Why Friendships Need to Go Deeper Than Coffee Dates

An espresso machine in a coffee shop
“Hey, do you want to grab coffee soon?”

It’s a text that regularly lights up my phone; it’s one I’ve sent many times. When I moved to the Chicago suburbs nearly nine months ago, shortly after finishing college, I knew two people in Chicagoland. Because my initial concerns were adjusting to my new job and not freezing to death in the “mild” winter’s chill, that fact didn’t bother me too much. I’ll get to know people, I thought. There’s church, work, and tons of other stuff.

There was church, there was work, there was other stuff — and there was plenty of “grabbing coffee” with new acquaintances in the midst of it all. (Can we also briefly acknowledge how weird of a phrase “grabbing coffee” is?) Yet as the months passed, I still felt like I only really knew those same two people. I’d just left a campus in a town where I felt like I knew everyone, and this sense of loneliness — of missing something — became heavier and heavier.

What was I doing wrong?

Coffee-Date Friends

Good news! I’m not alone in this eternal cycle of lattes and small talk. And thank goodness science is here to explain why: In the 2012 New York Times article “Friends of a Certain Age,” Alex Williams references 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.” This combination of factors, according to sociology and gerontology professor Rebecca G. Adams, “is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college.”

But now college is over, and Williams writes that “it’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now.”

“Kind of friends” (see also: coffee-date friends): (n.) Those people with whom you set up a meeting at Starbucks (in a series of texts that include an appropriately cheerful amount of exclamation points). They’re the friends who ask about where you’re from and where you went to school, and they try to find anything you might have in common. The coffee may be hot, but the conversation is lukewarm at best. Time together usually ends with “we gotta do this again soon.”

Will you actually grab coffee again soon? Maybe. Or maybe it’ll be a month or two, and after running into each other at a local diner, the process will repeat once more.

I love coffee (I’m from Seattle, after all). And I love a good conversation that’s accompanied by good coffee. But if that conversation remains just that — a conversation — followed only by plans to do the same thing again and again? That’s a perfect way for C.D.F.’s (coffee-date friendships) to start brewing — and never grow beyond the four walls of the coffee shop.

The Distinctive Difficulty of Adult Friendship

Of course, it’s understandable how these friendships can become stagnant (or even fade completely). Williams notes when we grow older “schedules compress, priorities change and people often become pickier in what they want in their friends.”

That reality has been a difficult one for me to grasp. Since starting my full-time, 9-to-5 office job back in January, I’ve flirted with the idea of grad school — and part of me wonders whether the appeal of such a venture partially rests on the possibility of meeting those three conditions for close friends once more: friends to study late into the night with, friends I could walk to class with and have over to my place to discuss literature and art and music. Sure, we’d get coffee together, but there was so much more life and learning and laughter outside of those hours inside Starbucks. And sometimes, I can’t help but wonder and pray: Will I ever find that again, God?

Trying, Working, Hoping

It’s when these thoughts start worming through my brain that the words of Emily Langan — a communications professor at Wheaton College — are a unique comfort. She also recognizes the frustrating difficulty of building friendships after college: “Friendship in adulthood is harder than it looks,” she said in an interview with CT Women. “Long-term friendships are a rarity. The reason is that they take work. Most of the time something else becomes a priority, either out of necessity or out of choice.”

Yet Langan also offers hope for those of us pining who may be pining for a season of life that often seems long past. “The good news is that friendships in adult life happen in unexpected places,” she said. “You always have to keep the radar out for expanding the circle, because you’re never sure which seeds are really going to take off and become a more substantial friendship.”

I’m not giving up on coffee dates — but I’m also going to “expand the circle.” I’m trying to put in the work. I’m trying to invite people over for dinner, to go on a run with me, to do something that might not involve sitting across a table from each other and holding a paper cup filled with steaming coffee.

Who knows what kinds of seeds might start blooming?

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