Doing the Friendship Dance

Andrew Machota, in velvet jacket and bow tie, dances with friends at the Vinoy Hotel in St. Pete on April 1, 2017. Photo courtesy of New Town Connections.

By David R. Wheeler, Editor

Ever notice how hard it is to make friends as an adult? And how hard it is even to talk about the subject? Andrew Machota noticed the same thing when he moved to Tampa a few years ago. He knew a grand total of one person when he arrived. One single person. A person 15 years his senior. So he joined clubs; he volunteered; he introduced himself to strangers. Still, there seemed to be more obstacles than avenues to making friends.

But wait: If Machota was having trouble, what about other people? After all, Machota is an outgoing guy, and he was working overtime in the friendship-building department.

Were other people just as frustrated? Did they want help?

Yes and yes. Cue Machota’s ingenious idea: New Town Connections, a social club for Tampa residents (both newbies and long-timers) who are looking for something deeper.

Now, remind me, what is it that people are looking for? What’s it called again? Oh yeah: genuine friendships. To that end, New Town Connections offers at least one or two events per week, where people can have conversations and get to know each other. (Disclosure: Your fearless editor joined a few weeks ago.)

Within a couple of years, the group swelled to more than 600 members, and there’s talk of expansion to other cities.

Machota, who is also a CPA, has taken his success story and turned it into a book: Friend Request Accepted: Connecting in a Disconnected World. I caught up with Machota to ask him about the book and the art of making friends.

ATB: So there’s a line in the movie Stand By Me where the narrator says, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” Everyone kind of agrees that it’s notoriously difficult to make friends once you’re out of school, and no longer constantly surrounded by people exactly your age going through exactly the same situation as you. But you’ve discovered the art of making friends as an adult. Have you essentially done the impossible? 

AM: Yes, it does seem like I’ve found a way for young adults to go out and make genuine friends like we all did back in the day. I never thought it was impossible, but rather extremely difficult as the older we get, the more responsibilities we have, and the less time we spend trying to make friends. Life gets in the way. You get a career, a significant other, and extracurricular activities, and before you know it, you have a minimal amount of free time to hang out with your friends. On top of that, we’ve just become lazy, to be honest. We all think we’re super connected because of social media. It’s nice on the surface to have a few thousand “friends,” “followers,” or “connections,” but what does that really matter if I met you once at an event and never see you again? The art of making friends really comes down to making an extra effort to follow up with people and asking them out for coffee, lunch, or a drink after work. It’s really hard to be friends with someone if you never take the opportunity to get to know them on a personal level.

ATB: In your book, you talk about how to be a better conversationalist. What are some rookie mistakes people make when they try to start conversations with strangers?

AM: The biggest mistake is people immediately ask you “What do you do?” Who wants to talk about work? Work does not define me as it does not define you. As such, there’s no reason to ask that question right off the bat. To be a great conversationalist, you really just need to get people going on a topic. People love to talk; therefore, you need to actively listen and ask engaging questions regarding the topic at hand. If we’re talking and you’re telling me about your vacation to Europe, then yes, I’m going to ask you 10 follow-up questions about your trip so you know I’m actively listening. There will come a time and place for me to speak, but the real trick is listening and letting the other person share what they want to share while you are actively engaged to what they are saying. That’s the best way to connect with people while having a conversation.

ATB: You’re big on the idea of friend tests, and you discuss that in the book. How can you tell if someone is a real friend? Talk about that a little bit.

AM: We test people every day even without them knowing it. I recently made a post on social media about how you need to test your friends to see who your true friends are and a number of people took offense to that. If I don’t test you, how do I know who will help me out when I’m in a bad situation? I laughed it off as the tests I do are really just day-to-day trivial items that don’t come off as tests, but yet they show me who you are, and I can better judge your character from there. My main test is this: people often ask me to grab a drink, go to lunch, or have dinner. I respond back and say, “I’d love to, when are you free? Shoot me some dates and we’ll make it happen.” Funny enough, 70 percent of the time, those “friends” never follow up and send me dates. I tested them to see who was seriously interested in catching up and who was just full of hot air. People like to talk but few actually follow through on their word. Another test is about networking – I feel most of us are 1-2 degrees of separation from somebody who would be a good connection for work. As such, I often ask my friends if they can email intro me to whoever I’m trying to track down. That email should take them 2-3 minutes to draft as I’m not asking for much, but you’d be surprised as to who comes through and who doesn’t.

ATB: You’ve built a gigantic network of friends, and a social club that’s exploding in popularity – and even expanding to other cities. But this was the result of a lot of hard-won lessons. Talk about some of the difficulties you had when you originally moved to Tampa.

AM: I love a good challenge, and when I decided to pack up my things and move down from Indiana, I knew I had that coming. Moving to a new city 1,000 miles away was no easy task, especially when I only knew one person here who was 15 years older than me. But I carried on and got to work, and by work I mean I started trying out everything under the sun to meet people. Tennis, beach volleyball, salsa dancing, volunteering, run clubs, kickball, networking, and so on. The hardest part was really finding friends who were like-minded and who I really connected with. Playing sports is fun, but you don’t always necessarily have many things in common with the other people who play outside of the sport. Networking was similar in that you’d show up and people immediately ask you about work. Having meaningful conversations is tough and sometimes awkward when talking to new people, but I persevered, took many notes on my experiences, which helped lead me to start my company New Town Connections. Wouldn’t it be nice to have great conversations outside of trying to meet people online, through apps, or at the bar? That was the real impetus to start my company because I knew deep down, we all would prefer person-to-person interaction, not canned text messages via an app. Those aren’t meaningful conversations.

ATB: I think every single review of your book on Amazon is a five-star review, so congratulations on that. But what’s the best compliment you’ve received on the book?

AM: One of my friends sent me a picture of her grandma reading my book last week and said that she was really enjoying it and was going to buy several copies for her elderly friends. To me that’s amazing as I never really envisioned my book going into that age demographic, but at the end of the day, the book is about building genuine friendships and relationships regardless of age, which gives me hope that this book will touch millions of lives whether you’re 12, 22, 52, or 82.

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