When you are an adult, it is hard to make new friends. I myself used to be real weird about it. At a party, for example, a potential friend might ask about my favorite sandwich. This is it! I would think. My big shot! What’s a cool kind of sandwich to like? But in my eagerness to impress, my mind would go blank and I’d blurt out “applesauce,” which is a fruit mixture and not a kind of sandwich at all. So my new potential friend would give me a puzzled look, and I’d assume they now hated me forever. During this period of my life, I spent a lot of time fake-texting fake friends by the window.
Eventually, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I was bad at remembering sandwiches. My old friends from college and high school knew this about me and accepted it. The problem was that I was too self-conscious about how new people were reacting to me in real time. It was as if I imagined each of my conversational partners had one of those little dials they give to prospective voters to track how they are reacting to politicians’ speeches, second by second. Instead of focusing on the person in front of me, I was paying attention to an imaginary chart of my own performance. And so I decided what I needed was a change in mindset. I would not be like an anxious politician anymore. I would be like the friendliest dog in the world, the golden retriever.
If you’ve ever met a golden retriever, you know that when you walk in the door, they are very happy to see you, and they are zero percent worried about whether you are happy to see them. They don’t think, “Oh man, this person seems too hip for me, gotta act casual with my chew toy over here.” If they accidentally knock a mug off the coffee table with their tail, they don’t assume you will hold it against them. They don’t worry if their political opinions seem unsophisticated or if their bark is annoying. They just say, “Hi, hello, I’m glad you’re here,” and they bounce around to show their appreciation and suggest a game of fetch. In this way, and many others, the golden retriever is smarter than us.
A good way to explain how the Golden Retriever Technique works in practice is by explaining how I used it on my good friend Meredith, a talented editor and great human whose self-proclaimed spirit animal is Grumpy Cat. She scowls a lot and wears cool leather jackets. Her favorite expression to type is this:
When I met Meredith, I thought she was hilarious, and I thought her opinion of me was: Undecided. That was fine! Under the Golden Retriever Technique, it doesn’t matter whether your new friend likes you yet. All that matters is that you keep being friendly and showing how much you appreciate the other person.
Over the next few weeks after starting my new job, I just kept Golden Retrievering Meredith. “Meredith!” I would declare when she came into the office. “What a joy!”
Arched eyebrow, Meredith would say, in silence.
“How’s your life going?” I would inquire, peering at her over the desks.
“Fine,” she would mumble.
“What’s that?” I would ask as she opened a package.
“A book,” she would say. We were building a rapport.
Eventually, the Golden Retriever Technique worked, or possibly Meredith just got tired? Either way, we are friends now and it is very heartwarming.
Now, the Golden Retriever Technique does not mean that you ignore a person’s signals or boundaries. If the golden retriever drops a tennis ball at a stranger’s feet and they don’t pick it up, the golden retriever respects that. It just moves on to a different person and asks if they want to play fetch instead. Someone always does! The key to this technique is that you don’t internalize rejection or brush-offs. You just go bounding onto the next thing.
Some of you may be thinking, Ugh, this sounds terrible, are you saying it’s the only way to make friends? Of course not! Perhaps you are more like the Proud Owl, and you attract people to you naturally with your wisdom and cool hoots. Or maybe you are a Sophisticated Jaguar, who prefers to prowl about and choose your friends selectively. These are all good and fine ways to be. But if you, like me, are a person whose efforts to expand their social circles are sometimes stymied by an excess of neuroticism, this tactic may work for you.
In sum: To be like the golden retriever, all you need to do is find someone who seems nice, approach them with genuine enthusiasm, and if things don’t pan out, trot along with a stick in your mouth and a song in your heart. So if you have recently moved to a new city or started a new job or just want to find people to go to trivia night with, and you’re worried that no one would ever want to be friends with you, stop that right now. Of course you’ll make friends! Just be yourself. But also: Be a little bit like the golden retriever.