When Boston Globe journalist Billy Baker was approached by his editor to write about the loneliness epidemic and how adult men specifically have a hard time with friends, he didn’t want to do it. But he took on the project when he realized the changes that needed to be made in his own life. Building off of that Globe article (which became the newspaper’s most popular piece), Billy’s new book, We Need to Hang Out, combines scientific research with his own experience making and maintaining new friendships to offer readers a guide to hopefully feel less lonely.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Billy. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss We Need to Hang Out: A Memoir of Making Friends.

Billy Baker: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. We were just hanging out with Kyle, which is great because my husband, as we discussed, is so good at keeping his friends, more so than most, I would say, people, men, whatever, and is always encouraging me to call friends. When I told him about your book originally, he just glommed onto this and has recommended it front, right, and center.

Billy: That’s fantastic. He seems like a natural glue guy, this phrase I use in the book of a velvet hook, these things we need to find that are the soft connectors, a way to be friends with our friends. Sometimes that velvet hook is a person. It’s the Kyles of the world who are like, let’s get the band back together, and then follows through on it. I love it. I love the energy he gives off.

Zibby: It’s really amazing. I think I’m much more in the camp that you described of, life is busy. We have our kids. We have our work. Yeah, they’re our good friends, but oh, wait, you moved to another continent. Somebody was asking me about one of my good friends. I was like, oh, yeah, she’s one of my best friends. She lives in Seattle. Then two minutes later, actually, I think she might have moved to Portland. Now I’m confused. I feel like I have close friends. I love them, but I need to do a much better job. Anyway, your book came at the right time for me too. For anybody who doesn’t know what we’re talking about, can you tell what your book is about and then the fun story that you recount in the book of how this became a book?

Billy: It became a book because I was conned by an editor with one of the oldest lies in journalism, which is, “We have a story we think you’d be perfect for.” I march into the editor’s office with my BS detector turned all the way up. I sat down. He said, “I want you to write about how middle-aged men have no friends.” In a split second, I’m having this existential crisis. He is prattling on about this epidemic that apparently is racing through America, this loneliness epidemic. To be honest, I’m half-listening to him at this point. What he’s laying out is a startling thing. Not only do we have this loneliness epidemic, but it has real dire consequences for not just your mental health, but your physical health. This guy is laying out a proposal in front of me that not having friends means I’m going to die earlier. I’m more likely to get cancer, whatever it is. I told the editor in that moment one of the other oldest lies in journalism, which is, “I’ll think about it.” The point of that was for me to justify my way out of this story and be like, no, I’ve got plenty of friends. I’m so lucky to have great friends all over the world. In just the short walk back to my desk in the newsroom, it was like, oh, there’s this guy. God, I haven’t seen him in six months. Then this person, has it been a year since I’ve seen the person I call my best friend? Things like this. I sat down at my desk and kind of committed to the story in the sense that I came to realize there was nothing special about me. That’s why I was perfect to write this story. I was painfully typical. The typical American male and American in general is categorically lonely.

So I write this article. Then I kind of want to hide under my desk because in the article, I’m admitting to these things that aren’t cool-guy things. Yeah, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have any friends. I mention in the article meeting this older guy who had a crew of guys that meet on a Wednesday night every week. I realized there were a couple Wednesdays that came and went. I was like, I don’t even have anyone to call tonight to go have a beer. On the surface, I’m doing a lot of things well. I have a career and a lovely family and kids. Things are going well. I’m eating my vegetables. I’m going to the gym. At the end of the day, I didn’t have any friend time scheduled in my day. I write this article, want to hide under my desk. The article comes out, and it went crazy. It was the weirdest thing. It became, at the time, the most popular article The Boston Globe had ever published, The Boston Globe. All of a sudden, I’m the guy being dragged on NPR to talk about male loneliness. All this stuff is swirling in my head. I felt like the kid sitting alone in the cafeteria that was like, tell us how you feel. That article really started this conversation. At the time, the surgeon general, that was his platform, this loneliness epidemic. I don’t think many people were paying much attention to him. Then I write this silly article where I throw myself under the bus. Boom, this thing exploded. Right away, I started getting thousands of emails, but the emails were all the same. They weren’t asking me for any more proof of this loneliness epidemic. They were like, okay, I acknowledge the cancer. What’s the cure? At this point, very selfishly, I’m like, I got to cure my own problems here.

