JULIA FURLAN, HOST:
Hi, this is NPR's LIFE KIT, and I'm Julia Furlan. Look; I don't know you yet, but I bet that if you really looked at your friendships, it wouldn't hurt to be a little bit more intentional about them. But what would that actually look like in practice? Does that mean, like, sending Google Calendar invites, or is it like a regular mid-year review conversation to check in on how things are going? I mean, I don't know. Maybe it would mean you'd try something I consider an absolute last resort - a spreadsheet.
VANESSA NUNEZ: I work in Excel every day for work, so it seemed to make sense that I would just utilize Excel to keep track of my friends.
FURLAN: This is Vanessa Nunez, and she's got a system for friendship. It's her spreadsheet where she keeps track of all of the people that matter to her.
NUNEZ: And then I just made columns for the different months of the year. You color-code or mark an X every time you see somebody in any given month. And then as the months go by, you'll start to see trends like, oh, I haven't seen my friend Tiffany since February. Let me reach out to her and see what she's up to.
FURLAN: Anybody who had a Top 8 on MySpace might remember what it's like to prioritize this way. And if one of those folks on the spreadsheet isn't putting in the same effort, there's a possibility that Vanessa might move them down on the list. Brutal, but there's a reason for all this.
Before the spreadsheet, Vanessa felt like she was spread thin friendship-wise. She had a lot of what I'd call puddle relationships and not enough ocean ones. That's to say her friendships were shallow and static instead of deep and endlessly mesmerizing like the ocean. The friendship spreadsheet was her way of really examining the relationships that meant the most to her.
NUNEZ: Those 25 people I have definitely formed deeper relationships with them. I just went over another girl's house last night for a glass of wine, just completely random. I said hey, I'm in the area. Are you home? And because I've developed that relationship with her intentionally, she was like yes, come over. Come have a glass of wine with me. And then we stayed on the porch for three hours.
FURLAN: I mean, maybe you're allergic to spreadsheets like I am, but the truth is that Vanessa is tackling the question of friendship in a really intense and new way. And so much about improving and maintaining our friendships is about being intentional about it. It's these, like, tiny, little acts that really ultimately make it all worth it.
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FURLAN: So welcome, friends, to NPR's LIFE KIT. We're here to help. In this episode, we're talking about that old thing, you know, one's silver, the other's gold. It's something that is genuinely hard for basically everyone on the entire planet - friends. We're going to give you ideas of how to start a friendship, how to deepen the friendships you already have. And you know what? Maybe you're going to find some new buds along the way. I'm not making any promises, but maybe you will. More after the break.
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FURLAN: Why is being a friend so hard? Why does opening yourself up to new people sound worse than getting a mouthful of root canals? Will you ever recapture the feeling of being a kid and having a friend who feels like they're your home? And what does the word friend mean anyway if a literal hacker is trying to be your friend on Facebook?
These are big questions, and underneath them is a lot of pain and weird issues that you ignore and push down your whole life until poof, you're an adult, and you're lonely, and you're really struggling, and you need some friends.
So because this is LIFE KIT, we're going to the experts, people who know a lot more than I do about what we can do to tackle the problem head on. These are the people who are here to tell you that your profound discomfort with the idea of making friends is something to embrace.
HEATHER HAVRILESKY: It is incredibly hard and awkward to even have a conversation that feels like it's going to lead to friendship.
FURLAN: This is Heather Havrilesky, who is a writer and advice-giver at The Cut, where she writes as Ask Polly. Side note, you should read every one of her columns and all of her books. She is so wonderful. They're going to blow your mind. And I got some bad news for all of you in your 30s.
HAVRILESKY: I got to say, 30s is the cauldron of bad for friendships. It's, like, a bad place. It's the sunken place of friendship, the 30s. People assume that everybody already has their friends. And as someone who's 49 years old, I got to tell you, nobody already has their friends.
FURLAN: Everybody is just squirming awkwardly through the universe just like you are.
HAVRILESKY: One really important thing in going out to make new friends is assuming, deciding to assume that other people need new friends, too.
FURLAN: There it is, our first big takeaway. Just accept that it's awkward to make new friends, and decide to assume that other people need new friends just as much as you do.
