas were stolen from The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. Go read it!].

Face-to-face a.k.a “the friend date”

One of my best friendships was founded on just one afternoon’s conversation when he asked me a few good questions

Ed Shaw, ‘The Plausibility Problem’

Now, side-by-side, doing-things-together socialising is great… for some people. It removes the intensity of opening up to another person because it isn’t just you and them. There is also the very reason you were hanging out: keep an eye on the kids or complete jobs around town or finish that DIY project. But for some of us, this isn’t enough. We can’t open up without giving someone our complete and undivided attention, which often means we expect the same in return.

Enter “the friend date”.

It goes by the alternative, more normal, names of “Go for a coffee”, “Grab a pint”, or “Want to come over for dinner?” For women, this kind of socialising is what we have been raised to do. Men (according to my lengthy study of one Mr FC) don’t do this so well, which may have led to the development of pool tables in pubs 🤔

Yet, for the increasing numbers of university-educated adults out there, grabbing a coffee with a friend or having them over for dinner is also increasingly rare. For six of my closest friends, it means a full weekend away for three of them and a full day at least for the other three. I’m lucky if I see friends I grew up with once a year when we all get together and people I used to see weekly are now a few times a year. Why? Because we’re a mobile society that is increasingly spread out*.

All of this means that we need to be more attentive to face-to-face socialising. The other night, I sat in Leon with a friend for three hours. Technically we were there to do the food planning for a group holiday. In reality, we shared genuine prayer requests, discussed being Christian women today, and shared where our lives were at in that moment. All because we intentionally chose to have dinner together and spend time in each other’s company.

But there is also very little that is scarier than going on a friend date with someone for the first time. Maybe, like me, you are new to the area and desperately trying to connect with people. The questions, “will they turn up?”, “what will we talk about?”, “will they like me or I like them?”, are just as valid here as they are on a romantic date. Yet we still have to make the effort, or risk being left with friendships that are reliant on WhatsApp messages and video calls.

But what if that is all there is to it? What if face-to-face socialising is just a matter of effort and being brave, at least at the start? Today, I challenge you to ask someone to meet up for a coffee. If they’re a good friend already, take it a step further and invite them to your house for a cup of tea (or their beverage of choice).

How am I the problem?

So where does it go wrong? Where does loneliness get a handhold? It goes wrong with us. And not even collectively. At an individual level, loneliness wins when we stop being attentive to our need for community. When we stop choosing to hang out with each other. That is loneliness’s moment of victory.

When you start to say no to every social engagement because of “x” reason**. Or your friends stop messaging you because you never reply anyway. Another little victory for loneliness.

As I type this, Mr FC is downstairs with two friends. They’re enjoying a glass of wine while going through chess puzzles (no, I didn’t know they were a thing either). It’s one of his favourite nights. We regularly host, including dinner, because it means it will definitely happen.

On Saturday I’m getting a coffee with an acquaintance. We have mutual friends so have ended up at the same parties and always got on. I’m looking forward to the coffee. I’m also looking forward to getting to know someone better.

You and I; we are the problem that creates loneliness. But you and I are also the solution. Every time that we choose to spend time with people, loneliness loses. And every time loneliness loses, we take back a little bit of what it means to be human.

To win this war, it doesn’t matter if you’re going out for a drink and chat with one friend or crowding around a pool table with a whole bunch. You are with people. You are part of a community.

Take that loneliness!

Adopt and introvert today! A response to loneliness.

Image shows two girls with their legs in the air. They are lying in a field of long grass. The sky is blue with hills in the background.

* There are way too many reasons for this but I do wonder how much the car and internet are one cause? Maybe one for a future post. Let me know in the comments.

** This is not an argument against solitude though. All things in moderation. Perhaps another blog post to come from this footnote too?

1 Taylor Swift, ‘Ivy