Dear Thelma

I’m a plain Jane (with no special qualities or abilities) in my mid-20s and working at a regular job that requires me to meet clients outside the office.

Despite tasks I have in my work, even today, I have trouble being social as I tend to say the wrong things – I’m known to have a sharp tongue and just say what comes to mind – and act awkwardly.

I feel that I get along well enough with my colleagues, to the point that I consider some of them as friends.

However, it seems that work is still work and personal life is still personal as they all have their own group of best/close friends outside the work circle, so we rarely hang out during off-work hours.

Growing up as a “banana” made things difficult as I was often ridiculed and shunned for not being able to speak Chinese. In fact, I practically do not have anyone from my primary or secondary school to actually call “friend” anymore; I don’t even know if they really thought of me as friends back then other than the classmate who helped them with their English homework …

I don’t even know if I can call my college best friends that anymore as we have clearly drifted apart in recent years.

It would be nice to have friends that I can spend time with, not just talking about work.

I had my birthday recently, and – no surprise – none of them asked me to hang out and celebrate or anything (then again, no one really asks me out on regular days so why should my birthday be any different?).

Some of them wished me on our WhatsApp group and said things like, “let’s meet up someday” and “whoa, is this group still alive?”. They may have just been joking and making small talk but I was still hurt because the first message seems like repeating an empty promise as they have been saying that for months but nothing ever came out of it, while the second one sounds as if that person hardly even cared about this group of friends anymore.

I have tried to initiate hanging out with them before, but my invitations were turned down (with reasons such as “not free at the time”). Even back when I was still in contact with my schoolmates, it was the same; in fact, the two who did turn up to one of the rendezvous I arranged seemed disappointed with me for asking them out back then.

I feel that my initiating anything social seems like a bother to others so I just stopped doing it in recent years to spare myself the pain.

I’m lucky to have some colleagues who are there to help when I really need it, but it would be nice to have friends that I can spend time with, talk about things and maybe travel to places together, not just talking about work. Most of my weekends are spent at home binging on movies or video games; it’s fun for awhile but it gets lonely eventually. Some nights, I can’t sleep thinking about this, and I end up crying.

I know it sounds like a first-world problem, like a spoiled child, but it would help if I could get some advice. – Socially Inept


Dear Socially Inept

The predicament you find yourself in is something that many people experience. Do not trivialise what you are experiencing. This is a valid problem and question. After school and college or university, how does one meet new people and make new friends?

It is hard to sustain friendships made at school, because the things that brought children together are just that. After childhood and adolescence pass, what holds those relationships together? Some are lucky enough to build bonds that can sustain the demands of adulthood and the changing roles and circumstances that come with that.

Aside from that, people change as they grow older. There is nothing wrong with this. It is normal. People discover more about themselves. Their interests change. Their priorities change, too. People have less time for each other. Some get married, others don’t. Some face disappointments of adult and romantic life. Others seem to have the coveted happily-ever-after life. It becomes hard to sustain the relationship. Some people sustain these school friendships simply by reliving nostalgia.

So, you should not feel too upset that you do not have friends from your school days. Neither should you take it personally that they are not responsive to your invitations to socialise with them.

It hurts when you try and reach out to people and they don’t respond. Or, you go through the trouble of planning and people do not show up. You tried. That is important. Just remember that relationships are two-way. You can’t always be the one who is reaching out.

Given this background you have with your old friends from school, it is not a surprise that they responded the way they did on your birthday. Having said that, you should not spend so much energy questioning their “motives”. Thank them for wishing you. If someone says they’d like to catch up, follow up with them and see if they are serious. If they are not, leave it. It is better for you to manage that, rather than boost your expectations only to be disappointed later.

Loneliness is a real problem. Society is more connected now than ever before, yet more people are reporting being lonely.

It hurts to be lonely. But, there is nothing wrong in being alone. If you can’t keep yourself company, how can you expect to keep others company?

What you have to do now, though, is expand your social circle. You are going to have to take risks if you want to change the current situation. You are going to have to be ready for something new.

You can start with your colleagues. Why don’t you suggest hanging out together? Maybe dinner after work? Make it fun. Warn people that they should not talk about work. To make it a bit more fun, tell them that anyone who brings up work would have to pay for dinner. That will help people understand that the whole point is to be social. These informal get-togethers will help you get to know your colleagues better, and vice versa.

Look for other people with similar interests as you. The Internet has so many online communities based on different interests. You can connect with others here. Get to know people. Find people who are close to your physical location and schedule a meet up. Or, you can even connect with people online. It is not unusual for people to now hang out virtually via the many online apps available.

dear thelma - work mates

Why can’t we just hang out for fun?

There are Facebook groups available for interest groups. That is a great way to meet people. There are also so many publications now – magazines and journals – related to specific hobbies. Pick up some copies and see if there are upcoming events near you.

Loneliness is a real problem. Society is more connected now than ever before, yet more people are reporting being lonely.

Perhaps people have taken these social interactions for granted. Online interactions are often superficial. You can’t get away from actually going out there and meeting people. You may be successful, you may not. The most important thing is to try. Then, try again.

Take a risk, as long as it is safe. Make sure you meet people in a public space. Get to know them well before sharing very personal information with them. These are the kinds of precautions you should take.

Making friends and building relationships requires a certain amount of vulnerability. You’d have to “put yourself out there”. The thing about this that frightens many people is the risk of rejection. That can be painful. But no pain, no gain. There is some truth to this. By pain, it is not a reference to abuse. It just means risking being rejected.

You’ll have to develop a positive attitude. If there is rejection, if your attempts don’t work; stop and take stock of what you are doing. What can you learn from it? What can you change and do differently in the future. That is the only thing you can do.


Is something bothering you? Do you need a listening ear or a shoulder to lean on? Thelma is here to help.

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