Earlier this month, Joe Biden ordered governors to load up COVID vaccines into the proverbial t-shirt cannon and shoot them at the U.S. adult population starting in May—in short, spring has sprung and real-life socializing will be back on the menu in the foreseeable future. After more than a year of being homebound, there are finally plans to be made, reunions to schedule, picnic blankets begging to be shared with friends old and new.
That’s right: It’s time to meet up with the friends we made online during the pandemic. Whether you locked @s while bullying a local politician who lifted mask mandates way too early; wound up on the same sexy Zoom call; or were simply thrown together in a group chat by some mutual friends with great taste, some of us were lucky enough to forge new connections with other people during the pandemic. For me, the handful of new friends I made were real bright spots in a notably shitty year—people I spent real stretches of time gossiping and laughing and building genuine intimacy with, all despite the fact that we’ve never been in the same room. The possibility of meeting these friends face-to-face for the first time is exhilarating, but it also means running the logistics: when, where, and maybe… how do we keep this from being awkward as hell?
According to clinical psychologist and friendship expert Miriam Kirmayer, it’s totally normal to feel a little anxious at the prospect of a first hangout, even if it’s with someone you already know well. “There's a lot of guidance out there about how to meet new people [romantically] and how to navigate some of those challenges,” Kirmayer told VICE. “We really work to normalize how awkward and uncomfortable that can be. The same discourse really isn't there for our friendship, so the problem is that we're going through a lot of the same or similar challenges, but it doesn't feel like we have a social system of support to normalize how difficult that really is.”
The important thing, according to Kirmayer, is not letting anxiety keep you from meeting a friend who you know you want to be a bigger part of your life. Anxiety “convinces us that we are alone in our worries, and that creates shame, and further feelings of disconnection,” she said. Understanding that these worries are normal is one key to pushing through them. The other? Taking the plunge and actually meeting—Kirmayer says because avoidance increases anxiety, it’s best to face our fears head on while not beating ourselves up for having them in the first place. Here’s how to set you and your virtual friend up for first IRL hang success.
Think about activities where you get to collaborate
After the year we’ve had, the bar for “novel activity” is hovering slightly above the ground—I would pay $200 to walk around my hometown mall right now maskless—so the roadmap for a first hangout could be as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee in a new neighborhood and going for a walk outside.
Kirmayer suggested activities that require a little teamwork. “It can be helpful to think, what is an experience or activity or place where I'll have the chance to partner with this person in some meaningful way?” she said. “Working on shared projects or causes or having some kind of shared experience can do a lot to foster connection... Anything that allows you to create that sense of teamwork is a really great way to both break the ice of an in-person meeting, and also to continue to invest in your friendship.”
That could look like taking a pottery or cooking class together; going on a hike; attending an in-person trivia night to kiss Zoom trivia goodbye; going to a protest together; volunteering with a mutual aid organization; going yard sale-hopping in search of the perfect find; facilitating a yoga class for your friends; searching out your town’s best cup of coffee; throwing a picnic potluck; or having a ‘friend mixer,’ where everyone brings along someone new. Truly, the options are only as limited as our imaginations and we’ve all had time to brainstorm and fantasize.
Double-check that everyone is comfortable
Even if you think you know your friend’s COVID comfort level, it’s smart to ask again—especially if not everyone at the gathering is going to be vaccinated. We’ve already covered friends fighting about COVID protocols, and there is no need to bring that kind of conflict into a budding relationship right out of the gate. Plus, absolutely nobody is going to have a good time if one person is actively afraid at the function.
COVID aside, Kirmayer suggested choosing activities or locations that are located squarely in our comfort zones. “We really want to think about setting ourselves up for success,” she said. “Be thinking about what are the kinds of activities or places we're likely to feel most comfortable and use that as a starting point, as opposed to trying to think of the perfect activity.”
It’s also critical to check that your friend actually wants to do the activity you’ve picked out. You wouldn’t want to rush and buy tickets to an outdoor screening of Call Me By Your Name for someone whose roommate got crabs from a certain NYU heartthrob, or book a ‘drink and paint’ session with someone whose preferred medium is collage. Present your friend with a few activity options, see what they have in mind, and make the decision together to avoid any hurt feelings or awkward revelations (“Oh no—we’re bird watching but you’re extremely scared of birds?”).
Take a page out of the Tinder date book
When it comes to the actual meet-up part of meeting your friend, there are a few basic etiquette things that are worth keeping in mind: Let them know what you’re wearing so they can actually find you; don’t be late; be prepared that they might be shorter than you imagined; and don’t comment on anything they can’t change within 30 seconds. The stakes are obviously different than they are on a date, but first impressions still matter when it comes to building any kind of relationship. Basically, don’t be a dick.
Don’t worry if there’s no “spark”
When it comes to the actual hangout, Kirmayer stressed that we might be disappointed if we don’t “click” immediately with the other person, especially when we’ve spent so much time talking to someone—but that’s not necessarily meaningful. “We so desperately want to feel that instant connection, and that ‘spark’” she said. “There’s the expectation that that will be there, and when it's not, we then read into it and start to question: Does this mean that there's something wrong with me, does this mean that there's something inherently wrong with this friendship or that it's doomed?”
Her advice is to take the pressure off yourself and off of your friend. “Normalize the reality that instant connection and comfort doesn't have to be there from the start in order to go on to build and maintain a very healthy, close, fulfilling friendship,” she said. Even if the shared horror of the pandemic is what brought you together at first, there’s no need to dismiss the connection just because you aren’t instant “finish each other's' sentences” besties. Keeping our expectations realistic “allows us to get to know each other in a way that feels much more organic,” Kirmayer said.
Be vulnerable… it’s worth it
Once you’ve got the first hangout under your belt, Kirmayer said there’s one last step you have to take to keep the friendship ball rolling: let your friend know you had fun and that you’d love to see them again. “People are very reluctant to be transparent in all relationships, but especially in our friendships, because it makes us feel vulnerable,” she said.
Sending a text that says, “I had a great time and I’d love to chill again” might feel corny and awkward, but receiving a text that says you’re fun to be around and someone would like to be around you again? Ecstasy! An unmatched revelation! “Very often, if we're feeling a connection, chances are the other person as well,” Kirmayer said. “We want to communicate that this is a relationship that we are choosing to invest in, and that we see a potential future. I really encourage people to take that initiative and to take that first step of extending an invitation and finding another way to connect. That tends to work much better than we anticipate, as scary as it can be.”
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.