By Lynn Auslander, an American giving hints about how to make friends in Silicon Valley.
A local friend recently told me that her French colleagues found building friendships with Americans really difficult.
“I understand!” I exclaimed, “I’ve been there!” Like many of these French natives, I’m a trailing spouse and have followed my husband’s career to various cities, and besides the obvious challenges, the main hidden one for us is how to find friends.
But before we begin, the most important thing to know is that you’re not alone. Many people feel this way after moving to the Bay Area, even Americans. There are numerous obstacles in our way. Hopefully, awareness of them will help us to persevere, in spite of them.
Making Friends As An Adult
Many of us have recognized that it’s easier to make friends while at school because it forces us to spend time together and offers a common subject and regular social contact. At work also. There’s an invisible structure already in place that helps you meet new people.
Prior to marriage, I moved many times for work and always made friends either in the office or going out in the evening. But moving for someone else’s career made meeting new people more challenging.
Plus, socializing changes as an adult. Work, family, health, and kids’ activities constrain your schedule. With whom and when you can socialize is limited. Simply put, it takes more time and effort to make friends when you’re an adult.
To complicate things, you’re dealing with new cultures and traditions, in addition to invisible local social rules.
Americans’ obsession with sports and kids’ activities hogs parents’ time and focus, leaving little of it available to meet new people.
There are endless articles on the American approach to friendships. In essence, the emphasis is on individualism, categorizing friends, and fast, superficial friendship. And why are we so friendly when first meeting someone new? One theory is that early immigrants arrived with neither family nor friends, so they had to be kind to create a new social support system. Americans still move and change jobs often, forcing us to appear as an agreeable candidate for a friendship. The saying “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” sums this up.
Of course, mastering language is a multifaceted challenge, needing to navigate through the English language itself and the local Silicon Valley sublanguage. For English, you can easily practice as most videos offer captions and are easily rewound to practice comprehension. Language-exchange partners can also help. Ask your friends if they know of anyone who’d like to swap practicing French and English.
For Silicon-Valley jargon, there are sites dedicated to translating and explaining both the vocabulary and abbreviations. It’s always fun to regularly check them, as new terms keep popping up and finding their way into our daily lives (and to keep up with your kids!).
But what makes Silicon Valley socializing different?
Ambitious people move to the Bay Area, laser-focused on chasing the American Dream, humming California Dreaming along the way. They work long hours, prioritize business networking, and are absorbed by taking advantage of the opportunities here. Local tech businesses encourage team-building, leading people to stay within their business-social network. So you prioritize making friends at work. Plus, you’re making connections for your future, which is why you came here in the first place.
The result is that some people around you aren’t necessarily as interested in and probably won’t go out of their way to develop a friendship.
Let’s say you go to your child’s activity. What clues are a giveaway that you’re in the Valley?
Waiting parents staring at their screens.
They’re not open to conversation when out and about. Before cell phones, parents talked to each other while in the waiting area. Now they get lost in technology. It’s easier and probably relaxing to scroll on their phones. Others bring their laptops, deciding that catching up on or getting ahead at work is a better investment of their time and the main reason they moved to the Bay Area than trying to make a friend or social connection. It’s a lost opportunity, unfortunately.
And don’t even get me started about parties and get-togethers around here where people are taking work calls or texting their boss instead of meeting the person next to them.
Another lost chance.
Transient: The Revolving Door
We repeatedly see record numbers of people moving into and out of Silicon Valley. Moving trucks are frequently parked on neighborhood streets. Some people avoid getting to know someone who will eventually move away. It’s a way they protect themselves since it can feel like a heavy loss when someone leaves your life.
In one of the international schools my kids attended, older students who had moved every 2-3 years stopped making friends by the time they got to high school. It was too painful to keep saying goodbye when you or a friend moved on.
Where Have All The Mommies Gone?
With many Moms working, fewer are at the playground, playdates, volunteer events, activities, or available for coffee dates. I’ve briefly met them at the kids’ activities and would love to grab a cup of coffee, and even when they’re looking to connect, it’s challenging for them to find time to meet.
With Covid upending our social world, it’s harder to socialize in person. Turning to online and arms-length face-to-face meetings is still a challenge to get to know people. One option I’m doing is to attend more Zoom meetings for local groups. This includes schools (organized by the school or the parents’ organization), local art groups, and local government events. Some cities are running online game nights or cooking classes in the evening, and most of the other attendees are probably your neighbors. When the pandemic subsides, you’ll hopefully be able to meet new friends in person.
Face it, it’s usually easier to bond with someone going through the same stages of life, whether it is the age of your children or even yourself. In addition, as an older mom, it was challenging, even in the States, to connect with much younger moms. My driver’s license was older than some of them!
What To Do?
The first step, the basics: ask yourself what you’re looking for in a friend. Just meet for coffee? A surrogate family, supporting each other when your parents (and old friends) aren’t available to help? Or just relax and pursue your own interests?
Second, observe that the French and Americans, and Silicon Valleyites, can approach things differently.
Try smiling or looking more content. Americans are put-off by a blank or displeased expression.
One key is to find a personal connection, an individual hook. Small talk in the stores, about the weather or traffic, is not personal, and most likely not a foundation for friendship. To determine if there’s a personal connection, you need to ask questions to find a common element with the other person. This would require mid-level personal questions, not about health or finances (which are too personal), but instead about where you’ve lived, your university major or area of expertise, suggestions for swim classes, the best museum in the city or a beach on the coast for young kids, recommendations for tennis courts, hiking trails, day trips, or a great plumber.
I made a good friend within minutes when, by asking mid-level personal questions, we discovered our husbands had worked in the same narrow technical field decades ago (bonus points for knowing our husbands would also get along!).
It’s also easier to make friends when it’s integrated into your daily routine. Found a close friend during my daily stop at the dog park (more bonus points for ongoing socializing on all those daily dog walks!). FYI – if you don’t have a dog, you can still chat with an owner. They usually love chatting about their pooches.
And along the way, keep current about what’s happening around you. Not just local and national news, but also about sports and pop culture. These are tools to start and encourage connection in a conversation.
Full disclosure: Not interested in sports myself, I still watch significant sporting events so I can chat about them.
There’s an extensive list of venues and ways to meet people in person in Silicon Valley, but that’s for the next article. But until then, schools, places of worship, and non-profit organizations need volunteers and can direct you to even other opportunities. It may be harder to find opportunities during Covid, but in some ways, there’s even a larger need.
And remember, there’ll be times when keeping a friendship at a minimum level will still work. When, not if, the next earthquake hits, it’ll be better to have at least met your neighbors. People come together in a disaster, and having a ‘wave-hello’ level of friendship with the people next door will pay off.
And please note, it takes a different amount of time to develop friendships in different cultures, even in different cities. Sometimes there’s an instant bond, while other times it may require more of a time investment.
It’s not easy here and you’re not alone. Even us Yankees find it difficult to make friends in Silicon Valley. Many friends, even at Stanford, moved away, finding it hard to build a friendship circle here.
So, drop me a line, we’ll meet for coffee and talk. And we can also start working on growing our friendship circles together.