A guide to finding your tribe
Wanted: friends for life!
One thing is clear: friendships are really, really important. Why? Because back when we were still hunting and gathering, we learned that being alone makes you vulnerable: from the attack of a passing sabre-toothed tiger, or from gene-death when you can’t find a mate, or from illness when nobody takes care of you.
So we developed extremely good social skills to make sure situations like that never happen. At the same time, we got extremely sensitive to signs of rejection.
These instincts are so strong that feeling alone can literally make us sick, says psychologist Simon Dalley from the RUG. ‘Loneliness and isolation have effects on mortality that are comparable to those of obesity or even cigarettes.’
So yes, if you’re one of those students that left home and friends to live in a new city, you should find new people to be around. The good news? This is the best time to do it. ‘Going to university offers challenges and opportunities’, Dalley says. ‘We may lose friends, but also get new ones.’
Everybody around you has the same needs and insecurities. And your fellow students are usually very open to the idea of becoming friends. ‘Our social networks can peak during our time at university’, Dalley says. ‘We’re experimenting with our social relations and that means we allow a lot of people in.’
I’m a new student in Groningen and ready to find new friends. But how do I do that? What makes people become friends in the first place?
It may seem obvious, but you have to be physically close to become friends. The internet doesn’t cut it. We are also more inclined to like people who we know we will be around a lot, says Dalley, ‘because you just know you’ve got to get on with them.’ So start with classmates, housemates, and students associations; these are the people you will be spending most of your time with – and therefore the people who will be predisposed to like you.
Of course you can’t be friends with everyone. You have to pick and choose – and you also have to be picked and be chosen. ‘You need to know how to initiate a conversation’, says Dalley, ‘make small talk, eye contact – just enough, not too much – and be responsive.’ The other person has to have the impression that you are actively listening: nod, respond, ask questions, be interested.
This search for the right friends can feel overwhelming, but Dalley says that even though friendship is ‘strangely underresearched’, one thing is clear as day: friendship starts with similarities. When you have something in common, conversation comes more easily, and silence is less awkward. ‘The more similar you are in values and attitudes, the more likely it is that a friendship is going to develop.’
So, I’ve had some nice conversations with a fellow student in class. But that’s a far cry from a real and lasting friendship. How do I develop these famous friendships for life that everyone says you find in university?
The secret to real connection? Self-disclosure, says Dalley. ‘That’s when you’re sharing something about yourself with this other person.’ The more mutual self-disclosure in a developing friendship, the more satisfying that relationship is.
That doesn’t mean you should go around sharing your darkest, most intimate secrets with randos in the hope that something sticks. Too much information too quickly makes people wary. ‘Self-disclosure will be superficial at first, but as the friendships develops, it gets broader and deeper. And that promotes emotional closeness or intimacy.’
Think of these bits of self-disclosure as a flashing sign saying: I trust you and I like you. ‘But it has to be reciprocal’, says Dalley. ‘If the other person doesn’t disclose back, it may be a signal that the other person doesn’t want to become any closer.’
Right. But some people have to work hard at making friends, while others seem to attract just about anyone. What makes them so much more likeable?
Being physically attractive gives you an edge. ‘When you’re good looking, people just assume you’re a nice person’, Dalley explains.
Being an extravert helps, too. Not because extraverted people are actually nicer than everyone else – they just seem to be. ‘They tend to dress well, smile a lot, and express more positivity. That attracts people’, Dalley explains. ‘They’re funny, interested in others, responsive, and give other people the opportunity to disclose.’
Shyness on the other hand, tends to make negative impressions on others, because shy behaviour – avoiding others, not engaging because you’re afraid of negative responses – is easily misinterpreted. ‘You could say shy people are not disclosing enough’, says Dalley. And so people interpret them as aloof and disinterested. That can feel like rejection – and we are all extremely sensitive to that.’
But I’m just not good at starting a conversation with someone I don’t know. And if I try, it’s awkwardness all around. Can I change who I am? Am I just doomed to be alone forever?
Of course not! Social skills can be learned. Even super likeable people picked them up somewhere along the road. ‘The more you use them, the better you get at them’, Dalley says.
Take a good look at people who seem to be really at ease around others. ‘Observe what tricks they use to open conversations and break down social barriers’, Dalley advises. ‘Copy and practice. It’s a skill you have to learn.’
The first step is getting out there: look for social activities that reflect the real authentic you – faking never works. If you’re scared to talk, try to think of some talking points or a script ahead of time. That might sound a little bit desperate, but it can help you not to freeze in the moment. ‘Look at the newspaper, prepare a plan to engage.’
But what if they still don’t like me?
Don’t jump to conclusions. People tend to believe that they know what other people are thinking from their expression, or tone of voice. ‘But research shows that we are not good at that at all.’ So rather than assuming that someone doesn’t like you and being tortured by negative thoughts, try to find out if there’s another explanation for their behaviour? Who knows? They may have had a bad night, or a resting bitch face.
Also: don’t work so hard to make people like you – show that you are interested in them. ‘Get them to talk about themselves’, Dalley advises. ‘People love that! That way you get them to self-disclose.’
Offer genuine compliments and stress your similarities. ‘You can ask them things like: “Where are you from?” and go: “Oh, I know it there. That’s a nice city.” Then they’ll like you and hopefully open up a bit.’
And even if you’re right and this other person has his doubts, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. ‘A lot of close friends didn’t like each other at first, until they started to mutually self-disclose and found they had more in common than they realized.’