An Attorney Makes a Case for Finding Friends | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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An Attorney Makes a Case for Finding Friends

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Ryan Kriger at Three Penny Taproom - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Ryan Kriger at Three Penny Taproom

Ryan Kriger was miserable. It was 2010 and, by all outward appearances, things were going well for him. He earned a good salary as an attorney with a prestigious New York City law firm. He had plenty of friends and lived in the hip, upscale neighborhood of Brooklyn. But Kriger, in his thirties at the time, hated his job and increasingly entertained his longtime "escapist fantasy" to give it all up and move to Vermont.

So one day, the Sharon, Mass., native did an internet search for "antitrust jobs in Vermont" and spotted an employment ad for a position in the Vermont Attorney General's Office. Kriger applied for his dream job and was hired.

"After I got the job, I'm like, Wait a minute. What am I doing?" Kriger recalled asking himself. "I know zero people in Vermont."

He knew all too well how hard it was for him to make friends in a new city. In his twenties, he relocated five times — to Seattle; Stamford, Conn.; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and New York City — and each time struggled to rebuild a core group of companions. After nine years in the Big Apple, he wasn't sure he wanted to start over again.

This time, however, Kriger devised a plan. So on January 1, 2011, he took the plunge and relocated to Montpelier, a city in which, as even his new coworkers and longtime residents told him, many people found it hard to make friends.

Four months later, Kriger, a self-described introvert, threw himself a birthday party and, looking around his apartment, counted 26 new friends. At the time, he remembered thinking, "Ha! It worked!"

How'd he do it? Vermonters can find out this month in a series of free talks Kriger is giving titled "Making Friends & Finding Community as an Adult."

To be sure, Kriger knows plenty of people now; the 43-year-old assistant attorney general is on the governor's cybersecurity team and teaches at the University of Vermont. He's an occasional standup comic and was the founder of the now-defunct Burlington comedy club Levity; he includes some comedy in his presentation.

Kriger said he allows some time at the end of the talk for audience members to get to know each other. But he emphasized that it isn't a young professionals club, Meetup, a dating seminar or a networking event.

"I hate the word 'networking,'" he said with a laugh. While networking is fine for business purposes, "Networking is meeting someone for what you can get from them. Friendship is meeting someone for what you can give to them."

Some people cringe at the notion that you can deliberately set out to make friends, Kriger said, because they assume that friendships are supposed to happen spontaneously and organically.

Why do many people feel this way? Kriger theorized that most adults met their lifelong friends in high school or college. In those environments, you're swimming in a sea of people who are all about the same age, live in close proximity, have plenty of time on their hands, and have grown-ups around who create activities and facilitate their social interactions.

Adults, however, often live far from each other, keep different schedules and, because of jobs, families or other responsibilities, have more time constraints. Generally, no one facilitates their social lives. As a consequence, Kriger said, many people in their thirties or forties wake up one morning and realize, "I don't have a lot of friends. How did this happen?"

This experience isn't an insignificant problem. In recent years, the physical, psychological and economic consequences of social isolation have been well documented. John Cacioppo, a longtime University of Chicago researcher on the subject who earned the moniker "Dr. Loneliness," determined that being lonely is as harmful to human health as obesity or smoking a pack of cigarettes daily.

Especially among older Americans, social isolation has been linked to a host of physical and psychological problems. As the New York Times reported in a December 11, 2017, piece titled "The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Health," socially isolated individuals tend to experience more sleep disorders and abnormal immune responses. And, on average, they die younger than their more socially connected cohorts.

The problem isn't unique to Americans, Kriger noted. In the United Kingdom, social isolation is so prevalent that the British government recently created a new position — a minister for loneliness — to help reverse the trend.

While Kriger doesn't suggest anything that formal in Vermont, he does believe that many Vermonters could benefit from his informal research on the subject. Before leaving New York City in 2011, for example, Kriger sat down with a friend whom he described as a "nexus — if you know her, you know everybody." Kriger picked her brain for advice, some of which found its way into his presentation.

Like most self-help programs, Kriger acknowledged, his talk promises no silver bullets, just commonsense advice. As he put it, "Just sitting in a room with a bunch of other people who all look normal ... and all want to make friends is a confidence boost."

An important component of the talk, he noted, is a section on being a good friend. If someone contacts you, respond. As he put it, "Don't ghost your friends. Call them back."

Also, seek out opportunities to do things for your buddies. If a friend needs help moving, don't gripe; just do it.

Kriger's first friend-building event, held last month at Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, drew more than 40 people. Among the attendees was Dawn Rose Kearn, a 30-year-old Montpelier woman who described herself as "a very social person" who "makes friends easily." Still, she was attracted to the community-building nature of the event.

Kearn noted that her own parents and grandparents have friends they've known for years but don't meet new people very often. "I think meeting new people is very important to diversifying your life experience," she said.

After attending Kriger's talk, Kearn took to heart several words of advice. For one, she liked his suggestion to follow through with friends by making definitive plans. After meeting someone new, rather than saying, "Let's get together sometime," Kearn said, suggest something like, "Let's get together on Tuesday at 7 p.m."

Another useful tip Kearn gleaned from the event: Treat your social life the same way you would treat your physical and mental health.

In other words, if you regularly go to the gym, see a therapist and schedule annual physicals, make a similar commitment to finding and maintaining friendships.

As Kriger said, "Making friends is not a passive activity. You have to actually put some effort into it."


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The original print version of this article was headlined "Friend Me!"