At age 31, I have more of a social life in theory than I do in practice. I’ve always valued my friendships, but life tends to get in the way. One of my best friends is drowning in her 45-hour workweek; another lives abroad with her husband and kids. It takes ages to nail down a date for dinner, and oftentimes one of us flakes the day-of. Recently, I found myself missing the casual but frequent hangouts of my early twenties, like going thrifting or grabbing an impromptu lunch.
That’s what led me to friend-finding apps. They seem to occupy the territory that dating sites did ten years ago. On the one hand, they’re totally practical, a particularly useful tool for introverts (like me). They have the potential to add some much-needed meaningful human connection to your life! On the other hand, it can feel embarrassing to use them—almost like admitting you’re lonely.
Making friends as an adult can be hard
But there’s nothing to be ashamed of. A 2016 study found that the average person’s social circle begins to shrink once they’re past their mid-twenties. I feel fine about being on dating apps, so why not try out an app for friendship? I decided to download two popular options: Bumble BFF, an offshoot of the popular women-forward dating app, and Hey! VINA, a relative newcomer to the market.
It took me way longer to come up with profiles I was satisfied with, compared to filling out a dating app profile. In my twenties I cared too much about what men thought of me; now that I’m thirty, it’s other women whose opinions matter most.
The friend-dating experiment begins
On Bumble BFF, the clock on many of my matches ran out before either of us reached out to the other. This forced me—generally a bit of a homebody and introvert—to be more proactive. Rather than lingering in message purgatory, I began taking the initiative and asking women out. My first friend date was at a wine bar with a 30-year-old writer and consultant I connected with through Vina. On my way there, I started worrying: What if she was my platonic soul mate, but she’d eventually find out I was doing it for an article and despise me, like in a ‘90s teen movie?
Spoiler alert: This did not happen.
It was fine! After some initial fumbling small-talk, we found enough common ground—freelance life, The Bachelor—to make natural conversation over the course of two drinks and a short walk to the subway. We parted ways with a mutual “It was so nice to meet you!” The following morning, neither of us texted the other. We both knew there wasn’t enough chemistry to sustain anything more.
Fine-tuning my friend app experience
A second friend date, via Bumble BFF, was at a wine bar on a Tuesday. When I told her I’d been living in the city for a decade, I thought I felt the vibe change, like my friend date was secretly wondering, What’s wrong with her that a decade in she’s still looking for friends? I was probably just being paranoid, but still felt weird about it for the rest of the evening.
I was becoming disillusioned with the concept of friend apps when a part-time middle school teacher messaged me. After chatting a bit, she suggested we meet up for an early afternoon workout class. I was wary initially—what if she was in much better shape than me?—but figured it couldn’t be weirder than those first dates.
We went to a spin class and then got coffee together. It was easy to skip past the boring small talk since we’d just been gross and sweaty together for the last 45 minutes. I confessed it was tough to motivate myself to work out in the winter, and she admitted that she had started using friend apps specifically to find more single female friends. I left feeling like I’d been more honest than I wanted to—but in a good way—and we exchanged numbers before separating.
Learning how to “friend-date”
The success of the workout date helped me realize that I’d been approaching things the wrong way. I’d started out suggesting evening wine dates because that’s what I’d been missing with my (IRL) close friends. My first friend dates in that setting had been a bust because there was no shared history to draw from, no catching up to do on each others’ lives.
Instead of trying to force that intimacy, I started suggesting mid-afternoon coffee dates or workouts. Unfortunately, my match rate did decline slightly. But ultimately it led me to a handful of women around my age with flexible schedules who, like me, wanted to take it slow by starting with daytime activity-based hangs. And if we met up for a workout, even if a friendship wasn’t meant to be, at least we both got some exercise.
My other most successful date was with a self-described “funemployed” former Apple Genius who happened to live one street away from me. On the 20-minute walk from our respective houses to our local library, we discovered we had a pregnant sort-of-friend in common, which led to the broader subjects of relationships and having kids. The next day, when she texted me a picture of a weird-looking baby, I was floored. Our first inside joke (kind of)! And we didn’t even need wine!
What I learned about friendship — online and IRL
It’s been a month since I joined Hey! VINA and Bumble BFF, and one of the best things about using the apps is that I’ve become more comfortable pursuing deeper friendships with IRL female acquaintances, too. For an embarrassingly long time, I’d been trying to work up the nerve to ask a “party friend” if she’d want to hang out solo. After a couple weeks of meeting women on the apps, it was easy to write an email inviting her to grab a drink with me. As for app friends, I’ve hung out with the teacher one other time, and have tentative plans with the Apple Genius. It’s too soon to say if either of them are my future bridesmaids, but I feel less alone in wanting new friends. And it’s nice to have plans for the week.