Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Loneliness is an epidemic. Here's how to make new friends as an adult

Loneliness and isolation are an epidemic, according to the Surgeon General in a widely talked about recent report.

So that leads to the question: How do you expand your social circle? Where on earth do you make new friends?

One group that exists for just this purpose is Break the Bubble. For the past 10 years the group has been coordinating meet-ups in public places around the Twin Cities.

The goal is purely social — it’s not a singles group, it’s not a professional networking organization. And attendance at their events has skyrocketed since the pandemic.

Jon Slock has been coordinating Break the Bubble for the past five years, and he joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about it.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Loneliness and isolation are an epidemic in this country, and that is according to the Surgeon General in a widely talked about recent report. So that leads to this question-- how do you expand your social circle, where on Earth do you make new friends?

One group that exists for just this purpose is Break the Bubble. For the past 10 years, the group has been coordinating meetups in public places around the Twin Cities. The goal is purely social. It's not a singles group. It's not a professional networking organization. And attendance at their events has skyrocketed since the pandemic.

John Slack has been coordinating Break the Bubble for the past five years. He's on the line right now. Hey, John.

JOHN SLACK: Good afternoon, Cathy. It's great to be here.

INTERVIEWER: Likewise. Thanks for taking the time. Well, this is how do I-- how have I missed this? I have not heard of Break the Bubble before. How did this all come about?

JOHN SLACK: Yes. It's been around for 10 years now. I did not start it. I've been a coordinator for five years. Two people had moved to the Twin Cities and had one was a returnee and one was a newcomer. And they were lamenting it's hard to meet people. And so they took matters into their own hands. And they put up a flyer at a local brewery and they had 50 people. So it's just blossomed since then. And so we've just been doing this every month.

INTERVIEWER: Native Minnesotans are a little reticent. We're a little-- what's the word? We're friendly, but it is-- we don't invite people into our social circles very easily. Is that kind of the problem that we're talking about here?

JOHN SLACK: Well, I mean, you hit on part of it. I think it's also just tougher to meet people once you're in your 20s and 30s. And once you're out of college, you're sometimes limited to your co-workers or your neighbors. And so to meet truly new people, it can be a challenge anywhere, not just Minnesota.

INTERVIEWER: Right. So do you hear from folks who are coming, who reference the pandemic, folks who are kind of getting their feet wet and are a little out of practice and want to make connections?

JOHN SLACK: That is definitely true. I mean, we had a year and a half there where you had-- couldn't really do much socially. So people want to get back into a social practice. Maybe some of their friends, again, had kind of fallen off on the wayside, so a great way to reach out was with us.

INTERVIEWER: It is hard to get back in gear socially. Do you all help in that? I mean, if I go to one of your events, how will you draw me out?

JOHN SLACK: Everyone has a name tag. I honestly believe the name tag is the secret sauce, if you give people permission to talk to strangers.

INTERVIEWER: No.

JOHN SLACK: And it's not like you said, it's not networking. It's not speed dating. And so there's no secret motive. Everybody just wants to talk. It's a self-selecting group. And it's a range of social. Some definitely people who now get out all the time. And some people who have literally said to me, hey, this was my social practice for the week. I want to talk to three people. I did it at 6:45. I'm going home.

INTERVIEWER: What size of crowd do you usually draw?

JOHN SLACK: We've been having large crowds both pre and post-pandemic. I mean, our last event early or sorry mid-June, while we had 150 people at Insight Brewing.

INTERVIEWER: Wow, 150 people. What does that tell you?

JOHN SLACK: People want to connect. People want to connect, like you mentioned. I mean this epidemic of loneliness, people want to fight that. I mean, we're not by no means, we are the only group on meetup. Anybody can start a meetup group of their own. But obviously, people come to us because we have big crowds. It feels safer I think. People definitely have a true desire for community.

INTERVIEWER: Do you happen to track folks once they meet? Do you have any idea? Do they continue to meet outside of Break the Bubble? Do they become friends?

JOHN SLACK: Yes. Some people definitely just show up to chat with some new folks after a long day of work. But definitely some people also start a bike group. They meet up on a Saturday, go for a bike ride or they're big into sports or they go to a Saints game or coffee shops, book clubs. I mean, those definitely happen. I don't have hard data. But I hear more than a few stories every time.

INTERVIEWER: Good. So it sounds like something that could be replicated elsewhere. Maybe it has been, as far you know.

JOHN SLACK: I mean, there's hundreds of meetups in the Twin Cities. Everybody's free to do that. We're not specific. You have foreign language groups or book clubs or things like that. I think people come to Break the Bubble because it's open to all. There is no specific interest. And then when you make a good connection, that becomes your new social group.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you keep coming back. You've done this for five years. There must be something that really sparks your interest in this.

JOHN SLACK: I really love making those connections. I love every event we have, easily a dozen, 12, 15, 20 people who are new to the Twin Cities. I think people check out, meet up when they move to a new area. And so I love being one of those first people that says, hi, welcome. You like biking, have you checked out this bike club? Just giving them resources. Almost like a concierge at a hotel or a hostel

INTERVIEWER: A lot of people, John, get into a situation and they become tongue-tied. I see you're doing this at brewery. So maybe the alcohol will-- that helps maybe a little bit. But do you have any suggestions for folks to break the ice?

JOHN SLACK: I have often joked with people. It's a lot like-- it's a lot like the 8th grade dance. Who makes the first move? It's literally a case of just saying hi. I think it's a group that wants to connect. I think it's a group that also recognizes for some people it might be-- they might have those cold feet. And that's a very inviting group.

INTERVIEWER: Now, you have another event tomorrow, right?

JOHN SLACK: Yes. We have one tomorrow at Saint Paul Brewing, 6 to 9 PM. And we have one on the 29th at the coffee shop at Keg & Case. Not everybody drinks. So we've started incorporating some larger coffee shops that can host big groups. That's on a Saturday morning. So for those who want to hop on their bike and meet some new people over coffee, that's a great way to do it too.

INTERVIEWER: And someone can come with a friend, right, if they want some moral support?

JOHN SLACK: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: Good. Maybe the friend meets new friends. Who knows?

JOHN SLACK: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: John, thank you for taking the time.

JOHN SLACK: This has been fantastic, Cathy. Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I've enjoyed it. John Slack has been coordinating the social meetup group Break the Bubble in the Twin Cities for the past five years. As he mentioned, their next event, if you want to attend, is tomorrow, July 13 at Saint Paul Brewing.

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