Keen to meet new people? Maybe you’re tired of your only social contact being with your work colleagues. Or perhaps, like me, you’ve just moved to London, and realised that everything is so overpriced you don’t actually have the money to do any socialising. Do you end up staying in, and hanging out with Ted Danson and Claire Foy on Netflix instead? In that case, speed friending is your saviour.
"Like speed dating but without the pressure"
The idea of speed friending sounds weird, but hear me out. It wasn’t so long ago that people were embarrassed to admit that they used dating websites and apps. These days, it’s an automatic assumption that if you’re single, you’re on Tinder or Bumble. So I’ve decided to try out one of these speed friending events, hoping I’ll cure those lonely Londoner blues, and find my future platonic soulmate.
I’m the first person to arrive at this bar in Fitzrovia on a Sunday afternoon. Soon, a steady stream of slightly anxious-looking people walk through the doors, and before the speed friending has even officially started, I'm talking to Ge. He moved here from Lithuania and seems to already know the organisers.“I’ve been twice before” he says, "Sometimes there are 80 people". Slightly more than the 10-15 people I was expecting then.
I speak to Ashley, whose company Lazy & Young regularly runs events like this. Why does he think these meets are so popular? “You’ve got your immediate friendship group, so what’s the socially acceptable way to break out of that group?” He compares the event to speed dating, “but speed friending takes away any of the under-pressure implications”.
By the time the event starts, there are around 40-50 of us. A bell rings to grab our attention, and explains how things are going to play out: half will sit at stations dotted around the bar; the other half will rotate every three minutes. We’re handed a piece of paper each and asked to write down the names of the three people we most get on with — those whose names are picked the most will be the “winners” and get a prize. I’m worried this is a popularity contest, but Ashley assures us it’s an incentive for us to make an effort and be extra nice.
"I can't go out with my aunt and uncle every week"
I speak to is Mark, who, like me, is fresh off the boat. “I’ve just moved down from Sheffield,” Mark says. He works awkward shifts, starting at 2pm and finishing at 10. “I’ve only just been paid, so I’ve had no opportunity to do things on weekends, but can't do things after work either, because of the time.
“I don’t know anyone except my aunt and uncle in London, and I can’t go out on a Saturday night with them every week.”
Just as we’re getting into the flow, the bell is rung and I’m hurriedly moved on. I promise Mark we’ll continue our conversation when the event ends.
"If I want to make friends in a new city, I've got to put myself in situations that make me nervous"
Next I’m speaking to Joe, yet another London newbie. “I’m from Oxford originally, and pretty much all my friends live and work there,” he says.
I know how Joe feels. When I first moved to London I didn’t have a university or a job to find people, and I was left wondering how people actually connected. “I was definitely nervous when I came down on the train but everyone’s super friendly,” says Joe. He's made friends through other events off the app Meetup, too, where most people seem to have found out about today’s event. Does that stop it from being scary? I don't know, but I’ve realised that if I want to make friends in a new city, I’ve got to put myself in situations that make me nervous.
I’m mid-sentence with Joe, when the bell rings again. These three minutes are going quickly, but the organiser says that’s part of the appeal. “It’s good value for time. Let’s say you’re the kind of outgoing person who can go to a coffee shop and just chat to people, you’re still probably only going to chat to a maximum of two or three people in the whole afternoon.
“With speed friending you speak to so many people in a couple of hours, it speeds up the process of exploring.”
"You can live in London your entire life but only speak to 15 people"
The idea of 'value for money' seems odd to me at first, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Many of the people here don’t get much of a chance to meet others, and this gives them an opportunity to broaden their friendship group. The 'turnover' means you also get to gauge who you most get on with. I enjoy meeting all the people I spoke to, but it's natural to click with some more than others.
Shabih touches on this, when he wonders if people can form friendships even with nothing in common. He thinks Londoners are great at small talk, whereas those from outside London are better at deeper conversations: “Even if you don’t have a similar interest you can still talk about life in general, so you can connect on a human basis”.
Shabih’s a member of the other demographic I meet — those who have lived in London all their lives. I'm surprised to learn there's a pretty even split. “You can live in London your entire life but only speak to about 15 people, so there really is a market for breaking out of that,” says Ashley.
"We move around so much, it’s not like we live and die in one village"
Mary — a nurse who’s also lived in London all her life — explains what she believes to be the appeal of an event like this. “Even if someone does have friends in London, maybe they’re just coming to have fun, to relax, to just talk. Sometimes talking does help.” When I first moved here, I would sometimes go what seemed like an entire day without seeing another person, so what Mary says resonates. Sometimes it’s good just to get some human contact.
When I’m sat with Neil, we discuss why it’s so difficult to make friends in London. “We are so busy in our lives, and we have so many online friends, but at the same time more people in the bigger cities are saying that they’re lonely.” It’s strange that in a place like London, the more people there are, the harder it becomes to meet them. “We move around so much, it’s not like we live and die in one village. There’s no community.”
I’m now speaking to my second Joe of the afternoon, who has moved to London from New York when his company started doing business in the UK. “It was scary, I knew five people who were all also US expats. They were in long term relationships so they weren’t interested in going out to meet people, which is what brings me here.” It’s his first speed friending event, and by the end of the conversation, we agree to swap numbers.
"It got to a point where I realised my friends aren’t interested in things I like"
Next up is Raulene, who has lived in London since 1990 and is here to expand her social circle. “It got to a point where I realised my friends aren’t interested in things I like.” Her favourite pastime is the theatre, and after we talk about the plays we’ve seen or want to see (Raulene wants to get tickets to Hamilton, something that most Londoners have in common). I realise she’s the first person I’ve spoken to with similar interests.
The bell continues to peal, people continue to shuffle, and eventually the six 'winners' are announced. They’re each given a box of chocolates, and as a testament to their personalities, they share them out. It’s not long before someone suggests moving on to a Wetherspoons, and a large group of us head out for drinks.
Would I advise speed-friending as a way to make friends in the city? Definitely. Whether you’ve been here 10 years or 10 days, it’s easy to feel lonely in London. In normal circumstances I would feel awkward meeting someone and asking them on the same day if they fancy socialising. But here I’ve not got that problem. I’ve come away with some new numbers in my phone, and this doesn’t feel like some flimsy half-commitment I’ll never actually follow up on. Whoever said London was unfriendly?
By Andrew Gwynne