Charlton Lido, London. Photo by Kirsty O’Connor/Getty
Friendships give us so much. Be bold, take the initiative, and you’ll be surprised how many people are pleased to connect
by Marisa G Franco + BIO
Charlton Lido, London. Photo by Kirsty O’Connor/Getty
Friends are a treasure. In an uncertain world, they provide a comforting sense of stability and connection. We laugh together and cry together, sharing our good times and supporting each other through the bad. Yet a defining feature of friendship is that it’s voluntary. We’re not wedded together by law, or through blood, or via monthly payments into our bank accounts. It is a relationship of great freedom, one that we retain only because we want to.
But the downside of all this freedom, this lack of formal commitment, is that friendship often falls by the wayside. Our adult lives can become a monsoon of obligations, from children, to partners, to ailing parents, to work hours that trespass on our free time. A study of young adults’ social networks by researchers at the University of Oxford found that those in a romantic relationship had, on average, two fewer close social ties, including friends. Those with kids had lost out even more. Friendships crumble, not because of any deliberate decision to let them go, but because we have other priorities, ones that aren’t quite as voluntary. The title of the Oxford paper summed up things well: ‘Romance and Reproduction Are Socially Costly’.
Such is the pace and busyness of many people’s adult lives that they can lose contact with their friends at a rapid rate. For instance, a study by the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst found that, over a period of seven years, people had lost touch with half of their closest friends, on average. What’s especially alarming is that many of us seem to be losing friends faster than we can replace them. A meta-analysis by researchers in Germany published in 2013 combined data from 177,635 participants across 277 studies, concluding that friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years. For example, in studies conducted between 1980 and 1985, participants reportedly had four more friends on average, compared with the participants who’d taken part in studies between 2000 and 2005.
If we’re not careful, we risk living out our adulthoods friendless. This is a situation that’s worth avoiding. Friends are not only a great source of fun and meaning in life, but studies suggest that, without them, we’re also at greater risk of feeling more depressed. It’s telling that in their study ‘Very Happy People’ (2002), the American psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that a key difference between the most unhappy and most happy people was how socially connected they were. Friends give us so much, which is why we need to invest in making them. Here’s how.
Making more friends in adulthood is going to take some deliberate effort on your part. It’s an exciting challenge in theory, but one of the first obstacles you’ll encounter is having enough confidence. Especially if you are shy by nature, putting yourself out there can seem scary, triggering fears of rejection. These fears might lead you to engage in two types of avoidance that will inhibit your ability to make friends. First, you might practise ‘overt avoidance’, by not putting yourself in situations where it’s possible to meet new people. Instead of going to your friend’s movie night, with the chance to meet others, you end up staying at home. Second, you might find yourself engaging in ‘covert avoidance’, which means that you show up but don’t engage with people when you arrive. You go to the movie night, but while everyone else is analysing the film after it’s over, you stay silent in the corner, petting someone’s pet corgi and scrolling through Instagram.
Assume that people like you
Both these forms of avoidance are caused by understandable fears of rejection. So imagine how much easier it would be if you knew that, were you to show up in a group of strangers, most of them would love you and find you interesting. This mindset actually has a self-fulfilling quality – an American study from the 1980s found that volunteers who were led to believe that an interaction partner liked them began to act in ways that made this belief more likely to come true – they shared more about themselves, disagreed less, and had a more positive attitude. This suggests that if you go into social situations with a positive mindset, assuming people like you, then it’s more likely that this will actually turn out to be the case.
Of course, you might still be reluctant to assume others like you because you don’t believe it’s true. If this is you, you might take comfort from research that found, on average, that strangers like us more than we realise. The paper, by Erica J Boothby at Cornell University and colleagues, involved having pairs of strangers chat together for five minutes, to rate how much they liked their interaction partner, and to estimate how much their partner liked them. Across a variety of settings and study durations – in the lab, in a college dorm, at a professional development workshop – the same pattern emerged. People underestimated how much they were liked, a phenomenon that Boothby and her colleagues labelled ‘the liking gap’.
