Isolated in Victoria: forging friendships in a city renowned for its chilliness

Researchers say there's little attention on adult friendships, but there are some strategies to find new friends—even here

By Tim Ford
August 29, 2021

Isolated in Victoria: forging friendships in a city renowned for its chilliness

Researchers say there's little attention on adult friendships, but there are some strategies to find new friends—even here

By Tim Ford
Aug 29, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Isolated in Victoria: forging friendships in a city renowned for its chilliness

Researchers say there's little attention on adult friendships, but there are some strategies to find new friends—even here

By Tim Ford
August 29, 2021
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 Isolated in Victoria: forging friendships in a city renowned for its chilliness
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

"Anyone else having trouble making friends here?"

It was a simple question but in a matter of days, the Reddit thread in r/VictoriaBC, garnered more than 100 responses. It's a phenomenon, one that many newcomers to BC's capital are seeing. But for some, the problem stretches back further.

“I moved to Vancouver island about seven years ago from Alberta,” says Allan Boos. “It became apparent in year three that even the friendly faces I interacted with through work and my neighborhood were just acquaintances at best.”

For him the problem is one of time and money. Boos says because of the high cost of living, a significant portion of his daily life is taken up simply making enough money to get by.

Although he finds people generally friendly here, establishing deeper connections has been difficult for Boos. It has reached a point where he says he is even considering leaving the city for good. 

“I believe that is what it boils down to,” he says. “People move here, can't afford to be happy, never make any friends and then leave again. It's a circle that I am likely to follow myself.”

Even as the Alberta native considers a move to friendlier pastures, though, Victoria and the Island, along with much of BC, are seeing a large increase in residents.

According to Statistics Canada, the third quarter of 2020 saw the largest growth from interprovincial migration to BC, with a net gain of 4,742 people. But are those people in for an uphill battle to establish friendships?

There is no hard data on Victoria’s social scene with regards to building friendships, but the reputation of the city as a difficult place for newcomers is visible online and anecdotally. In the r/Victoria subreddit, it’s a perennial trend to ask for help in making friends, but throughout the pandemic, others have commented on the particular social challenges it has presented.

Loneliness is a threat to mental and emotional wellbeing, psychologists have repeatedly found. One study, co-authored by UVic Assistant Professor Kelci Harris, assessed friendships with both self-reporting and unbiased observer data. Their findings noted that both the quantity and quality of friendships directly affected a person’s wellbeing.

“Having deeper, more intimate interactions was also consistently associated with feeling more socially connected in the moment,” the study concluded. 

“These convergent findings for self- and observer-reports suggest that the associations between well-being and the quantity and quality of social interactions are not just in people’s heads.”

Victoria newcomer Carolyn Chen says she's made a dedicated effort to build friendships since she arrived in March. "I would say so far, my experience has been pretty good with regard to meeting people.... But with that being said, I've heard from others that they do struggle with meeting friends."

Chen works as a product designer for a software company in Vancouver. She says remote work has been a challenge for friend-making, but she has used platforms like or Facebook to socialize. That adaptation has been driven in part by COVID-19, which has re-written the social landscape.

For Johnny Novak, a radio DJ who moved to Victoria in March 2019, the pandemic had a harsher impact.

"When I came to Victoria, I knew a couple of people," he says. "If I knew the pandemic was coming, I probably would have been more outgoing."

Novak was one of the thousands of Canadians who found themselves laid off. While he was unemployed, he says it was difficult to meet people. It also prevented a lot of in-person social events.

“I wish I could go out,” Novak says. “I want to do sports activities, whether it be like tennis, or soccer, just for the social aspect of it.But obviously, with the pandemic, I can't do that.”

The pandemic also made him reevaluate friendships. Through his radio work, Novak attended multiple large events. But while he was introduced to many people at these gatherings, they weren't long-term friendships.

"It really boils down to, what is the definition of a friend? My definition of a friend would be someone you can go grab a drink with, just on a whim. I don't have too many of those."

Lonely adults

Harris, the co-author of the study which looked at relationships with self-report data and third-party observation, has dedicated her research to analyzing friendships. It's a field that she says needs more examination, both academically and on a personal level.

"If you're looking at studying kids and adolescents, friendships get a lot of attention. And also looking at older adults, people like to pay more attention to friendship and people's social networks, as they worry about isolation and loneliness,” she says. 

But there’s a gap in what we know about friendships as people enter adulthood. “In middle adulthood—so post-high school, through retirement—friendships get a lot less attention."

In practical terms, Harris says it's easier for researchers to gather data on children due to them being in a controlled environment like school. In psychological terms, adulthood is often viewed through the lens of a single, long-term romantic relationship.

That lens, Harris says, can be problematic and discounts the importance of friendships.

"The things that friends do for us, both emotionally, and instrumentally with practical help, are what makes them so important for our well-being and our health."

Like Novak, Harris says the pandemic had a detrimental effect. She says when we sense our time is limited, we become less interested in seeking out new people. With COVID-19, we were pressured by an uncertain pandemic timeline to stay close to familiar faces.

But even without the pandemic's impact, Harris thinks the city can be tricky. "Victoria is kind of notorious for being hard to make friends with. This part of North America in general, it's tricky to befriend people here."

"Seattle Freeze" is a term used to describe the nearby American city's chilly personality. Indeed, the entire Pacific Northwest has a reputation for being cold to outsiders. According to one survey, 40% of residents in Oregon and Washington think making new friends is unimportant. 

Harris says the size and nature of Victoria are also factors. "Things close earlier. It's a sleepier city. Another thing that contributes to it being hard to make friends here: a lot of people who live in Victoria are from Victoria."

She cites Dunbar's number, a theory that says we can maintain 150 social contacts, as an explanation of how tight-knit locals can be closed off to outsiders.

"If you're living in a place where you've lived your whole life, and most of your friends are here, and you're very rooted, it can be hard to make space for an outside person."

The solution, she says, is to seek out meet-ups and build on common interests.

"One way to find people who you think are like you is to show up somewhere doing something that you're interested in. That could be like going to play board games, through activism, joining a running group or something."

One local business offering social events for eager newcomers is Board with Friends, a board game cafe that opened last fall. Co-owners Alyssa Chow and Nicholas Switzer say that they've already seen interest from people looking for a social outlet. Chow says in response to requests, they've started "Mingle Mondays" for people to meet and play games.

"We have about 15 regulars that come. A handful have been people who moved here during the pandemic that have not been able to socialize."

Switzer says that Victoria can be a difficult city to settle into. But on top of that, he thinks that the pandemic showed how friendships and socializing are vital to mental health and wellbeing.

"We had one guy come in with Mingle Mondays who moved here during the pandemic. He came up to us afterwards, like, 'Man, this is the most fun I've had in about a year. I haven't been able to meet anyone, haven't been able to socialize with anyone. I'm coming back every Monday.' And sure enough, he has been."

It's those types of experiences that Harris says can build friendships, not just in Victoria but anywhere. The most important thing, she says, is not being hard on yourself or giving up.

"If it takes longer than you expected, that's okay. It's a pandemic. Things are weird. So give yourself a little grace on that front."

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