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Some Unusual Facts About Making New Friends

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As we get older, our opportunities to meaningfully connect with others dwindle, and so does our actual desire to do so. But, even though the desire to make new friends diminishes, the need for intimacy doesn’t change. This is when many of us start to feel isolated and lonely.

As the world slowly re-emerges from a year of physical distancing and lockdowns, I’ll use this article to set out some ground rules to make new friends.  

In this follow-up article on making new friends, I’ll also provide a long list of COVID-proof tips for widening your friendship circle after your twenties. 

Fact #1: We need others to mirror our ‘selves’

We depend on others for our survival. In evolutionary terms, those with advanced social skills often had the upper hand over those who simply looked good.

Indeed, social skills are incredibly useful from a survival perspective. They allow us to build trust and negotiate resources. I scratch your back so you can scratch mine later. If you add Throw in a shoulder rub and a happy ending and you’ll receive eternal loyalty.

Of course, we seek more than just practical benefits from other people. We also crave belonging, which is what drives us to make new friends and establish long-lasting relationships.

Our friendships play an essential role in developing a sense of identity and self-esteem.

They allow us to compare ourselves with others – inside and outside of our group. Through that comparison, we can define our likes and dislikes while at the same time developing and reinforcing our personal beliefs and our value system.

We get to choose which tribes and social groups we attach ourselves to. By seeking acceptance into those tribes, we can feel part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. Indeed, our friendship circles help us build a clearer identity for ourselves. By learning who’s inside and outside of our circle, we get to know ourselves better too.

Fact #2: Proximity is key to making new friends

Perhaps a statement of the bleeding obvious, but the functional distance between two people is the most powerful predictor of whether they’re likely to hit it off as friends. By functional distance, I mean how often your paths cross, rather than how physically close you are to each other.

This is basic mathematics. Suppose you keep you bumping into Helen from Accounts in the Starbucks downstairs. You’re more likely to become aware of her existence than if you only meet once a year at the Christmas party. Seeing her regularly also makes it more likely you’ll strike up a conversation about that disgusting banana split frappucino habit of hers.

Whether your paths cross in the default world or the virtual world of Zoom doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you start noticing each other regularly.

The ‘familiarity principle’ is at play here. Often used in advertising, it banks on people being attracted to things and people they’re already familiar with. As a result of this principle, any initial dislike we feel for others often fades once we’re exposed to them more regularly.

You might shake your head at this but bear in mind that the familiarity principle only works when we feel there’s something in it for us. That means we’ll only force ourselves to like others if the particular social set-up requires us to do so. When that isn’t the case, we’re more likely to notice our lack of similarity, making the initial dislike worse.

Also, an important sidebar here is that while functional distance is an essential factor in making new friends, it certainly isn’t a requirement in maintaining friendships. As most of us are currently experiencing, many of our connections survive and thrive despite a lack of physical closeness.

Fact #3 — Physical attraction matters (even if you don’t want to see your friends naked)

This may come as a surprise, but physical appearance is an important indicator of whether we decide whether we’ll initiate a friendship or not.

Plenty of research shows that just like we prefer buying beautiful things, we also like hanging out with people we deem attractive. Rightly or wrongly, we associate attractiveness with other socially desirable traits.

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this isn’t necessarily about conventional standards of attractiveness. Quite frankly, when it comes to physical attraction, we’re a pretty narcissistic and incestuous bunch. Studies show we’re most drawn to those who resemble ourselves or our parent of the opposite sex. That probably explains why I have such great taste in friends. Thanks, mum.

While attraction can predict whether we’ll initiate a friendship – physical appearance plays much less of a role in developing it further.

Also, if the thought of seeing your friends naked churns your stomach, note that physical attraction doesn’t necessarily mean sexual attraction. Having said that, plenty of wonderful friendships do indeed start in the sack and there’s much to be said for friends with benefits.

Fact #4 — Birds of a feather rock together

While proximity and attraction determine if we make the first move, personality takes over once both of you decide to develop a friendship.

We like those who like us. The greater the similarity between someone’s demeanour and yours, the more likeable you’ll find that person.

The reason is obvious. When someone acts, talks and thinks like us, it validates how we act, talk and think. It supports our sense of self, our beliefs, and our values. So, by interacting with others who are similar, we reinforce and validate how wonderful we are ourselves.