What wisdom should we take from this research? It can remind us to go into new social events assuming that people will like us. It can keep us from being paralysed by fears of rejection, pushing us to question some of these fears. Try working on your internal dialogue, your inner voice that perhaps makes overly negative assumptions about how people will respond to you. Doing this will help give you the confidence to go out there and start initiating friendly contact with strangers.
In We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships (2020), Kat Vellos describes being inspired to write her book after a moment of feeling utterly alone. She was looking for a friend to hang out with, so she posted on Facebook: ‘Who wants to go eat French fries and talk about life with me?’ Everyone who responded lived in another state; her local San Francisco Bay Area friends were all booked up. As she put it:
I didn’t just want to eat snacks and talk about life. I was craving a different kind of life – one that would give me abundant access to friends who wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see them.
This experience made Vellos realise that she needed more friends, so she created and executed a plan to make some. Eventually, she was running two successful meetup groups, and had established friendships with people she liked and wanted to get closer to. How did she change her life? She initiated. Vellos set aside time to reach out to people regularly, to revitalise old relationships and to awaken new ones, to check in, to find time to hang out. Her story reveals how initiative can change the course of our friendships.
To embrace the importance of initiating, you must to let go of the myth that friendship happens organically. You have to take responsibility rather than waiting passively. Science backs this up. Consider a study of older adults in the Canadian province of Manitoba. The participants who thought friendship was something that just happened based on luck tended to be less socially active and to feel lonelier when the researchers caught up with them five years later. By contrast, those who thought friendship took effort actually made more effort – for example, by showing up at church or at community groups – and this paid dividends, in that they felt less lonely at the five-year follow-up.
But it’s not just showing up that matters, it’s saying ‘hello’ when you get there. This means introducing yourself to other people, asking them for their phone numbers, following up and asking them to hang out. Initiating is a process, one that we must do over and over again to make new friendships.
Initiation is particularly important for people who find themselves in new social settings – such as people who have moved to a new city, started a new school or job. In a study of first-year undergraduates at the University of Denver in 1980, it was those students who rated themselves as having superior social skills who managed to develop more satisfying social relationships. Moreover, in the Fall, when everyone was new, it was specifically ‘initiation skill’ that was most important. Once friendships were more stable, it didn’t matter as much.
Although we might fear that other people will turn us down if we initiate with them, the research finds that this is a lot less likely than we might think. When the American psychologists Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder asked research participants to open up conversations with their fellow train commuters, can you guess how many of them were shot down? None! Epley and Schroder concluded that: ‘Commuters appeared to think that talking to a stranger posed a meaningful risk of social rejection. As far as we can tell, it posed no risk at all.’
Keep showing up
Once you’ve initiated some new contacts, the challenge of turning them into genuine friendships begins. I learned this lesson when I moved to Atlanta to start a job as assistant professor. At first, I was proactive at making friends. I showed up to events, asked my friends if they knew anyone in the area, and went to some meetup groups. I met a few people, but most of these friendships fizzled. I was good at sparking a connection but struggled to sustain it.
According to Rebecca G Adams, professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, sociologists have long recognised that friendships thrive when we have continuous interaction. My problem with sustaining connection was that I lacked the opportunity for repeated encounters. Going to a lecture, or a happy hour, or a networking event afforded me only one opportunity to connect. If you can, it’s a better idea to sign up for activities that give you multiple opportunities to connect, such as a language class, a writing course, an improv class, a book club or, generally, something that repeats over time. When I was living in Atlanta, I became successful at making friends only once I joined a coworking space where I started seeing the same people continually.
These repeated interaction opportunities will allow you to capitalise on something called the ‘mere exposure effect’. This is our tendency to like things more the more familiar they seem, and it applies to people too. Consider a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1990s, in which four women were planted in a psychology classroom for a varying number of classes. The women didn’t speak to anyone, and the students hardly remembered them. At the end of the semester, the researchers showed the students pictures of the women and asked them which one they liked best. The women who showed up for the highest number of classes were liked the best, whereas the ones who showed up for the fewest classes were liked the least – presumably because greater familiarity, even at an unconscious level, increases likability. The finding shows the social power of simply showing up and being present.
