Need special skills to make friends in Dubai. Have them?

By Anita Iyer

As I turned on the mobile network one morning last week, my cellphone beeped continuously. My first thought was, “Is everything fine at home?” Unlocking it, I was relieved to see a flood of messages from people I don’t usually hear from, wishing me happy friendship day. A few messages had genuine warmth, enquiring what’s new in my life, but most were forwards.

The same day, on Facebook, a friend from school asked if I had changed my WhatsApp number after moving to Dubai. I cut short the conversation saying, “After being constantly on WhatsApp at work for nine hours, I hardly check it after work.” Perhaps put off by my answer, he didn’t reply.

Later, I questioned myself. If I could stay connected with him on Facebook, why was I hesitant to share my number? Pondering further, it dawned on me that I didn’t want him to text me or see the blue ticks as I envisioned reading his messages and not replying. Yes, he was a close friend from school, but we had grown apart. It seemed forced to reconnect at such a personal level after so many years. A phone number, to my mind, is still more intimate than being tenuously connected on social networks.

Staying in and watching new shows on Netflix is all very well, but as weeks pass, you crave connection. The irony is, while I run away from past connections, I struggle to make new ones.

Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in an article in The New York Times said that many people meet their lifelong friends in college. “As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

All self-help articles hint at the fact that friendships need to be fostered rather than setting out with a candle in search of a BFF.

When I arrived in Dubai two years ago, I pushed myself to go out and socialise. The longest two hours of my life were spent at an upmarket restaurant in Downtown Dubai one Friday afternoon at a brunch that was supposed to be an opportunity for newbies to network.

Throughout those two hours, I cursed myself for paying Dh 150 to attend this event. It bothered me that people at that brunch — who were all strangers to each other — were already making plans for the next meet-up without digesting their impressions of each other, and without properly trying to get to know the people at that meet-up we were already at. Friendships, like all relationships, develop organically. You have to give them time to grow. It’s a fine line, trying to balance having a meaningful conversation without asking too many personal questions. Maybe I was socially awkward too. But at the end of that brunch, I decided to rest my networking efforts for a while.

Recently, I was on a voice call with a friend from India, one of the few I still talk to from school, and I was telling her about the difficulty I was facing making new friends. She suggested that I get out of my comfort zone, a phrase often heard.

So I tried. I met an enthusiastic fitness freak in the gym in my building. “You should come in early and join us at 6.30pm,” she said and added me to a WhatsApp group. Schedules of running and pilates were updated regularly. They were a motivational bunch to be around. But the constant buzzing of the phone with their gym updates was annoying. One day, I exited the group, changed my gym timings, and pretended to be busy or unwell when called. The calls gradually stopped. Some moved out of the building, so I don’t see them anymore in the elevator, which is a blessing.

As for befriending colleagues, well, the majority of my adult friendships have begun at work. But I am wary of confiding too much in colleagues for fear of it skewing the balance between personal and professional.

Life in the city, where you don’t know many people, is made up of such bittersweet experiences. People question loneliness saying ‘at least your spouse is with you’, and ‘you have company’. But while making friends one-on-one is difficult enough, finding a couple that both you and your spouse are at ease with is more challenging. You try to find common ground with the other two. If you don’t find it, you give up making plans. The same can’t be said about your friends’ spouses, who you may or may not connect with, but over time you get used to. You might even grow to like them. If not, you learn to bear them for the sake of your friend.

But who wants to spend time making weekend plans with people you might not want to meet again? I don’t enjoy initiating conversations on the same handful of themes: ‘How long have you been in Dubai?’, ‘Do you like the city?’, ‘How is working in media here?’… and so on. A slew of brain-dead questions will be exchanged before real conversations begin. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. And my mantra should be to let more people into my life rather than being choosy and judgmental. Some people might just tune in to my bandwidth.

Anita is planning to reread ‘The Art of Talking to Anyone’ over the weekend

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