Socializing as a Habit

My idea of an enjoyable flight involves a lively conversation with the cute girl sitting next to me. So when she sat down, I said hello. Turns out she’s a runner from New Zealand who is going home for the first time in several years. I’m learning about how teenage pregnancy is all the rage in her homeland and how the cattle there are fed grass instead of corn. But that’s enough chatting… back to my book on theoretical neuroscience.

We’ve been taught that life is about making trade-offs. Parties, hanging out, and conversation all take time, as do homework, the gym, and sleep.

But in fact, there is a way around this. Going to parties may be the best way to meet people (you get to chat in a fun environment among many mutual friends), but that takes all of Saturday night and eats into Sunday morning. The trick is to take the little things and make them social. More generally, if we transform socializing from an activity to a habit and we adopt a social attitude toward our daily routine, everyday life becomes more purposeful and more fun.

As an example, freshman year we all ate in Annenberg, the freshman-only dining hall. At every meal, after filling my tray with Parmesan chicken and steamed broccoli, I would look around for a familiar face to sit with. People always managed to find their friends, and it wasn’t clear to me how they did it (the dining hall is huge) since no one seemed to spend an excessive amount of time floundering around looking for people.

Sometime toward the end of the semester, I realized that people showed up at Annenberg together in order to eat with each other. This involved coordinating ahead of time via text or gchat. This changed everything. I overcompensated by arranging to meet friends for almost every single dinner the next semester. Meals are the perfect venue for keeping up with friends in a low-commitment way. Why not give your activities dual purposes? Set up lunch dates, study parties, and group jogs.

Back in high school, I tended to do things by myself. Whether I went to the school talent show, big game, or whatever, I went alone. One year, a close friend of mine asked if I wanted to go to class registration with him. I almost declined instinctively because that wasn’t the sort of thing I did with other people. But then I realized how much more fun it would be to have a friend to chat with while wading my way through a crowd of cheerful high schoolers.

The point is that you should feel comfortable turning even mundane errands into productive social interactions. The same mentality applies when you are walking between classes or riding on the subway. Everyone you meet is a potential friend or romantic interest.

For example, this past summer, I was planning on heading up to San Francisco with some friends from work. I ended up oversleeping and missing the train. I vacillated, but ultimately decided to go anyway. I wasn’t looking forward to the forty minute ride on Caltrain by myself, but when I saw some college-aged guys get on board, I followed them into the same compartment. I wasn’t planning on interjecting into their conversation, but when they started playing a word game that I knew, I had to join in.

It turned out that they were a bunch of students from Cornell interning at various tech companies. We chatted and exchanged stories about college. The trip was delightful. Upon arrival at the station, they invited me to a bonfire they were having at the beach. My friends and I ended up going and having a great time.

So when you next board a train, sit down in class, or join a protest, be on the lookout for interesting people. Alternatively, bring a friend. Socializing need not be something that you set time aside to do, rather it can be a tool used to enhance the many other activities in your life.