Related to this, other research conducted in the 1960s showed that we’re primed to like people more if we know that we’ll see them again. In this case, researchers presented female participants with profiles of two female students. The two profiles were similar, except that the participants were told that one of the women would be their partner for ongoing discussion groups. The participants reported liking this woman more. When we know we’ll see someone again, we want to make our future interactions harmonious, so we like them more now.
The lesson here is that, if you want to make friends, you should commit to showing up somewhere for a few months. If you go to one event, feel uncomfortable and don’t return, you’re selling yourself short. If you persist, you’ll feel more comfortable, get to know people more and – thanks in part to the mere exposure effect – they’ll come to like you more as time goes on. You need to push past the initial awkwardness and keep trying, because it won’t be awkward for long.
I remember the exact moment one of my coworkers turned into a true friend, and it provides a clue as to how to deepen friendships. We were out for coffee together, and I decided to admit to some struggles I was having at work. I didn’t know how she’d respond, but she admitted to having the same struggles – a shared experience that drew us closer. It felt like a vulnerable move on my part, but it paid off, and reminded me of the power of vulnerability for cementing friendship.
Now that you know how to initiate connections, vulnerability is the next step towards deepening them. I like to think of an acquaintance as someone you know of, whereas a friend is someone you know. To make true friends, you have to share things about yourself and ask people questions, so that they share about themselves too. You don’t have to share whatever you might tell a therapist but, deepest darkest secrets aside, you still have much to share. Tell people what your passions are, how you spend your free time, or what you’re looking forward to, and ask them for the same. My advice here is based on research from the 1970s that found that first-year undergraduates who were more open about their vulnerabilities to their roommates tended to form deeper friendships with them too. More recent studies have found that, when strangers are getting to know one another, the more they share about themselves, the more they end up liking each other. If you’re looking for ways to deepen your connections, vulnerability is the way forward.
In sum, the secret to making friends as an adult is that you have to try. You have to put yourself out there, ask people to meet up, show up at events, and keep doing this, over and over again. It might seem scary to mix with people you don’t know, but hopefully the research findings I’ve shared have convinced you that it’s not as scary as you think. It starts with the simple act of saying ‘hello’, and it builds to continuing to initiate, interacting regularly, and ultimately being prepared to share your vulnerabilities. You might assume that these tiny acts, these initial small ‘hellos’, are inconsequential in the long run. But these opening acts matter. They can open the doors to friendship, sending us down a track towards closeness and intimacy that would never have been possible without those very first steps.
Whether you’re shy or simply out of practice, it’s often the initial steps to friendship that can feel the most awkward. If you’re feeling rather daunted, it can help to make a plan for how to talk to strangers, and to get into the right mindset.
The following pointers are designed to help you prep before meeting up with strangers, practise ways of engaging with them, and help you turn these initial meetings into friendship.
These steps might feel daunting at first, but the more you practise, the easier it will get. When you reach out, you might just make someone’s day, and that could be the first chapter in what becomes an enduring friendship.
The episode ‘Making Friends As an Adult’: in this episode from the podcast Therapy for Black Girls, I share research that goes deeper into what makes friendship thrive. I talk about how to make friends, but also how to deepen and maintain them.
The article ‘An Adult’s Guide to Social Skills, for Those Who Were Never Taught’ (2020) by Eric Ravenscraft: this article from The New York Times details the social skills that help us connect, and integrates research alongside advice from experts.
The podcast Call Your Girlfriend: in their ‘Summer of Friendship’ series, the hosts (and best friends) Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow discuss friendship and bring in experts on the topic.
The episode ‘Accept the Awkwardness: How to Make Friends (and Keep Them)’ on the NPR podcast Life Kit: this episode explores how to make and keep new friends.
The book All About Love: New Visions (2018) is a fabulous deep dive into what love truly means, written by the Black intellectual bell hooks.
The collection The Psychology of Friendship (2016) edited by the psychologists Mahzad Hojjat and Anne Moyer provides a comprehensive summary of the academic research on friendship.
The book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World (2020) by the former US surgeon general Vivek H Murthy explores how loneliness affects us, and how we can overcome it and connect.
The guidebook We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships (2020) by Kat Vellos is an easily digestible handbook to building friendships, peppered with useful information, comics and practical activities.