I committed to write a book, but the idea was, I wasn’t going to write a book about loneliness. I was going to write a book about friendship, about the problems with trying to fix this. There’s a lot of science of loneliness in it, a lot of science of friendship. I set off on this journey. If I were to ask you, what’s the cure for loneliness? the answer is simple. It’s friends. You need friends in your life. As we talked about before we came on the air here, making that a practical thing, making friendship a part of your daily life was tricky. I’m one of these many people who, I no longer live where I grew up. I moved to that community to raise a family that made a lot of sense on paper. At the end of the day, yeah, there was some dads I’d say hi to on the sidelines at a game or some people I knew from the gym or whatever it might be, but I didn’t have active membership in a tribe. I had many tribes swirling around me, my high school friends, my college friends, whatever it might be. Those were all, at best, once-a-year activities. Initially, what I tried to do was to get those bands together. I worked hard at it. I put myself in vulnerable positions, which is not something men are taught to be comfortable doing. It worked for the most part. I could say I got the band back together. We’re as close as we’ve been since we were originally friends. The past is a nice place to visit, but if I wanted to solve my issues and reap the health benefits of friendship, I needed to have friends today and every day. I needed friends in my current community. I had to take on the ultimate loser assignment, which was to try to make friends. You know when someone’s trying to come on a little strong. You’re like, oh, this person just is so craving friendship.

Zibby: I’ll tell you the best way to make friends, by the way, is starting your own podcast. Then you can make a friend every half an hour. Anyway, keep going.

Billy: I believe it. I’m envious of podcasts in the sense that you get to have these fun conversations all the time.

Zibby: I was just thinking to myself as you were talking, you should do “Dads Don’t Have Time to See Friends” as a podcast. You have a great podcast voice. I’m not even kidding. I was thinking that would be amazing. We can talk about it later, but that would be a really fun thing.

Billy: I would love that. To speed up the plot of this book, what ultimately happened is I got sick of experts. Everyone’s an expert at friendship. In reality, I came to the conclusion that no one’s an expert or we’re all experts. It takes effort. It takes being vulnerable. It takes all these things. What helped for me was to shift my focus and to do this awkward thing of trying to make friends in adulthood, new friends, to try and make new best friends. I felt liberated by hearing Mindy Kaling say on her TV show, she had this great quote which is that a best friend is not a person, it’s a tier. Thinking of it that way, I was like, I’m not betraying my boys from the past by being like, you know what, I don’t see you very often, I need a new best friend. I need people in that role. How do you get them? I, being a tad too dramatic, decided I was going to send secret invitations to a dozen guys and try and replicate this Wednesday night thing that I’d heard about from these older guys who lived in my new town.

Who were those guys? Those were all those people where, I knew they liked me, and I liked them. We had that little spark. That’s a term often reserved for romantic relationships, but they were the people, we’d say, oh, we should get a beer sometime. Then you know what? We got to load the kids in the car. When is that day? It’s a polite gesture. The title of my book is We Need to Hang Out. I feel like that’s a phrase that gets thrown about a lot, but how much does it mean? It can be a directive. I set out to create own my tribe, my own squad, a new squad. Ultimately, it worked because I think the men I invited were all in the same category. Yeah, I’ve got a lot of stuff going well, but I don’t have that thing. I don’t have the boys. I created the boys. I have to say, I started with a dozen guys. We’re all still very close. Out of that, I’ve added four new best friends. They are best friends I see and talk to every day.

Zibby: Wow. Every day?

Billy: Yeah, really, every day. Today is a Wednesday when we’re recording. Tonight, the texts are already flying, what are we going to do? We’ve made that sacred. Wednesday night is our thing. The wives, the kids know that Dad’s going to be MIA. He’s got his thing. Whatever that thing is, we’re floating many ideas about tonight.

Zibby: You’re done with the mall at this point? No more mall?

Billy: We were going to the mall for a little bit. This larger Wednesday night crew was happening in a barn. That was good because that was a neutral — it’s all in the book, but ultimately, I realized that Wednesday night is a promise. It’s a concept. We made this promise. Some people made it back. Of the dozen guys that started originally, two or three are very much in and out. There’s a few that show up half the time. Then there’s a core group that are like, you know, this is important to me. I need this. Wednesday night is now very often Thursday night and Friday night and Monday morning. We’re old men now, so sometimes the easiest time to get together is at five AM for a jog or something like that. We’re making it happen. In ways I find impossible to explain, I feel like a happier, healthier, better everything because I’ve got friends. That editor that conned me ultimately gave me the chance to give myself a wonderful gift. I will say, it’s referenced in the book, but that editor took that as impetus and got his own act together.

