In a neighborhood cafe with seasonal salads and creme fraiche tea cake, Rachel Bertsche is demonstrating the friend-scoping skills she honed while writing her bestselling book, "MWF seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend" (Ballantine).
The 20-something standing at the cash register — the one with black hair, blunt bangs and cobalt skinny jeans — looks promising.
"I have those pants!" Bertsche, 30, whispers excitedly. "She looks nice." There's a brief pause: "Oh, now she's eyeing me, and that's awkward."
Five minutes later, an age-appropriate prospect with a swingy ponytail and perfect posture shoots past the front window, talking into an earpiece. Bertsche shakes her head: "That girl seemed too cool for me. She's, like, wearing high-tops. I feel like she probably goes to indie rock concerts and I wouldn't be able to keep up."
Finding friends as an adult isn't always easy, as books such as "MWF" and Marla Paul's "The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You're Not a Kid Anymore" (Rodale) point out, and the societal taboos against admitting that you're actively looking remain powerful. But friendship shortages are actually fairly common, and Paul says they tend to occur at predictable times — for example, when you move to a new city, when you have children, or when your friends do.
"Any time you have a major lifestyle change, all your friendships are in flux," says Paul, who experienced a friendship shortage in 1993 when she moved from Dallas to Chicago with her husband and young daughter and started working from home for the first time.
"I found it incredibly hard to make new friends — I felt like kind of a pariah — so I wrote about it," she says.
To her surprise, other women wrote back, with many saying they were relieved they weren't the only ones.
"It was kind of like I opened the door on this 'shameful' secret — that it is really hard to make friends as you get older," she says.
Paul, who is married to Chicago Tribune editorial board member Paul Weingarten and has written for Tribune Newspapers, sees some improvement in the past 10 years, with more women willing to discuss the issue. Psychologist Irene Levine, author of "Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend" (Overlook TP) as well as The Friendship Blog (the
friendshipblog.com), points to a range of online services now available to women on the prowl for pals, including Girlfriend Social (girlfriend
social.com), Girlfriend Circles (girlfriend
circles.com), Social Jane (socialjane.com) and Next Door (nextdoor.com).
Bertsche, however, says we still have a way to go.
"'Sex and the City' and romantic comedies make it perfectly OK to say, 'I'm looking for romance — I'm looking for a man,'" says Bertsche. "But we still haven't given ourselves permission to say, 'I want new friends.' You don't want to sound like a loser."
Bertsche hit a nerve in December with the publication of her spirited account of her 2010 quest to create a local friendship network after relocating from New York to Chicago to be with her future husband. Two years after the move, she had work friends and great friends in other cities, she writes. She had a husband she was crazy about and family living nearby. But she was still longing for local BFFs she could call on short notice for a weekend brunch.
It's relatively easy to make friends in high school and college, when there are lots of people in similar circumstances living in close proximity to each other, says Levine. The challenge typically comes later, when the people you meet are at different stages in life, with different needs and interests and, potentially, full social schedules.
Bertsche tackled the problem head-on, going on 52 weekly "friend-dates" with likely candidates, many of whom she found through out-of-town BFFs or shared activities. She went out for drinks, dinner, lunch, pedicures, fortune-telling and coffee. She tried improv classes and she did the friendship equivalent of speed dating.
There were awkward moments but Bertsche, a former editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, says that the good in her search by far outweighed the bad. "For me, the biggest lesson is that once you sort of reach out to people and put yourself out there, people are actually quite receptive."
Almost two years later, she says, she's enjoying the fruits of her labor.
"I'm very busy — it's great. This past weekend I spent time with the women from the cooking club that I started. They've all now become best friends with each other and we went to the Chicago trapeze school (TSNY Chicago) Saturday and did trapeze class together, and then we went to the Cubs game on Sunday. I'm still in my book club, and it's meeting tomorrow at my house. I had some women over for my 30th birthday — I decided to do a slumber party, and I think I invited 26 or 27 people, largely women I had met that year.
"So, you know, it really worked. It's hard to remember life before the friendship search because it was so different and now I'm so busy and so happy."
How to do a friendship search
Rachel Bertsche, author of "MWF seeking BFF," shares her three top tips:
Say yes to the invite. If you're invited, try to go. If you're reluctant, consider setting a goal for yourself: "Once I've met two new people, I can leave."
Sign up for something. A book club, a cooking class, a volunteer group. Organized activities take a lot of the work out of friend-dating; everyone's right there, week after week.
Alert your friends. As soon as Bertsche told her out-of-town BFFs she was in the market for local pals, they set her up with some great people. All she had to do was ask.