When you have good news to share, are looking for advice or just need a listening ear, a friend is a good place to turn. From schoolyard buddies to workplace bonds, we develop friendships throughout our lives. And each year, National Make a Friend Day (Feb. 11) celebrates those special connections and challenges us to widen our circle.
But sometimes that’s not as easy as it seems.
“The idea of having friends is so ubiquitous we often feel like it should be a natural skill that we’re all equally good at throughout our lifetime and in every context,” said Sarah Hope Lincoln, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at the College of Arts and Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. “However, developing meaningful friendships can be challenging and relies on skills we build over time and with practice!”
Is making friends not as easy as you remember during your schooldays? We spoke with Lincoln to get some tips rooted in psychology to get you started.
1. Start with common ground!
Spend some time in self-reflection to identify what you like and value. Once you have these components in mind, seek out people who have common values or interests. This might mean finding people who enjoy being outside through a hiking or running group, identifying places where you can engage in activities you enjoy (e.g., there’s a board game cafe, TableTop, in Cleveland!), seek out people in places you frequent naturally, like in places of worship, classes or talks, or drop-off/pick-up time at children’s schools!
2. Engage in social exchange.
Friendships might start with common ground, and are likely strongly maintained when there is a reciprocity between friends, or social exchanges (Laursen & Hartup, 2002).
A social exchange essentially refers to the idea of individuals exchanging resources—these resources can be physical (e.g., notes for class, a meal) or interpersonal (e.g., attention, comfort). These exchanges help establish equality and interdependence between individuals. This concept means that you need to be able to both give and receive in a relationship.
3. Keep in mind that social sharing builds a relationship.
Sharing emotional experiences can help deepen a relationship and may be the next step once you’ve identified someone with whom you have common interests. Self-disclosure of your emotions can help create a connection with someone else. This skill is complex, as over-sharing too soon in a relationship may have a negative effect. Be mindful of what feels like an appropriate level of self-disclosure throughout the course of your friendship.
Start small by describing your experiences to someone else “I really enjoyed spending time with you” and build to more personal levels of information “I am really stressed about this work/school assignment next week.”
4. Remember that while making friends is hard, it’s worth it!
For a variety of reasons, everyone has different strategies for making friends. Sometimes it takes awhile to find “your people” and build those connections. This skill can be particularly difficult for neurodivergent individuals who may approach social situations differently or feel compelled to mask throughout them. It may also be difficult for people who are socially anxious or who have had negative social interactions previously. Try not to criticize yourself for what you think should be a “natural” skill.
Navigating the social world is incredibly important and complex, seek out additional resources if you think it would be helpful! Ultimately, finding people you click with can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and you get to do that on your terms!