How to Make Real Friends

“I find it harder to make new friends that I actually click with and have a genuine relationship with. We get along but I just don’t feel the same comfortable feeling that I found back in high school with my friends.”

Not all friendships are equal. You will probably have friends you can call to go to a specific event or to hang out in a group. These friendships are great, but they can be unsatisfying, especially if they’re the only kind of friendship you have.

Deep friendships are different. These are the people you want to share major life events with and who you trust to understand and support you.

Contents

Developing real friendships

Developing close friendships takes time and effort. It can seem impossible to move a friendship from casual to close, but research shows that this is happening constantly. People become closer or drift away over time.[1] Here’s how to make real friends:

1. Open up to others

Two people feel like they know each other well when they know personal things about each other. During conversations, gradually move to discussing more personal topics.

This is referred to as sustained, escalating, reciprocal self-disclosure.[2] It’s important to ask personal questions as well as to reveal personal information.

A typical conversation might go something like

“Hi. How are you?” (casual question)
“I’m good thanks. You?”
“Pretty good. I spent the weekend fishing, which was great.”
(slightly personal disclosure)
“I’ve never been fishing”

After a short discussion about fishing, you might say

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“Well, that was my weekend. How about you?” (slightly personal question)

Later in the conversation, you could ask

“It sounds like you enjoy being out in the woods a lot. Do you like being in the city, or do you dream of moving somewhere more remote?” (more personal question)

And so on.

This is an incredibly powerful tool to become close to someone quickly. Each time you meet, you will find that you spend less time making small talk and more time talking about personal topics.

Be careful not to push too hard. If the other person is not asking questions or seems to be avoiding certain topics, back off a little. You’re aiming for a sense of balance between you, with both people asking questions and sharing information equally.

2. Devote time to your friends

With everyone having such hectic lives, it can seem difficult to find the time to devote to deepening friendships. It can be harder to find the time to create friendships than it is to find the time to spend with people you’re already close to. This is because we get a lot more emotional payoff from spending time with close friends.

To make it easier to find time, try to share situations or activities that you already enjoy. If you enjoy a morning walk and coffee by the river on weekends, invite someone to join you. If you prefer playing video games, invite someone round to play video games and get take-out.

3. Give your undivided attention

Whatever you choose to do, make sure that you are fully invested in the time you are spending with the other person. Put your phone on silent and try not to look at it while you’re together. I found it really helpful to buy a watch, so I wasn’t tempted to use my phone to check the time. It can feel strange at first, but having time spent with friends being phone-free can make your time together more enjoyable once you’re used to it.

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If you give someone your undivided attention, they’ll feel more comfortable opening up to you.

4. Build trust

You need to show that you are trustworthy and you need to show that you trust the other person.

Start small. You need to demonstrate that you can be trusted with small things before people will trust you with more important ones. Even simple things like showing up on time or texting in advance to let them know that you’ll be late will help to build trust.

Show that you trust the other person. This might be by telling them personal information, asking them for help, or by showing that you are in some way vulnerable. Again, try to keep to small steps that you’re comfortable with. Remember that trust is something that you build rather than something you force.

5. Build a shared past together

Deep friendships lead to the development of a shared past. This means that you have been present at important events and have developed your own collection of shared memories, jokes, and places.

Spend time together to create shared memories. Make sure to be there for your friends through their important life events – also through the bad ones, such as checking in with someone when they are sick.

Past events become easier to remember when we talk about them. We also attach more importance to them.[3] Talking about things that you have done together, especially fun experiences, helps to create a sense of closeness and familiarity.

6. Show people that you like them

If we know that someone likes us, we are more inclined to like them back. This is known as reciprocal liking.[5] If you like someone and would like to have them as a close friend, it is important to let them know that.

It can be scary to tell someone this. You might be worried that you’ll come across as clingy or that they don’t like you as much as you like them.

Practice telling someone that you enjoyed their company after each one-to-one conversation. You don’t need to make a big thing of it. Try saying “I really enjoyed your company” or “It was great to hear your perspective on things”.

Keeping your compliment light might make it feel less vulnerable, especially if you’re not sure whether they like you as much as you like them. If you’re still nervous, remind yourself that you’re using reciprocal liking. Telling them that you enjoyed their company makes your company more fun for them.

Here are some more ways to show people that you like them:

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  • Let them know when they’ve done something good: “Your presentation was great”.
  • Compliment your friends: “I like your new jacket”.
  • Show appreciation: “Thank you for checking in on me yesterday. I appreciated that”.
  • Show consideration: “I’m really sorry that I was late. How long did you have to wait?”

