Working at home has many perks: you can wear what you like, take coffee breaks when you want, and create the perfect environment that enables you to do your best work. It does, however, come with a downside: you’re almost always alone.
Determined to make some new friends, I searched Meetup for ways to connect with people face-to-face. I had attempted this a few times before, with mixed results. But I wanted to try one more time.
Only one group looked interesting: “20–40 somethings social”. 70 people had signed up to attend.
Meetup events with no shared interests can be awkward because you don’t know anyone and have nothing in common. A social jungle, with everyone lurking around, trying to strike up a conversation.
It can almost feel like a zoo. But what was the alternative? Another Saturday night spent alone?
After a couple of drinks at home, I thought, “what’s the worst that could happen?”, put on my shoes and jumped into an Uber. The driver didn’t have a radio but was loudly eating peanuts. The whole car smelled strongly of them.
Just as well I wasn’t allergic and didn’t die, or that could have easily dropped his 5 star rating down to a 4. At least.
I arrived at the pub around 8PM — fashionably late, of course — to a crowd of 40 or 50. A pretty good turnout. The host, a man named John, introduced me to a few people. I made my way to a lively table, where a party card game was in full swing.
Amidst the audible ocean of loud music and loud chatter, I danced a delicate tango of striking up conversations: some rewarding, some not so much. It got exhausting after a while. You can only explain your job to people so many times.
It was also odd that a few people didn’t want to socialise.
Enter Dave, a lively fellow in his 30s. Attending with a German woman (important detail for later) he met at a previous event. He seemed nice at first. Almost, dare I say, normal?
He also owns a sauna.
A 20-minute conversation? Definitely not.
Yet somehow, the sauna saga spanned an epic 20 minutes, a quirk that seemed fitting in the absurdity of the entire night. Not really what I was looking for when I asked, “tell me something interesting about yourself”. Is that really the best you can do, Dave?
I turn around, and the German woman is talking to someone. A man tried speaking German to her and claimed she wasn’t really German. He started boasting about asking women in Germany for threesomes and how he had blue balls.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. Is this typical conversation for men my age at Meetup events?
The rest of the night was okay. I had some enjoyable conversations, but nothing sparked. The crowd drops from 50 to around 20 in the space of an hour.
And then Dave drops the motherlode on me.
“Yeah, you’re autistic.”
Dave, a man I had just met, who I gave no indication of a lack of social awareness, diagnosed my (until now, at least) latent, fictional ASD.
While there is nothing wrong with being autistic at all, and neurodivergence is vast and complex, it’s not exactly something you tell someone the first time you meet them. Especially when it’s used as an insult.
This surprise was unwelcome, especially since I already felt disconnected. The label hung in the air, a heavy blow to my attempts at making friends, and I was ready to call it quits.
“What makes you think that?” I ask him. With nothing to lose, I decided to find out why.
“Because you don’t make eye contact,” he replies confidently, as if he had caught a thief in the thick of night.
Let me tell you something. When you’re bored with talk of saunas and surrounded by the excitement of a Saturday night, you’ll naturally start looking for something else to do. It was a social event: I wanted to speak to everyone and see who was out there.
Nope. According to Dave, this is because I am incapable of making eye contact with him.
A last-ditch attempt to chat with another group ended in disappointment when one of them gave me the faintest smile before walking away. Suddenly, I felt deflated, unworthy, and shunned. I was putting myself out there, being myself, but the response was far from encouraging.
I grabbed my coat, put down what was left of my double rum and coke, and left.
The summer here this year is odd, so the night was warm with a downpour of rain. I check Uber to grab a ride home. £40. Bit of a jump from the £8 it cost me to get here. Deflated, I stood at the bus stop, the warm rain pouring over me, and made small talk with an elderly gentleman about how the electronic timetable showed the bus as “due” for about 10 minutes.
Whilst thinking about what happened (and whether I was, in fact, autistic), I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of this event was. It was like everyone was wearing a mask. People pretended to be what they thought others wanted and the conversations were shallow.
Nobody wanted to take a risk and reveal a part of themselves.
I did meet some cool people: a software developer who shared my dry sense of humour, and I had a lively debate with someone about why cats are the superior house pet. They’re not, by the way.
You had all the ingredients for a perfect night. You had a large group of people, all alone, all wanting to make friends. Why else would we be here on a Saturday night? If we already had friends, we’d be with them. Why be so closed off?
Here’s the thing about trying to make friends: it requires authenticity. Pretending to be something you’re not only takes you further away from a genuine connection. I left the event, my attempts shut down, feeling more alone than had I not bothered attending. I had better chats with the man at the bus stop than anyone else that night.
I deleted the Meetup app when I got home.