Saturday, February 11, 2006

Social Lives

I'm wondering what other people think who've moved to a new town or returned somewhere after a significant absence. How hard is it to meet people and make friends? How does New Zealand compare to other places? How does Wellington?

Those who know me will know that this is a favourite topic. Several different things have set me to thinking about it again recently.

One: in an idle moment, following a couple of links from David Farrar's blog (I don't recommend doing this too often; you will waste a lot of time), I ended up reading about the tortured social and sexual interactions of a group of Auckland twentysomethings. One girl in particular appeared to be quite a nasty piece of work. But one comment on her blog (which was one of the links from DPF's site), gave me pause. To paraphrase, she said:

"Anyway, why would anyone want to hang out with people they don't know? If you don't have your own friends already you must be a total loser"

Though her thoughts and actions, described on her own blog and elsewhere, appeared to border on the sociopathic, this rang true; maybe she was just being open and unabashed about what seems to be a widely (if perhaps subconsciously) held view.

This would explain why it's so tortuous trying to make friends in this country. If you don't already have a set of "mates", you're a bit suspect -- and this of course exacerbates the problem.

Another stimulus for thinking about this issue was a visit from a friend who lives in Sydney and is thinking about moving to Wellington with his girlfriend. We went out for dinner and drinks last weekend, which was, of course, sevens weekend. Wellington was alive with the carnival spirit, full of bonhomie and joie de vivre (you see, us Anglo Saxons don't even have the right words). We had a great time; it was really difficult trying to convince him it's not normally like that. He in turn claimed that Sydney was truly unfriendly, and wouldn't believe that Wellington was worse.

Another was this amusing article by Will Hide in the Observer about going looking for romance in New York. He writes:

Second, if you're alone but hoping not to be, Americans are much more approachable than we British, be it at the food store, the pub or the gym. You can chat to complete strangers without feeling like a total psycho. Third, if you're simply on your own and happy that way, New York is a great place just to hang out because everyone does it. Going to the cinema alone in Britain? Sad git. Going to the cinema alone in New York? Hey, cool, a chance for some quality 'me' time. Lunch for one in Blighty? Obviously Billy No-mates. Lunch for one in Manhattan? Alluring. A bit mysterious even.

Swap "New Zealand" for "Britain" in this passage, and the above is a pretty fair description of attitudes.

After much discussion and argument on this topic, I've modified my views a little bit. First, it's not fair to make comparisons with travelling, when you always meet people and make friends - partly because you run into a lot of like-minded people, partly because you're perceived as exotic and interesting, and partly because you yourself behave more openly.

Secondly, there's a continuum here. New Zealand is probably better than, say, northern England. Wellington is better than Christchurch. The United States has a noticeably more open social culture, at least in major urban areas. Very big cities are best of all -- it seems strange to me that many pople don't like the big-city anonymity which allows you to reinvent and renew yourself, and consequently seems to make people more open and interesting.

But it's frustrating to read the advice that pops up on places like MSN about how to get over your breakup / meet "dates" / lose weight / look for a new career. This is specific to the American context, and is always telling you to get involved and join things, where you're bound to meet lots of like-minded people.

Thing is, I've got involved in or joined several things in my life here. All of them were because I particularly wanted to do the relevant activity, rather than to meet people--though I certainly would have been open to that. But in all cases, it was the wider social situation writ small. People were always nice enough, but as soon as said activity was over we usually all disappeared back to our own lives as quickly as possible.

One thing driving this is of course the tyranny of the couple, which dominates social interactions of every type in Wellington. It's extraordinary; in Third World, Catholic Peru, there seemed to be hordes of people who were at least in principle single. In secular, late-marrying, urban, highly educated Wellington, the single person over 25 is practically an endangered species.

Supposedly there's a surplus of single women in this town (the fabled "man drought"). If so, it seems they have decided to protest the demographic imbalance by collectively going into hiding.

But I digress -- that's all for another post. Even if you discount way mass coupledom limits socialising -- since two people have exponentially more inertia than one -- it's just really hard to get social traction in this town. If you do join something, or start a new job, don't expect people to go "Hey - you're new. Do you want to come with us to have a drink / go to the game / watch a movie?" That's American stuff. Everyone will be off to hang out with their "partner" or "mates", and will expect that you will too.

If you're around for, say a year, there may be some kind of compulsory social event (say, a company party, or end-of-season prizegiving) where people from the group will see you out of the normal context and figure that you might be non-toxic. Over a couple of drinks, you might find some common ground with one or two people. Perhaps you strike a rapport, which could even lead to hanging out with them again. But you must be patient.

Anyway, this is just me opining, when I'd asked for other views. Maybe it's just me. What do you think? Has anyone else experienced the same problems? Is New Zealand any worse than anywhere else?

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Susan said...

I think it's hard anywhere outside the travel circuit. The only place I found it easy was in Malaysia in the 1970s where we were living in an expatriate community and we all hung out together because it was small. That brought it's own set of idiosyncracies of course but we definitely had a social circle very rapidly. In the US (Colorado) in the early 1970s I found it particularly hard - it wasn't for about 2 years that I made some friends and then we had to leave. Certainly Americans were really friendly on the surface and we often heard that "we must ask you round" but the invitations were not forthcoming. We tried offering the invitation first in some cases but met with only moderate success. Coming back to New Zealand to a new area was just as bad and it was really only when our children started school that I started to meet people. Overall, for me, the workplace has been the best forum for meeting people and making friends. All my long-standing female friends except for one (who was introduced by a neighbour) have been acquired through the workplace either directly or indirectly. But even then it took a long time to build those friendships.

Susan said...

I just noticed I put an inappropriate apostrophe in "its" in my comment and can't edit it out. I know it shouldn't be there! Don't know how this happened. That will teach me to preview what I have written and not to be in such a hurry

Tom said...

Wellington's not too bad, compared to the UK. There's a bit of a "Billy no mates" attitude here, but I've never had any issue with sitting in a cafe or cinema by myself. In fact, I like to spend a lot of time on my own in cafes reading or writing, and sometimes find it frustrating because I keep getting into conversations!

But in general, I know what you mean. People are supposed to meet through work, family or "friends of friends". I have a friend who's unbelievably good at starting conversations with strangers, but generally I find it very hard to initiate: that's probably my problem rather than others'. Actually, it's sometimes trickier to make male friends, because with women there's often a subtle undertone of flirting that facilitates making friends, even if no-one's "in the market". There's one guy that I've met a couple of times at friend's parties & had interesting conversations with, and I keep wanting to invite him along to some sort of social event, but it's harder than asking for a date! There's a Seinfeld episode about that, somehwere...

There was one apartment block I was in that was incredibly social: one summer, we kept having impromptu barbeques and cocktail parties in the atrium, and I'm still in contact with many of them. But most apartments aren't set up well with common areas, and I generally haven't got to know any neighbours since then. Not that it's much better in the suburbs.

But there are some places that work, even if you start from zero:

- Quiz night (good for the social life, bad for the liver)
- Small local shops (at places like Wineseeker and House of Hank I've got to know the proprietors, and they've often introduced me to their other regular customers if they happen to wander in)
- Gallery openings (just wander into somewhere like Ferner or Bowen, chat to the staff and they'll probably put you on the mailing list for openings - great for free drinks, too!)
- Wine tastings
- Public talks and debates
- Blogs!
- Bars (no, not getting pissed on a Friday night and groping the patrons - though that can work in some places - but sitting at the bar and chatting to the bartender. Often you can get to know the regulars that way, though whether they will make reliable, healthy friends is another question!)