When Rachael Tom and her husband, Brandon Tams, made the cross-country move to Seattle from Washington, D.C., in June, they had no friends in their new city. Despite dealing with coronavirus-induced social restrictions, though, Tom said she’s made more friends now than she did before the pandemic.
“I mean, you can literally do everything virtually,” Tom said. “Just like how you can work 100% from home, you can actually forge lifelong, lasting friendships from home too, just using the same communication tools.”
With most in-person events canceled, schools closed and work moved from the office to the couch, our social lives have changed dramatically this year. And it can be challenging for those who are new in town to meet new people, let alone form friendships. However, our innate need to connect with others and form relationships has not changed — if anything, it’s now more important than ever to lean on each other.
Friendships and meaningful relationships are essential for our mental and physical health, said Angela Agelopoulos, a licensed clinical psychologist with Seattle Counseling and Wellness.
“It’s what we’re born with — socialization gives us warmth, a sense of belonging, it gives us meaning in our lives,” Agelopoulos said. “Being with people — whether in person or on the computer or talking on the phone — helps to improve our ability to cope with stressful situations.”
To fulfill that need, people are finding creative ways to meet people and make friends in ways compliant with social distancing. New Seattleites say they are taking to Facebook groups and virtual clubs, downloading apps like Peanut — an app that connects mothers and soon-to-be moms — and even just talking to their neighbors in order to make those connections.
What to do when you’re new in town
Tom said when she first moved to the city, she hit the ground running, joining Facebook groups and volunteering remotely so she could meet new people.
“You get validation from others that you wouldn’t get from yourself. Venting, or being able to share a story or being able to lean on someone for support, you just can’t do it alone,” Tom said. “I feel like I’ve gained a lot of mental sanity in having these relationships.”
She started volunteering for 50/50 Leadership — an organization geared toward empowering women to pursue leadership roles — where she said she’s made lots of connections and friendships.
A Facebook group called “Making Friends in Seattle” has brought together thousands of new residents and born-and-raised Pacific Northwesterners through virtual events over the past few months.
Group administrator Michael Wilson said he inherited the group from its previous owner in July 2019 and has seen it grow from around 600 members to nearly 6,000 over the past year. During the pandemic, Wilson said the group started having weekly Zoom calls instead of in-person meetups so more people could get to know each other.
“A lot of people mentally are having a hard time getting through the pandemic,” Wilson said. “So being able to get people together even on an online discussion through the group kind of helps people get through it because they have other people to talk to.”
But it’s not always easy. Some say it’s been a challenging cycle of putting themselves out there with little or no results. On top of it all, you have to find people who have the same social distancing expectations and interests as you.
Desiree Cassandra Romero, a hairdresser from Phoenix, moved to Seattle a few months ago and said connecting with people online takes more effort and coordination than meeting someone in person.
“It’s been interesting to talk online for a little bit longer, and decide if you actually want to meet them,” she said. “You have to be a little more choosy, you know? Do you really want to meet this person? How do you want to meet them? Do you want to social distance? Do you want to wear your mask? What are their ideas on that?”
Melisa Soriano, a stay-at-home mom with four kids between the ages of 18 months and 15 years old, moved to Seattle from San Diego in September, and says it’s been a struggle to meet people who are willing to set up in-person play dates. Her kids are having a tough time making friends because their classes are virtual, and Soriano said she wants to get them socializing with kids their age.
She said she’s reached out to some moms in the area through the Peanut app, but most people she’s talked to were uncomfortable setting up physical get-togethers.
“It’s hard maintaining and it’s hard to continue texting these moms,” she said. “When I do try to message them during the day, I don’t get a response back till later in the day.”
Anyone who’s ever moved to a new city can relate: It’s hard to put yourself out there, to be vulnerable, to try meeting people when you are starting completely from scratch.
But don’t lose hope. Some say the pandemic-stoked cabin fever has made people more open to making friends. Sunny Malik moved to Seattle four years ago from Islamabad, Pakistan, and said he gave up trying to make new friends over the past few years because he is introverted and works long hours.
Now that he’s working from home, Malik has had more time in the day to reach out and invest in new relationships. He said people are more receptive and eager to make friends now than before the pandemic.
“There’s a whole change in the mindset. Everyone has become welcoming and appreciative, respondent,” said Malik, a member of the Making Friends in Seattle group. “I made so many friends during this pandemic, whether it’s through social media, whether it’s in my neighborhood.”
Think outside the box
Loneliness and stress can have long-term health effects, Agelopoulos said, and it’s important to prioritize quality over quantity — that is, connect with people that you care about.
“Lack of social connectedness heightens your health risks. Not just your mental health,” Agelopoulos said. A 2017 Brigham Young University psychology study showed that loneliness can exert the same physical toll on the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“That’s how important and how detrimental not having social connection is to our physical health,” Ageloupolos said. “[The study] even found that not having social connections is twice as harmful to your physical and mental health as obesity is.”
Agelopoulos said it’s all in how you perceive your loneliness, though.
“It’s how you feel about being alone. If you’re by yourself, but you’re OK … there’s no reason to be worried,” she said. “It depends on how being isolated makes you feel.”
Even outside of Facebook groups, people are getting creative in both real and virtual spaces in their efforts to connect with others.
Malik says he’s met members of the Making Friends in Seattle Facebook group in person at outdoor picnics where everyone wears masks and is socially distanced.
Hannah Klopfenstein founded a digital church, Courageous Church, after she noticed meeting people “organically” was much harder when wearing a mask.
“It’s really hard to have conversations with people out in public. It feels like it would almost be socially incorrect to do so,” she said. “We went ahead and just launched a digital church — to step into that need that’s there with isolation, and to start digital groups that meet weekly so that people can be in regular community.”
Also, think about activities you enjoy and find ways to do them — even if the format is now different. Workout studios like Upbeats moved to online classes last spring and are slowly coming back to in-person outdoor and indoor classes at limited capacity. Allison Axdorff, founder of Upbeats, said she built in “lobby time” before the online classes so attendees could socialize before the workouts.
“You get both health benefits — community and really feeling connected to the community — and also the movement and activity aspect as well,” Axdorff said.
For many people, routine and exercise can make a huge difference on their mental health, Agelopoulos said. She said she encourages her clients to develop routines and stick to them — especially with the seasons changing.
“We have the pandemic, we have the election, and we are going to have less daylight and very gloomy weather very soon,” she said. “We haven’t had the pandemic in the dead of winter yet, and it really worries me for people’s mental health.”
Tom, the transplant from D.C., said finding groups focused on shared interests is the best way to make lasting connections with others. She said she joined a wide range of Facebook groups that reflected her interests, from hiking to drinking tea.
“As long as you know the things that you like, you’ll be able to find people that you can have stuff in common with and form relationships with,” Tom said.
While putting yourself out there and engaging with new people is the first step, Tom said keeping up with your new friends and being consistent is key.
“Friendships are definitely work. You do have to reach out and check in, so it does take effort,” Tom said. Things like commenting on each other’s social media posts or sending a quick text can make a big difference.
Case in point: One of Tom’s strongest pandemic friendships has been with a woman named Melissa Lepore, her co-chair in the 50/50 Leadership group.
“She and I talk every single day and we also support each other,” Tom said. “I’ve learned and I’ve grown a lot from just knowing her. We really rely on each other — I hope I can meet her one day in person.”