HAVRILESKY: It's only when you feel like everyone has friends, and I'm the loser who doesn't have friends who has to go look for new friends. You project this, like, people are rejecting me when they don't want to immediately hang out with me onto the...
HAVRILESKY: ...Situation, and that's not real. That's - that's just you.
And here's a good thing - this business of accepting the awkwardness and just deciding that you're not alone in needing new friends, there's actual real research that bears that out. Gillian Sandstrom is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex. She studies friendships. And you know what? I'm here to say that whatever you learned about stranger danger is not as relevant as you think.
Gillian does research on a thing called weak ties, which are the folks that you interact with but on a more fleeting, surface level - you know, like the lady at your bodega or that one barista with the cool tattoo or that neighbor who always walks their perfect dog at the same time of day that you leave the house. And you see the dog, and you're like, hi, dog. Anyway, I digress. Jillian's research on weak ties teaches us that human connection is ours for the taking.
GILLIAN SANDSTROM: I know lots of people who have their favorite coffee shop and their favorite barista at the coffee shop who knows their order and - you know? And I thought, that's a pretty cool relationship. It makes people feel good, and it's great for the coffee shop, too, because you're going to keep coming back, aren't you?
FURLAN: That's right. Gillian's research is rooted in something I think we can all appreciate - free caffeinated beverages.
SANDSTROM: And I thought I kind of want to study that relationship, you know? How can I study that and see, you know, if I can find evidence that people are happier because they have that relationship?
But I couldn't really figure out exactly how to do that. So what I ended up doing instead was studying people going into the coffee shop but not necessarily having an existing relationship already with the barista, but just sort of trying to manipulate the interaction that they did have.
FURLAN: So in Gillian's study, there are two groups - one group that's tasked with being super efficient with their interaction with the barista, and another group that was told to be just a little bit friendlier, to, like, strike up a little chat. And now it's time for one of those really cheesy headlines. Do you know what happened next? Click to reveal.
SANDSTROM: So both sets of people went in. They bought their coffee. And when they came out, we just asked them a few questions. And it turned out that the people who had had that little tiny chat with the barista, they were in a better mood, and they felt more satisfied with their Starbucks experience. And they felt more connected to other people.
FURLAN: It just changed their day a little bit, the tiniest bit.
FURLAN: So much about friendship is about feeling connected to other people. And here is a deep thought. Are you ready? Your next close friend might just be a stranger to you right now. I know. It sounds like some Mister Rogers stuff to say it, but it's true. And just to be clear, this does not mean that you should chat up every sainted barista who hands you a scone. And also, please be ready and willing to back off if somebody is not interested, OK? Don't be weird. Got it. OK, that being said, this is an invitation to take the opportunities you have in front of you to feel like you're connected to other humans in the world.
As I think we've established, making a new friend is intimidating and terrifying for everyone. And if you need a little bit more encouragement to start putting yourself out there, there's another thing that Gillian told me about that's super helpful. There are studies that show that that little voice that starts up in your head when you walk away from an interaction - you know that one that's like, oh, my God, that person hated me, wow. You know this voice. Please tell me you know what this voice is. Anyway, that voice is lying.
SANDSTROM: When you talk to someone else, you're actually going to brighten their day. You're going to put them in a good mood. And there's research from myself, but also from Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder showing that this is the case, that both parties enjoy it when people do have these kind of conversations.
FURLAN: Takeaway number two is here, my friends. People actually like you more than you think they do. It's actually called the liking gap, and Gillian has research that says that we're pretty bad at gauging how much people like us. So this is me giving you permission to tell that little voice to go suck on an egg. Heather of Ask Polly knows that voice, too.
HAVRILESKY: I cannot say enough about how important it is to understand the bubble of shame that you're walking through the world with like an astronaut. And also, you need to notice the voices in your head and how they talk to you when you're talking to other people because I had a voice that said ooh, did you see that look on her face? She thinks you're pathetic. (Laughter) You're, like, a sad, unwieldy blob of a human now, and nobody likes you, you know, was like the running thing in my head.
