Making Friends in a Small Town

One of the hardest things about moving to Traverse City was leaving behind a great community and great friends; lifelong friends who we grew up with, and whose kids have grown up with ours. We’re committed to maintaining and growing these friendships despite our move, although we know it will take work to be out of sight, but not out of mind. Fortunately many of our friends from “back home” spend a lot of time Up North, so that makes it easier to maintain those bonds even though we’re not steeped in their everyday lives like we used to be. There’s nothing like the intimate comfort of picking right up where you left off with an old friend, but we know that it’s something that cannot be taken for granted.

The flipside is building new friendships in a new place. And a tricky balance to strike – especially when work and family demand so much of our time – is keeping up with old friends while trying to meet new ones.

One of our apprehensions about moving to a small town was the expectation that most of the people we’d meet would be “lifers” who grew up here and already had broad networks of friends, and as a result would have little interest in, or time to, add to to their networks. It’s been a pleasant surprise that many of the people we’ve met are relative newcomers like us. While Traverse City has a vibrant economy, most of these people are not here as a result of a job opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Rather they’ve figured out how to build a career around the life they’re building for themselves and their families.

Choosing Traverse City

Traverse City seems to be a destination that people are choosing to relocate to for the lifestyle it affords. During the seven months that we’ve been here, we’ve met families that have moved from New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, and many other big towns across the country, all in the last 12-24 months. From our relatively limited experience, it appears that the influx of professionals, creative types and entrepreneurs into Traverse City is becoming a “thing.” To some extent these people could live anywhere, but they chose Traverse City. Some have a connection to Traverse City – the husband or wife grew up here – but many, like us, had no roots here. As a result, there’s a “we’re all in this together” mindset that makes it relatively easy to meet people.

While meeting people has been easy, that’s not to say that making friends has been. Making friends at 40 is kind of like dating – at times awkward and uncertain. Coming from a town we lived in for ten years where we had a big network of friends, we were rusty and much busier than we were the last time we were looking to build new relationships. The New York Times put some of these issues in perspective:

“People have an internal alarm clock that goes off at big life events, like turning 30. It reminds them that time horizons are shrinking, so it is a point to pull back on exploration and concentrate on the here and now. ‘You tend to focus on what is emotionally important to you,’ [Laura Carstensen, Stanford Center on Longevity] said, ‘so you’re not interested in going to that cocktail party, you’re interested in spending time with your kids.’”

I’m a relatively introverted person, as is Heather, but upon moving here we were committed to seeking out new friends. At times I took it a little too far. About two weeks after our move I took our girls to the playground. Our five year old began playing with another girl about her age (if only 40 year olds could make friends as easily as five year olds) and I began chatting with her mom. She seemed nice (a potential friend for Heather!) and our kids seemed to be hitting it off, so not wanting to miss an opportunity to connect, I asked for her phone number. She gave it to me, and I suggested that maybe we could get the kids together for a playdate. When I got home I excitedly told Heather about my new connection. She pointed out that our new “friend” may have considered my overture a little overzealous and possibly a little creepy.

Point taken. Take it slow. Like I said, I’m a little rusty.

We’re figuring it out as we go, but have found that some things work better than others when trying to make friends in a new town. We’ve tried to get involved in activities, attend events and find new hobbies. Despite having less space than we used to, we’ve tried to entertain more at our home. And unlike in the past when plans with old friends could be more spontaneous, we’ve tried to be more intentional and purposeful about planning and scheduling nights out and playdates well in advance. The common thread is putting yourself out there, looking for and being open to making new connections, and then following up to make concrete plans. Leaving a conversation with something as general as “We should get together some time,” will almost always be the last conversation that takes place between two people.

We often share a laugh revisiting our conversations from the early days of our move. “I met a potential friend today!” one of us would say after an exercise class or following school pick-up.

Seven months later, we’ve had the good fortune of meeting lots of great people, integrating into the community through sports and our kids’ schools, and building new friendships – real ones, not just potential ones.

At the same time, and while geographic distance has made things more challenging, we’ve tried to stay as connected as possible with old friends. It’s sometimes hard to explain our decision to pick up and move 250 miles away to people who were so closely integrated into our lives. We’re grateful for the understanding they’ve shown…now we just need to get them to move up to Traverse City.

LifeJay Harrington