Yuval Noah Harari talks about this in his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. He claims it’s our ability to gossip and tell stories that allowed us to rule the planet. Indeed, our capacity to badmouth the Jones’ next door is a way of bonding with others and a means to reinforce the ‘us versus them’ I mentioned earlier.

A creepy study by Dartmouth College found that friends often have similar neural responses to real-world events. Researchers were able to correctly identify participants’ friends just by looking at how their brains responded to video clips. Close friends shared similar neural activity patterns, more so than friends-of-friends who, in turn, had more similar neural activity than people who were three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends).

It gets even creepier. Research by the University of California suggests that we naturally seek out friends with similar genotypes to our own. In fact, its data found that friend pairs were on average genetically closer to each other than they were to their fourth cousins.

I guess you might want to be a bit careful after all about sleeping with your friends.

Fact #5: Show them yours. They’ll show you theirs

Intimacy and proximity are a powerful friendship mix. That’s why intense experiences like group work, hikes, retreats, or getting lost together in the bowels of Berghain – often create new friendships and accelerate existing ones.

They’re experiences that require a high level of intimacy and vulnerability. Indeed, without some level of intimacy and self-disclosure, there can be no friendship.

Self-disclosure can be factual (I don’t drink coffee) or emotional (banana split frappuccino make me want to vomit). It can be non-intimate (I don’t like the sweet taste of it) or intimate (I can’t drink it because I have IBS).

If you want to make a new friend, you’ll have to walk a tightrope between being boring (factual) and intense (emotional). Yet, research shows that friendship responds better to self-disclosure around intimate than non-intimate topics. You probably wouldn’t want to lead with your IBS story though.

As a friendship matures, intimacy and self-disclosure should increase. You start to feel comfortable revealing more negative information about yourself and you become more honest with each other.

Bear in mind that emotional intimacy doesn’t give you an unrestricted license to vent. Like seeks like. So, if you’re on a constant downer, you’ll find that negative people might flock to you. The same applies when you ooze positivity.

So go ahead and be vulnerable. It’s pretty damn attractive.

Fact #6: Flattery gets you everywhere

While proximity and attraction are deciding factors in whether you initiate a friendship or not, intimacy and vulnerability help propel it forward. Still, there’s a bit of glue that keeps most friendships together – flattery.

In psychology, they prefer to call it ‘social identity support’. It relates to anything that supports our sense of self in our group or society. Our social identity can be based on our nationality, profession, gender, sports team, sexual preference, religion, or pretty much any club we’re a member of.

We prefer spending time with people who validate us as a cherished member of these clubs or categories we belong to.

For example, Mensa members – the club for people with a high IQ – are probably more likely to be friends with other members of Mensa than with the average CrossFit club member. I’m not saying clever people don’t like CrossFit or that CrossFitters aren’t clever. But there’s not so much commonality between both, which means one is unlikely to validate the membership of the other. 

One commonality they do share, however, is the annoying tendency to tell you they belong to either usually within two minutes of introducing themselves.

And yes, while social identity support is important, do keep it real. Making new friends requires trust, and that involves frankness and honesty in equal measure.

Fact #7: You can become friends with a Tamagotchi

Okay, friends might be an exaggeration, but people can and do form strong attachments to objects.

In the 2013 film Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a Siri-like operating system designed to meet his every need. This being Hollywood, of course, he falls in love with it.

When he finally admits to his ex-wife that he’s been in a relationship with an operating system, she blurts out: ‘You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually having to deal with anything real, so I’m glad you found one’.

Truth be told, hun – isn’t that we’re all looking for?

Either way, according to researchers at Brown University, this universal need to belong means that  –  at least in theory  –  humans can bond with robots on one condition. Robots need to be social enough to reciprocate with regular and meaningful interactions.

What those interactions look like is different for everyone. Some people are pretty good at projecting human-like characteristics to objects, animals and robots. But, in theory, any object that we perceive to have a capacity for meaningful interaction could pass a legitimate friendship partner.

So there you go, it doesn’t matter whether your Furby, Tamagotchi, iPhone 12 or your Japanese love doll has the technical ability to interact with you socially. If you experience it as social and having a personality, you can become friends with it. Or at least it’s possible to become attached to it.

Now, Alexa sweetheart – put on some Netflix and let’s chill. But first, find us some more bearded man-buns on Instagram to ogle.