FURLAN: Aww, you're not a sad, little blob. You're going to be OK. So the next time you're wandering through the world feeling a little bit lonely and uncertain, try and remind yourself that there's a big chance that a stranger will actually enjoy talking to you and that it will make your day and theirs a little bit better. You know why? Because everyone needs friends. And there's a lot of dark stuff in the world that makes it hard to feel OK reaching out, but really that's the only way to begin.
Speaking of ways to begin, I got to recognize the advice that literally anyone will tell you if you say to them that you want to make new friends. I wonder if you can guess this advice. Basically, the first thing everybody says to folks that are looking for new friends is why don't you try a hobby? Join a club. Take up chess, birdwatching, trivia, circus. Well, I'm here to tell you that this advice is very common because honestly, it works. And this is our third takeaway, invest in the things that you love to do.
Take the case of Cassiday Cappello, who called in with some very sage advice about finding friends through CrossFit. Yeah, yeah, yeah, roll your eyes or whatever, but it worked for her.
CASSIDAY CAPPELLO: It's more than just working out. You know, they do social things together on the weekends - trivia night, stuff like that. So that's where we made a lot of our friends in Georgia, and it was great because then you knew if you were going to go work out, you get to see them. So it's not like you're having to schedule outings. Like, you know OK, if I work out three times a week, I'm going to see my friends at the gym three times a week and get to know them better.
FURLAN: So this advice that everybody talks about where they're like join a club, do a thing, blah, blah, blah, it's a win-win, well, they're kind of right. You're doing something for yourself, and you're also caring for the part of you that wants to meet new people.
CAPPELLO: You know, when we're in our 30s, we have so many responsibilities that we didn't have when we were younger. So it's like this built in social place, but you're also doing something great for yourself, too.
FURLAN: As you can imagine, a lot of people ask Heather versions of the how to make friends question. And of course, she's got a great answer.
HAVRILESKY: I actually kind of have boiled it down to - in my column, I've boiled it down to something more like you need to live your life in ways that you don't feel like you're wasting your time. You need to do things that don't feel like a waste of time. What feels really worthwhile to you? What feels enriching and beautiful and good, you know? Do the things you're passionate about, and you will naturally draw people to you. And you'll naturally connect with other people because you'll be in the right place.
I think it sounds hollowed out when it's like, you're there to make friends, you know? It just feels like - what? - it's a job? You know, join a club because you want to join a club. And then keep your eyes open and watch. You know, I think that taking the - you've got to do this - out of it is also really comforting and helpful.
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FURLAN: The point here is that finding something you love to do and really dedicating yourself to it will help you find your people. And if you're having fun but you're not meeting any new friends, remind yourself that you don't have to be about just one thing. You, my friend, contain multitudes. You can try chess and basketball and fire-eating and macrobiotic cooking.
HEATHER HAVRILESKY: It's good advice to join clubs. It's good advice to say - what do I love doing? I'll go do that, and there'll be other people who love to do that, too, there.
HAVRILESKY: You know, join an organization that supports a cause that you care about. Go to places that you love where other people are there just because they love that place.
FURLAN: OK. Here's another thing that people say a lot when you ask them about making friends as an adult. Are you ready?
CAPPELLO: Making friends as an adult is kind of like dating.
FURLAN: But like, it's true. And this is takeaway No. 4. It's OK to treat friendship as seriously as you treat dating. I mean, when you're dating, you have to keep putting yourself out there, champ. You know? And in all of the reporting that I've come across, it feels like if people looked at their friendships and took them seriously in the way that they do their romantic partnerships, people might be able to wrap their head around it in a better way.
Here's what it looked like for our CrossFit friend Cassiday.
CAPPELLO: There was a specific girl at the gym that, like, I kind of admired from afar. She just seemed really cool. And she looked like someone that I would get along with. So I kind of did a little social media stalking and found out she was so cool. And I just was like, I've got to go for it.
FURLAN: Keywords here are go for it. And it ended up being a total win-win for Cassidy. She even talked to her new friend about how she'd looked her up on social media and it was, like, not at all a big deal. The new millennium, people - this is normal.
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FURLAN: But you know what else happened? Cassiday did not stop there with the idea of going for it. Oh, no, no, listeners. She was bold. She let herself really do it. Cassiday went on a blind date - but for friendship. So here's how it went down. Cassiday was sitting in the hairdresser's chair, and she opened up about how she was feeling.