Zibby: I saw that. I loved that. That was the perfect coming-full-circle moment. Amazing. I loved when you were out in the field waiting for your impromptu high school reunion to get together. You’re just sitting there. You’re telling us what’s in your head as you wait for them all to come. It’s so relatable. It’s so funny. This putting yourself out there and hoping that it gets returned and not really knowing, that’s not a great feeling. The discomfort of that is what stops a lot of people from reaching out or whatever.

Billy: Throwing a party and worrying that no one’s going to come, that is high-level stress. I will say this. Every time I put myself out there, the universe rewarded me. People appreciated that I was doing it. It made them okay. All along, I’ve been the one just raising my hand, like, I’m the loser here. I’m the guy making this effort. If anything, I think men are very comfortable communicating via ball-busting. Having me as the person that they could throw under the bus was a bonding mechanism. Even still to this day, the Wednesday night, we’ll be like, what’s Billy going to force us to do tonight? Meanwhile, it’s the highlight of their week.

Zibby: I just don’t think it would fly if I said to my kids and even Kyle, every week, I’m going out with my girlfriends. I go out with my girlfriends once a quarter or something like that, and I always feel guilty about it.

Billy: Let me say, what the experts would tell you is that regularity is the key. If it is every Wednesday night, then life will find a way to revolve around it. This is why the simplest things are the ones that work the best, the weekly book club or the sports league or poker night. Whatever it is, you know that person’s just MIA. That’s their night. I find the occasional one to be that much harder. My least-favorite phrase in the human language is, let’s throw out some dates. That’s when you know it’s just not going to work. That’s a polite way of saying, we’re never going away for the weekend. There’s zero chance that this lines up. Even those annual events, if it’s every Labor Day or whatever it is, you know, then life finds a way around it.

Zibby: I do have one friend, during the pandemic, every Saturday morning, we would play tennis. It was great. Now I’ve gotten to know her all anew. It’s great. Now, of course, she’s across the street, I haven’t seen her, literally across the street. I’m like, I don’t know. Ridiculous.

Billy: I think that’s a classic example. You need to find ways to be friends with your friends. Something as simple as tennis, is it about the tennis, or is it about what comes after the tennis, the conversations in those in-between spaces? There’s something worth knowing, which is that —

Zibby: — The conversation is the tennis. We talk the entire time.

Billy: Oh, you do? I love it.

Zibby: There’s not a moment we’re not talking. We call it country club tennis at this point. Sometimes we don’t even sweat. It’s embarrassing.

Billy: It’s the excuse. That’s what these things are, these soft connectors, these velvet hooks. Something very worth knowing for your listeners is that there’s a fundamental difference in how men and women interact with each other, which is that women talk face to face, and men talk shoulder to shoulder. If you’re looking to find those ways to be friends with your friends, be conscious of that. Women are very capable of keeping friendships going over the phone. That’s actually a documented fact. Men are terrible at this. You can get coffee. You can sit there, and you can start right away in this deeper level. Men, meanwhile, if a man invites me to get coffee, I’m a little like, let me check my schedule. If they say, will you come over and help me cut down this tree in my backyard? I’ll be there in a second.

Zibby: That’s really funny.

Billy: It’s in our DNA somewhere. This is what makes it natural for men, is to be in that shoulder to shoulder. Then maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but that’s the space where the magic happens, where you might say, hey, how’s your dad doing? Maybe you don’t. My wife is always on my case because I’ll come from my Wednesday nights and it’ll be like, how’s so-and-so’s mother doing? I know she’s sick. I’m like, it never came up. I’m sorry. You read the room. It didn’t seem like they wanted to talk about it. What they wanted to talk about is who farted or whatever it is we’re doing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, too funny. The only thing, what I was thinking when I read this that I was like — the times in my life, I know, and other people’s lives when they are their most lonely, I don’t feel like they necessarily know — I’m not saying this very eloquently. This is about reconnecting. It’s like, I used to have friends. I’m not making time for friends. This is why it’s so important to make time for friends, to rediscover friends, to figure out who I want to be friends with at this stage of my life. Maybe those are new people, and that’s okay. I feel like the times that people feel the most worried or alone is when they don’t feel they have access to a friend group. Then what do they do? Then of course, your research is just like, oh, great, now not only am I lonely, but now I’m going to die.

