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I have a confession. And as a friendship researcher, it’s one that I find particularly difficult to accept. There is, unfortunately, no rulebook for making friends as an adult. Of course, there are strategies and tips that can help. But there’s no changing the fact that making friends can be difficult, confusing, and deeply personal. What works for one person or situation won’t always be the same for another. And it’s this kind of specificity that makes it a challenge to give hard rules or advice about the things we should all do to move from casual acquaintances to close friends.
With that said, sometimes the most helpful way to understand how we can make new friends is to recognize the behaviors we should try our best to avoid. None of these are deal-breakers. More often than not, there’s a way to come back from a slip-up, misunderstanding, or awkward conversation. But remembering these common mistakes can make it a lot easier to kick-start a new friendship (and feel confident doing so).
1. Failing to moderate your interest or excitement.
Finding people you “click” with as an adult can be tough. That’s why it can be so exciting (not to mention a major relief) when you meet someone you’re genuinely interested in befriending. Showing your enthusiasm can work in your favor‒ it’s often a clue that you’re interested in getting to know each other. That said, it’s a careful balance. Being overly complimentary, asking too many personal questions, or jumping at the chance to point out all of the things you have in common might come from a place of sincerity, but they can also read as disingenuous or desperate.
Instead of feeling like you need to show all your cards at once, remember that making friends is a process. It’s absolutely appropriate (and often preferable) to start small and channel your interest into sharing fewer, better questions or talking points. It can also help to take a clue from the other person. The more open or effusive they are, the more confident you can be that sharing your own excitement or relief won’t drive them away.
2. Overlooking yourself.
Giving someone the space to talk about themselves is a helpful strategy when making friends. But showing up and owning your place in the conversation is equally important. Sharing your favorite activities, experiences, and perspectives gives you the chance to figure out if your personalities and interests are compatible. What’s more, opening up about something personal, even if it’s something small like your weekend plans or favorite Netflix series, communicates that you trust them to react without judgment or criticism, and can be an important way to build trust and closeness.
Talking about yourself might be uncomfortable. It can even feel self-centered (more often than not, if this has crossed your mind you have little reason to worry!). But thinking that you should focus exclusively on the other person robs both of you of the chance to form a more meaningful and balanced connection.
3. Over-relying on technology and social media
Whether it’s using apps to meet new friends or catching up with a quick message when things get busy, technology plays an important role in helping us develop and sustain our friendships. But no amount of meme-tagging, text messages, or e-mail threads is a match for real life interactions. We just don’t communicate online the same way we do in person; the kinds of topics we discuss tend to be a little more superficial and a lot less conducive to making friends.
What’s more, our mannerisms, sense of humor, and personality don’t always read well online. At best this can lead to missed opportunities, and at worst miscommunications. There’s no denying that technology has its place. But when making friends, remember to elevate the quality of your interactions— not just by what you share but how you choose to share it. Picking up the phone or suggesting you get together might feel less convenient and even more anxiety-producing, but it can make all the difference.
4. Not being true to yourself
When making friends, it’s easy to fall victim to the “shoulds” we impose on ourselves: “I should have more friends”, “I really should go to that party”, “I should be more outgoing or extroverted”. The reality is, however, that imposing these kinds of rules or expectations can be wholly counterproductive. Instead of getting caught up in your self-imposed rules, focus on the things that genuinely represent who you are and the kinds of people you’d like to meet. Choose the places or settings where you’ll feel most comfortable approaching someone new. Find activities or hobbies that reflect your real interests. And when chatting with acquaintances, try to avoid feeling the pressure to be someone you’re not. Agreeing with someone’s point of view or sharing what you think they want to hear for the sake of getting along will likely do more harm than good in the long run; people can spot insincerity a mile away. Sticking to the things you’re actually passionate about will help you attract people with whom you’ll have the best chance of forming an authentic friendship.
5. Investing in the wrong people.
The older we get, the more we realize how precious our time is. We only have so much to give and, somehow, we’ve already managed to divide it amongst the other important people in our life. That’s why investing in the wrong kinds of friendships– those that are unreciprocated, draining, toxic, or riddled with envy– can be such a significant mistake. Not only can these kinds of relationships take a toll on our mental health and well-being, they rob us of the opportunity to form more supportive, mutually beneficial friendships. Invest your heart wisely and focus on quality over quantity.
6. Doing Nothing
Don’t fool yourself. Doing nothing is still a decision to do something. And choosing to avoid meeting new people or following up on an initial conversation, or passively remaining in a destructive friendship when you’re hoping to make new friends is likely the worst mistake of all. We tend to make excuses for ourselves when we feel challenged or uncomfortable. We’re too busy or tired. We’re not outgoing enough. Not attractive enough. But the social support we get from our friendships is too important to excuse or overlook.
The same way that dating takes a surprising amount of time, energy, and self-compassion, so too do friendships. Friendship don’t just happen automatically. Commit to yourself by showing a willingness to engage with new people and use the information you have about your strengths and your relationships to find the strategies and advice that make the most sense for you.
Miriam Kirmayer is a therapist and friendship researcher who works with the media to make information about well-being, psychology, and relationships available and relatable. Connect with Miriam on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram or at MiriamKirmayer.com to learn more.