If James Taylor ruled the world, all we’d have to do is call and a BFF would appear on our doorstep. In reality friendships are among the trickiest relationships out there. As hard as it may be to find romantic love, it’s arguably even more difficult to pick a new pal who we really connect with and to keep in touch with buddies from the past. But that’s no reason to resign ourselves to a lifetime of solitude, especially since having friends is tremendously important for our health and happiness.
What’s the Deal?
Twenty-somethings are among the “friendliest” people out there. Nearly everyone in this age group uses some form of social media, meaning they have the constant opportunity to share the minutia of their daily life with hundreds, or even thousands, of connections. At the same time, there’s good reason to believe American adults are getting lonelier. Surveys have found we have fewer friends than we did in the 1980s, and that all those virtual relationships aren’t nearly as satisfying as the in-the-flesh kind. Many people in their 20s and 30s complain they don’t know how to make new friends, or feel abandoned by old ones.
This trend is troubling, given that friendships are important—if not crucial—for our well-being. Some scientists argue that humans are inherently social creatures, wired to benefit from close relationships with family, romantic partners, and of course, friends. Other research suggests a network of close friends can reduce stress and promote good health and longevity. While it’s perfectly reasonable to desire some alone time (c’mon, does anyone really need to know we watched an entire season of House of Cards in one weekend?), nothing can replace the value of a close friendship.
Unfortunately making and retaining friends isn’t always easy. But it can be done. For anyone confused about how exactly to go about forging new friendships or strengthening old ones, here are some tips that are more creative and practical than the old “just put yourself out there.”
Your Action Plan: Make New Friends...
1. Do it blind.
Most of us have heard of the “blind date,” when we let a friend play matchmaker and set us up with someone we’ve never met before. If you’ve just moved to a new city, have a friend set you up on a totally platonic blind date with one of his or her friends who lives nearby. You’ll be less likely to call your friend angry if the potential match turns sour.
2. Be yourself.
When you pursue hobbies and activities you enjoy, you have a good chance of meeting people with similar interests. So check out that local lecture on modern literature and sign up for sushi-making lessons. Each event is a chance to make a whole new room full of like-minded buddies.
3. Get up close and personal.
When you’re just starting to get to know someone, foster intimacy by talking about something deeper than the sucky weather. Once you two have been talking for a while, try what researchers call the “Fast Friends” technique—basically each party gradually discloses something meaningful about him or herself. For example, each person could answer the question: “If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?”
4. Be persistent.
While not everyone has the courage to actually do it, most of us know how to pursue a crush. Send flowers to their office. Invite them to a concert featuring a band you know they love. Ask them to check “yes” or “no” under the question “will you go out with me?” (Oh wait, are we not in third grade anymore?). Apply similar (but less romantic) tactics when pursuing a potential friend. For example, send the person an email asking them to lunch or a coffee date next week, and follow up afterward to say you had a good time.
5. Set a goal.
It might sound superficial, but the next time you go to a party, tell yourself you want to leave with three new friends (or maybe even just one). That way, you’ll be more open to meeting people and starting in-depth conversations instead of just smiling at the person ahead of you in line for the bathroom.
6. Say cheese.
Seriously. We’re including smiling on this list because it’s a more powerful tactic for making connections than you might believe. For one thing, smiling takes us out of our own head and makes us think more about the image we’re projecting. Plus, people who smile (as opposed to folks with neutral faces) are perceived as more attractive, kinder, and happier, and therefore more approachable. Reading a Smiling Face: Messages Conveyed by Various Forms of Smiling. Otta, E., Folladore Abrosio, F., Hoshino, R.L. Perceptual and Motor Skills 1996 Jun;82(3 Pt 2):1111-21.
7. Don’t take it personally.
We pretty much know what it means when a romantic partner tells us, “It’s not you, it’s me.” But when you invite a new pal to coffee or a movie and they turn you down, don’t freak out. Maybe they really are busy with work; maybe family relationships already take up too much time; maybe it actually isn’t you after all (and maybe you can schedule a rain check for next week).
8. Think outside the box.
It’s possible that, up until now, all your friends have been 20-something women who work in fashion. But why limit yourself to this particular crowd? You could just as easily hit it off with a 40-year-old who works in finance if you have enough in common. Be open to forming new relationships with coworkers, neighbors, and classmates, no matter who they appear to be.
But Keep the Old
They’ve seen us weep over the death of our goldfish and laugh so hard that our abs are sore the next day. But now that we’re all “professional," it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of brand-new social circles and forget all about our old ones. The tips below will help you keep those old ties strong by being honest, forgiving, and supportive.
1. Loosen up.
So Sara forgot your last birthday and Mark never made it to your holiday party. As hurtful as their seeming lack of interest might be, try to cut your old pals some slack. Instead of assuming they’ve become mean or just don’t care about your relationship anymore, consider that they might just be overwhelmed with work or family responsibilities (and remember that you’ve probably been in the same boat at times too).
2. Speak the truth.
There’s nothing like a pal who can tell it to you straight, and a superficial relationship typically doesn’t last long. When a friend asks you a question about a new job or relationship, try to be as open as possible. You’ll build a sense of trust, and your friend will be likely to reciprocate with honesty about their own life.
3. Be virtually present.
Even though social media can’t substitute for real friendships, Facebook can actually be a great way to strengthen old ties. One study found that posting mass status updates (“Just ate breakfast! Delish”) doesn’t do much for close relationships, but posting on someone’s wall to congratulate them on admission to graduate school or the like can be really meaningful. Sharing, caring, and Surveilling: An Actor-Partner Interdependence Model Examination of Facebook Relational Maintenance Strategies. McEwan, B. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 2013 Dec;16(12):863-9.
4. Keep it brief.
Many of us have been in this situation: We receive an email from an old pal, then put off responding to it until we have the time and attention span to write a novel-length response (i.e. never). A better plan is to send frequent, short emails so you stay in the loop about each other’s lives and never go too long without an update.
5. Put it on paper.
By the time we come home from a long day of work and errands, we may have little energy left for a catch-up session. But if there’s already an “appointment” on the calendar, we can’t miss it. Schedule regular phone calls or Skype dates with pals who live far away—there’s a good chance you’ll be glad you didn’t skip the date!
6. Go with the flow.
When a friend experiences a big life change, such as moving to a new city, getting married, or having a baby, the relationship is bound to change as well. Instead of fretting that things will never be the way they used to (but why can’t we stay up all night drinking wine and discussing the meaning of life?), focus on what you guys have in common now. Be supportive of your friend’s new lifestyle, and remember that they are still the same person.
7. Bond with your buddy.
Say you two used to go bowling together every week, but haven’t been in touch for a year. Instead of setting up a potentially awkward coffee date to reconnect, suggest that you two hit the bowling alley like in the old days. It’ll give you a chance to rekindle your friendship while doing something you both enjoy (and removing some of the pressure to make small talk).
8. Get outta’ town.
Research suggests we value experiences over actual items, and what better experience is there than spending time with a group of best friends? When a friend moves somewhere far away, consider saving up for a little vacation to visit and hang out in their new ’hood. (Likewise, let the friend know that your couch is always available too!).
Sometimes it just happens—we bond over a mutual love of Harry Potter or kittens and next thing we know we’re meeting for weekly brunches. But other times it’s harder, and we can’t help feeling like we’re the only person at the party without a wingman. Whatever the circumstance, it’s important not to get discouraged. With enough self-confidence, flexibility, and patience, it’s possible to find friends in almost any situation, and keep them for life.
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