CAPPELLO: Kind of feeling lonely. I had just had a baby and just feeling kind of isolated. And I was like, do you have any clients that you think I would be good friends with?
FURLAN: So her hairdresser thinks about it for a bit and eventually is like, you know what? Yeah, actually. There's this other woman who comes in, and I think she's got a similar vibe to you. I mean, it all started in the way that you would imagine something would start on a blind friendship date set out by your hairdresser.
CAPPELLO: And we were able to kind of, like, comment on each other's hair because she had green hair and I had pink hair. And so we were like, oh, I like your hair. And then we just kind of jumped into it.
FURLAN: Before we get too far, I want to say that if it doesn't work out for you the way that Cassiday and her green-haired friend worked out, you got to let it go. OK? There are lots of people in the world, so don't get hung up on one single person if they're not interested in being your friend. It's going to be fine.
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FURLAN: OK. Maybe you've made some connections and you've been on a few friend dates, but you're looking to really take those friendships to the next level. Here's a question - how do you make sure that that newish friend doesn't disappear? Basically, how do you turn a friend into a friend? In order to talk about this, I wanted to ask my friend Rachel.
RACHEL WILKERSON MILLER: Hello.
FURLAN: It's very special to have you in the studio because you are my actual friend. Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the only person I know who can consistently wear white jeans and not look like a slob. And also, more importantly, she's working on a book. Her book is called "The Art Of Showing Up: How To Be There For Yourself And Other People," and it'll be out in the spring of 2020. The book is full of advice about how to be a human in the world, and a lot of it is about friendship.
MILLER: I have a true friend in you, and I felt like that for most of the time I've known you.
MILLER: Like, it was just kind of that instant - we're going to be friends. We were just never not friends.
FURLAN: One of my favorite things about Rachel is that she's very good at giving small, practical tips for how to show up for people. For example, just listen to this perfect nugget of advice that Rachel gives for people who just moved to a new city and want to meet new people.
MILLER: I think something that's really helpful for making new friends in those moments is trying to become a regular somewhere. So whether it is always going to the same event, whether it's sort of being a regular at a co-working space or...
FURLAN: Or a coffee shop.
MILLER: ...A coffee shop, a class at the gym that you take the same one with the same instructor every week, you'll start to see the same faces. And that - you only have to see somebody a couple times before you can kind of just strike up a conversation.
FURLAN: Rachel's got our fifth takeaway for this episode, which is be present when you're engaging with a new friend or, really, any friend. It's a piece of advice that I really, really love. And it sounds super simple. But when we've got our phones and the news and climate change and Co-Star to think about, just being present can be incredibly powerful.
MILLER: Being a good friend is about noticing, processing, naming and then responding. So first it just starts with noticing, and that is quite literally paying attention. So just paying attention to what your friend is saying - what they are saying that they like, what they are telling you about - it feels so good to be noticed by a friend. And I think a lot of my tips go back to that 'cause I know how good it feels when somebody asks you how something went after you told them that you were really stressed about it and they follow up with you.
FURLAN: One way to do that that Rachel recommends is take notes. You don't have to be like Vanessa at the top of the show with her spreadsheet, though, as a person who is also extra, I have a lot of respect for that. Rachel just says that some basic note taking can go a long way to making the time that you spend with your friends much more valuable. And it's a really thoughtful way to show that you're paying attention, too.
MILLER: Just remembering the names of the people that they talk about most. So whether that is, you know, their sibling, whether it's their nieces and nephews, whether it's their nemesis in the office, just learning the names.
FURLAN: Isn't that a cool, simple way to show up for your friends? Rachel says that you can even ask them to show you a picture of the person they're talking about so that you can put a face to the name in your head. It shows that you care and that you're really listening.
MILLER: Another thing that I recommend is coming to a conversation prepared with things to talk about.
FURLAN: Bullet points may seem like a formatting option, not something super important. But what's behind the bullet points can actually show love. Like my friend, Thibault - he started coming to our hangouts with a bullet-pointed list of all the things that were going on for him and things he wanted to ask me about. And it was so meaningful for me. It made me feel like he was thinking about me not just when we were together. I loved it.