Billy: I know. Loneliness begets loneliness. We all know that cranky old person that you go and try and be nice to them, and they’re awful to you. That’s a symptom of the loneliness. I’d say I do hear from a lot of people who aren’t just in the typical situation I describe, but are chronically lonely. It’s the same solution. You’ve got to find a squad. If you don’t have one, you’ve got to create one. We know what these things are. Everyone has their little thing they’re into. If you can find other people that are into it, then you’ve already got something in common. The internet, there are moments when I want to just take it out behind the barn and shoot it, but now it also comes with these benefits of, if you are into collecting Pokémon cards as an adult, there’s other people in your community that are into it. You can find them. You’re at step one already. Really, step one is initiative, putting in the effort, being willing to be vulnerable. Step two is finding these ways to be friends. If you start with that, pretty soon, the magic’s going to happen. I wrote about this in the book. When I took this inventory of myself, the only real social time I had was at the gym. The idea, in my head, that I was going to be one of these adults who’s friends with the guys from the gym, it was humiliating to this idea little Billy had of grown-up Billy. There I was. I had to do the even more awkward thing and be like, hey gym friends, do you want to become real-life friends? You know what? The answer was yes. They did.

We should talk about — the pandemic arrived in the middle of me taking on this issue. Obviously, it was bad. It changed things. I think it made us more appreciative. When I’m on a podcast or whatever and they’re asking me, what do I think the impact will be? I think I’m already seeing the impact. I’m just a naïve optimist. I feel like we are entering this new golden age of friendship. I feel like people are conscious of why they need it. They’re making the effort. I see so many new things happening. Maybe they’re all new because we were locked in our houses for a year. I think we have never been more aware of the importance of friendship in our lives, the impact of loneliness, and the need to do something about it. I wrote a book. It’s a semi-corny title of We Need to Hang Out. It is great if, like many guys, you struggle for a way to say, hey, I miss you. Some guy just asked me to sign a bunch of — what are these called? — bookplates for their friend and talk trash about him. He can mail it to his friends that he misses.

This book is written for the sort of guy that probably doesn’t read a lot of books. It’s also written for his wife, okay? There are many books about female friendship. I’m really not aware of many about male friendship, especially delving into the science and psychology and why we’re so screwed up and also why women are so much better at it. That was one of the most wonderful things to try and explore. When I first started, I just kept hearing, women are better at friendship than men. It was like, why? As a man, we are constantly told that women are better than us at all these social things. You know what? You are better. There are really cool biological reasons why you’re better. There’s also vulnerability reasons why you’re better. I did a lot of spying on women with the goal of trying to steal something and take it back to the boys’ cabin and be like, this is what they do when we’re not around. This journey, the science, the sociology, and just the personal growth was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. At the end of the day, I have friends for a Wednesday night.

Zibby: That’s amazing. My last question is what advice you have for aspiring authors. I know as a journalist and now this big-deal author that you are with this book, you have stuff to share. Go for it.

Billy: I’ll say this. I wrote one trillion newspaper magazine articles in my life. I thought the publishing world was just this dark art. I didn’t know how you would access it. I knew it involved agents and proposals. It seems very frightening. Then I just was in a bookstore one day. I was like, not everyone is Hemingway. You can get in the door. The hardest part of any writing project is sitting down and starting and not being too precious about it. The opening of my book is me calling myself a loser, and it worked. The writing process for the book, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. When you open up that blank document, you’re like, oh, god, how long does this need to be? Each day was a fun little growth period. I feel like I wrote it for me. I was very privileged to be writing about a personal journey that I was kind of forced to go on because of this book. I’m not the first person to give this sort of advice, but if you’re writing for yourself and your own joy — I had these psychopath moments where I would laugh at my joke that I just wrote down. I was like, I’m having fun with it. Hopefully, the reader will as well. That’s all you can ask for.

Zibby: I wanted to see if I quickly find — I laughed out loud three different times within the first five minutes. Now, of course, I won’t find it. Now it’s the end anyway. Let me see if I could find something really quickly. The word notion, that was funny too. Anyway, I can’t find the things that I thought were funny, but I promise, there was lots of stuff that was funny, which you well know. I wasn’t kidding about the podcast. If you have any interest in talking about it, let me know.

Billy: Sure, I would love to.

Zibby: I think that could be really cool. Great. Great to meet you.

Billy: This was super fun. Great to meet you as well. I love the color-coded books. I used to do that. Then it got messed up, and then it was no going back. I love it.

Zibby: I don’t touch it. I just leave it. I don’t even use that wall.

Billy: I’ll tell you, after I color-coded my books, I realized most books are white. I can see it now.

Zibby: All the white books are actually over here because I had to just shove them in after I ran out of space.

Billy: Very cool.

Zibby: Have fun tonight. I can’t wait to hear what you did.

Billy: Thank you. Yes, if you want to chat about podcasting, I’d love to. I really would.

Zibby: I’ll email through your publicist or something.

Billy: Thank you.

Zibby: Bye.

Billy: Have a great day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.


WE NEED TO HANG OUT by Billy Baker

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