How to build a social community

It’s 1:35AM, I’m bleary-eyed with a spreadsheet, entering names of people I’ve met into Excel. I just came back from a networking mixer and was excited about making new friends in LA.

Having moved to a new city and spurred by a breakup, I started mulling over the idea of community.

Since my closest friends have relocated to other cities (sometimes outside of the U.S.), something in me craved a tight-knit group again. To be around people who I feel at home with. I guess it’s the 3rd tier on Maslow’s hierarchy at work – to look for a sense of belonging.

I found that making friends and building a community was far easier in college. Since graduating, I’ve made a ton of acquaintances here and there, but not a new core group of people who I have a strong bond with. As Aziz Ansari said on Conan,

A lot of times, being single is like you’re a secretary, for this really shoddy organization, scheduling the dumbest shit with the flakiest people ever. – Aziz on Conan

Single or not, Aziz’s comment hits pretty close to home – making friends can be a hard, frustrating process. It’s overwhelming to think of all the people we want to invest our time in: best friends, close friends, semi close friends, acquaintances, co-workers, mentors, people we want to date, business contacts…it’s a lot to manage.

So I began to wonder – is there a model for building and sustaining social communities?

In the spirit of Tim Ferriss’s 80/20 approach to learning, this post is an attempt to identify the elements vital to social communities. I share my thoughts and analysis below, with strategies I’ve used that might help you create that community you’re looking for.

Element 1: Consistency

Community starts happening when people get together on a regular basis. Religious centers of worship do this exceptionally well. Not only does everyone know that Church is on Sunday, but there’s also always a set time and a set place. Such predictable elements make it easy for people to do the one vital thing of showing up.

Showing up is 80% of life. -Woody Allen

The mere action of showing up is especially important at the beginning of any friendship or community – I feel like there’s a “minimum effective dose” that translates mere acquaintances to potential friends. For some people it might be meeting 3 times, for others that might more or less.

The intervals between meetings also matter. There’s no wonder that people who’ve study abroad or joined the Peace Corps make lifetime friendships because they’ve spent so much time and experienced so much together.

Simply put, the less time in between the better. Once a month is probably okay for a business networking group. Every 2 weeks is pretty decent. But if you’re meeting once a week or more, the potential to grow a solid community increases exponentially.

The reason I go to my Spanish conversation group is that it happens every week, at the same time at the same place. I can just go without prior planning and be confident that there will be people there I can practice Spanish with. I lost interest in another group that kept changing its meeting time.

> Practical Application

To get into the groove of showing up consistently, know your schedule well and get a planner if needed. Scheduling things help prevent failure: unless a huge obligation like work or family comes up, you know that if you’ve scheduled it, you’ll go. Make time for things you care about.

The second practical thing about knowing your schedule well is that it helps you seem less of a flake and makes people want to hang out with you more. Instead of saying “sorry I can’t go” and always putting a hangout off, you can offer an alternative: “My best days are Thursdays and Sundays. Can we eat together then?”

If you’re just starting from the ground up, you can ask yourself: “Who do I want to see every week? What’s an activity or group I want to show up to on a weekly basis?”

If you have trouble answering those questions, the next element may help.

Element 2: Shared interests and values

Why do people meet up? It comes down to two basic things – shared interests and shared values.

Shared interests make it easy for you to hang out with people, and for people to hang out with you.

The great thing about activity-based communities is that there’s an obvious reason you’re there.

“Why are you here? – Because I like rock-climbing.” Boom, don’t need any more reason than that.

If you’re struggling on developing a hobby, a good start might be to make a bucket list of everything you’ve ever wanted to do and learn. Think of all the activities you’ve enjoyed in the past and see if they might be worth revisiting – it might be martial arts or reading (join a book club).

But we all know that having shared interests isn’t a guarantee that people will automatically hit it off with each. There are communities that might not have something as discrete as, let’s say, a shared love for soccer.

But there are communities with people who have a general appreciation for personal development and or have a thirst for learning. Having the same type of attitude and lifestyle is extra glue that makes communities stick.

On the flip-side, if you’re an open-minded, liberal 30-something and the activity is comprised mostly of conservative 40-somethings, you might do better to look elsewhere. Pick low-hanging fruit (e.g. activities people your age like to do).

Ideally, the intersection between shared interests and shared values is the sweet spot. But is that enough?

Element 3: Bonding Time

Elements 1 and 2 are easy to get down. Clear your schedule to take part in an interest you have, do it once a week.

Yet we’ve all been there…doing something with an organization but not feeling like you’re a part of it. The missing element, and arguably the most important one, is bonding time. A recent example from my life is the difference between my two salsa classes.

I’ve been going to my Tuesday salsa class for about 3 months now. I’m familiar with the people and feel comfortable around them in class. Once class ends, however, I feel a subtle but distinct difference.

The core group of people who’ve been dancing together longer would hang outside the studio, shoot the shit and make plans.

The newer classmates and I would usually feel awkward sticking around and leave, not feeling a part of the core group’s inside jokes nor late night outings.

My Friday salsa class is an entirely different story. I’ve been attending it for a shorter amount of time than than my Tuesday class, but I ended up getting along with another classmate. Right after class we grabbed dinner and drinks together.

Since then, we’ve been to two house parties, watched a play together and went hiking. And I was introduced to lots of new people along the way.

What made this so different from my Tuesday class?

Hang out beyond the meetup

The first cornerstone of bonding in a group is going beyond the current context, which is a fancy way of saying spend time outside of the formal group activity.

I was lucky in the sense that my new friend happened to be a very gregarious and inclusive guy. He went out of context of the salsa class and invited me and his two friends to eat afterwards. Since it was a Friday night, it was a logical next step that allowed us to get acquainted with each other.

You might be taking an art class and ask a couple classmates to go bar hopping after exams – something totally different from art. A coworker might ask you to go watch a play. Or you might invite a couple other motivated people to join a mastermind group on Facebook.

The main thread of these examples is that someone is asking someone else to join in something else. These “beyond normal context” activities allow for more conversation, which is really how people get to know one another.

This is why I think conversation is the second cornerstone of bonding time. All good friendships and close communities come from the fact that deeper conversation allows participants to confide in, relate to, and share stories with one another.

The beauty of conversation is that it transforms otherwise boring, transactional relationships into personal connections.

Instead of only making plans and shooting meetup logistics over text, isn’t it nice to receive a random funny text or be able to call someone up for advice?

We humans are wired to like and remember stories, and the stories we share with each other are critical to how we bond.

> Practical Application

It takes guts to strike up a conversation and invite someone out, but learning to do this has been, for me, the most effective way to make new friends.

To take things out of context thing easily, ask potential friends what they like to do in their free time.

The answers revealed will help the both of you identify things you can do together.

And as much flack that Facebook gets for “dehumanizing” human connections, I think it’s useful for sharing stories and content with new friends, and making those friendships less transactional. Just make sure you evolve beyond sharing funny cat pictures with each other ;)

This topic is so important to me because my main source of happiness comes from good relationships. I’d venture to guess this is the case for many others.

In a famous survey called The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, respondents overwhelmingly seemed to regret not spending enough quality time with loved ones. I’ll end with a snippet from the article:

Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

2 thoughts on “How to build a social community”

  1. This was a great analysis. Looking back at the social communities I’ve been a part of, and the ones I could never quite feel a part of, I think your list is both concise and comprehensive. Excited to read more stuff from you!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Mountain. Having that sense of community is really one of the best things in the world. I’d be interested in what communities you’re passionate about (I would imagine paleo / fitness / EDM?)

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