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FURLAN: There's also a more functional kind of note taking that you can do that I think is really good. You know, like, when you're in a group, or whatever, and somebody says, oh, my God, you have to read this thing? Basically, if you start jotting down recommendations as you hear them, like, for a movie you should see, or a YouTube video of a goat, or whatever, what you're really doing is you're finding tiny points of connection that you can follow up on later.
MILLER: If you're with that friend who always has good suggestions or there's a lot of, like, I'll send you the link later, or, I love your socks, where are they from? - I'll send you the link later. Like, write those things down. You won't remember them like you think you will.
FURLAN: Whip out that notepad or the notes app on your phone, and make a little list of all the things that you mention when you're together. And once you have those recommendations, you can use them as a point of reference for following up with different activities you can do together. It's like an excuse to text somebody. Like, hey, you want to try that restaurant? Or, like, did you read that article? Or, I read that article, it was terrible.
You know? It serves a double purpose, according to Rachel, too.
MILLER: And it's also just, like, a cute little record of your hangouts with your friends when you're done. You can remember some of the things that you've talked about. But it's really just practical. Like, if you're with somebody that you want to share all that with later, it's really helpful with, like, a book club or other things like that where...
MILLER: ...Where lots of smart, thoughtful things are being shared.
FURLAN: So taking these notes is a way to keep the conversation going when you're not with your friends physically. So quick recap on Rachel's advice on how to do friendship. Pay attention, take notes, remember the names of the people in their lives. I mean, maybe it will feel a little bit awkward at first. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that in order to be a good friend, you just have to be vulnerable. And you know what vulnerability actually looks like in practice, everybody? It looks pretty darn awkward, when you get down to it.
But I will guarantee you that when you let your guard down and you say something that is, like, a little weird and extremely you and your friend sees that in you and they reciprocate, it's an incredible feeling. It's like you're seen.
MILLER: My friend, Sally, and I send each other a Bitmoji every Thursday that says it's Friday Junior because we just think it's...
MILLER: ...Amazing and hilarious and ridiculous. And, like, that is our tradition. And we just do it every week, and I love it. So like little things like that, that make sense for you and your friend, can be really meaningful, ultimately.
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FURLAN: Shoutout to all you being brought together by the simple joy of Bitmoji. We need this. Or terrible movie quotes, or fantasy football or, like, that one meme account that only you and your friends really understand. Whatever it is, it feels really good to find your people.
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FURLAN: And before we go, I want to make sure we've got all of our takeaways in one place for this episode so you're, like, prepared to do friendship. Takeaway No. 1, accept that it's awkward to make new friends.
HAVRILESKY: So much of it is clearing the way to just be open.
FURLAN: Takeaway No. 2, people like you more than you think they do. It's science. Three, do the thing. Take the basket-weaving class. Get certified in Pinochle, or whatever.
HAVRILESKY: It's good advice to say, what do I love doing? I'll go do that, and there will be other people who love to do that, too, there.
FURLAN: Takeaway No. 4, it's OK to treat friendship like dating. Which is to say, go for it. Takeaway No. 5 is be present. Just be in the world.
MILLER: Being a good friend is about noticing, processing, naming and then responding.
FURLAN: We only have this one life. What are you doing? Listen to your friend. Get off your phone.
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FURLAN: If you like what you've heard here, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And here, as always, is a completely random tip. This time, it's from LIFE KIT listener Bianca Allison.
BIANCA ALLISON: So you don't forget taking things with you out the door in the morning, like envelopes to mail, things to return, gym clothes, reusable bags for groceries, just put everything you need in one place in your home and put your keys there, too. That way, when you're grabbing your keys in the morning, you'll remember to bring the other things with you, as well.
FURLAN: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
LIFE KIT is produced by Sylvie Douglis, Alissa Escarce, Chloe Weiner and Katie Monteleone. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. This episode was edited by Rhaina Cohen. Our digital editor is Carol Ritchie, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. Music by Nick DePrey and Bryan Gerhart (ph). Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts, and the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.
I'm Julia Furlan, and thank you so much for listening, my friends.
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