I’ve been living in London for about 10 years. The honeymoon period ended after four. Around this time the Underground went from novelty to daily grind, I observed traffic accelerates to run pedestrians over, and English accents lost their foreign lustre. I also realised how difficult it is to make decent friends in this city.
Discounting the possibility Londoners may be allergic to my personality, I’ve had to consider why this is so, for the sake of my sanity. If you find yourself scratching your head as well, here are a few observations:
London is vast
The geographic spread of London is enormous. There is also a definite north/south divide across the Thames. Regardless of the convenience of the Underground, most people will not make the effort for new associations if it involves travelling any distance at all and it takes up too much of their time. London is also massive in terms of population. Many are itinerant with short term visas. Associations on these terms will be fleeting and superficial. The established social networks are amongst the long term residents and most of these people already have friends and don’t need to make the effort for any more.
Public vs private persona
Ever wondered why people who you met only last week just walk past you on the street? Meeting someone privately is easy, establishing connections outside of the context of the original association is near impossible. If you meet someone within an interest group, you need to regularly attend for a good ten years before they consider you quite safe and not an axe-wielding maniac. It takes a long time and great dedication. In private, most are approachable and friendly. In public, Londoners are polite but unkind.
The paradox of the Internet/social media
The Internet can crack open your social world. Subsequently, you will meet far more people via Meetups, club memberships or interest groups. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean you will make more friends. Like the proverbial fisherman, your net may be cast wider, but the holes are far bigger. You might meet more people and go further afield, but most associations will fall through. Londoners don’t tend to like being singled out and prefer to travel in packs. They are also quite reserved and require you to make the effort before they choose to do so. Social media may also hook you up to many more individuals, but it is also a useful tool to keep everyone at arm’s length. Texting, e-mail and Facebook are lazy and cheap ways of ‘staying in touch’ without making any effort for face to face contact.
Lack of social flexibility
Londoners tend to have their spare time sewn up fairly tightly. Social diaries are booked months in advance. Many evenings will be accounted for and most will never cancel their gym class for one evening to have a spontaneous drink after work. If you stop attending a group no one will call you to get you back or make the effort for you outside of the club. Londoners also have certain ways of cutting you loose if they are not interested. If you have ever had someone agree to a social engagement with you and then cancel at the last minute, with a promise to ‘reschedule’, they never will. It is not a good sign when someone says they cannot make a proposed meeting and that they are busy for the next three months.
There are plenty of empty gestures and not so much genuine substance. A fear starts to fester if they agree to one social engagement. They may be prevailed upon to do it again and then what? Will you be appearing, unannounced, on their doorstep with an overnight bag? Will you be asking to borrow substantial sums of money? Will you announce you have leprosy? It will never end! Best to shut you out at the beginning and avoid the embarrassment.
London: Should I stay or should I go?
What has kept me here for so long is my husband (he is a Londoner), his family and my employer, who has been the same since my arrival since 2005. I have also had to change my behaviour significantly. I only operate within interest groups and rarely make the effort to approach individuals. London is a fantastic place to live, but there is a limit. The hard part is deciding when I have reached it and it is time to go home.
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