7. Spend your free time with the people you want to be close to

Making genuine friends takes between 150-200 hours.[4] We are able to manage between 5 and 15 close friends (people we speak to at least weekly).[1]

It makes sense to devote the most energy to people you have the best chance of becoming real friends with. This can be a bit of a balance. You want to spend time with lots of different people to have the best chance of finding friends that you can be really close to. At the same time, you want to focus your time on becoming closer to specific people, rather than having lots of casual friends.

Be on the lookout for people who are like-minded or ones you feel particularly comfortable with. If you find someone you immediately ‘click’ with, great. If not, give people a chance. Try to spend time socially with someone at least 3 times before deciding whether they are someone you want to be closer to.

Don’t feel guilty about keeping someone in the ‘casual friends’ category. You’re not passing judgment on whether they’re a good person or not. You’re just choosing who you want to spend lots of your free time with.

Being selective with who you devote your time to, and learning to do so without guilt, can free up your attention and energy for the people who will really enrich your life. In the next section, I’m going to look at how you can know whether someone is actually a good friend to you.

Knowing if someone is a genuine friend

Often, the only way to know whether you can truly rely on another person is to have the moment of crisis in which you need their help. Here’s how to know if someone’s a genuine friend:

1. A good friend builds you up

Genuine friends want the best for you and want you to succeed. This means that they will be happy for you when you succeed and commiserate with you when things go wrong. A real friend will remind you of your strengths and build up your confidence.

Someone who is focused on belittling you or putting you down isn’t a genuine friend. The same is true if they resent your success or are happy when you are upset.

2. A good friend has your back

A real friend is one you can trust to help you when you need it. They might be there with spare keys when you lock yourself out or offer to give advice on your application for your dream job. They’re also there for emotional support, ready to comfort you after a relationship breakdown or inspire you to make a scary career change.

A good friend is also considerate in how they ask for help. I once had a friend who called me at 2 am and asked me to drive to pick her up because it was “an emergency”. Once I arrived, I was not particularly pleased to realize that the ‘emergency’ was that she had left her sweater on the train. This became part of a pattern of behavior that allowed me to see that she wasn’t a genuine friend.

3. A good friend shows you who they are

Friendship is best when it is based on mutual understanding and trust. If you are always putting on a brave face, it’s almost impossible to build that relationship. A close friend will let you see parts of themselves that they might keep hidden from others.

If I’m having a really bad day and I meet an acquaintance, I won’t necessarily be honest when they ask me how I am. I’ll probably reply with a variation of “I’m fine”. If I meet a close friend, I’m much more likely to say “I’m having an awful day. Are you around tomorrow for a coffee?”.

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4. A good friend expects the best from you

One aspect of being a true friend that is often unwelcome or overlooked is that a real friend will sometimes tell you things that you’d rather not hear. A true friend has the courage to tell you when you are behaving badly.

A genuine friend will listen to you when you’ve had an argument with your significant other, but they’ll tell you if they think that you were the one being unreasonable. This honesty and courage may not always be comfortable, but it can quickly become something you rely on.

5. You need to be a real friend too

Do remember that these aspects of being a good friend also apply to you. Consider whether you fulfill the requirements of being a good friend.

If you think that you struggle in one of these areas, try not to beat yourself up about it. No-one is a perfect friend all of the time. Apologize if you feel it’s appropriate and then try to do better from now on.

Turning internet friends into real friends

The growth in social media platforms has made it easier than ever to find people you have a lot in common with. Online friendships can become very close and meaningful.

Despite this, many of us still want to have meaningful friendships with people we see face to face. We want to be able to hug our friends and to share small, day-to-day moments with them.

Trying to find friends offline can be intimidating. If you feel comfortable making friends online but struggle offline, these ideas might help.

1. Try to meet some of your online friends offline

You’ve already devoted time and energy to finding people that you like and trust online. It makes sense to start by trying to see whether any of your online friends can transition into being IRL friends. Some online groups hold offline meetups, whether once a month or once a year. Consider attending one of these events, or even suggest running one yourself.

Even if these can’t be regular enough to provide you with the type of friendship you are looking for, they could boost your confidence for meeting new people.

2. Find local groups with an online presence

If you find it difficult to join an activity without knowing anyone before you go, consider finding local groups and getting to know a few people online before you go. If you use a service such as meetup.com there may be a discussion board where you can introduce yourself but most groups will have a Facebook page where you can say hi.

Get used to being social every day

Making IRL friends isn’t an innate ability. It’s a skill, which is great news for you. If it’s a skill, you can learn to do it well. If you struggle to make friends, I would suggest trying to practice a little and often. This means that you can give yourself little challenges every day.

Try smiling at everyone you pass in the office each morning. If this is too challenging, set your own personal goal, maybe smiling at two people or smiling in one particular corridor. It will get easier the more you do it. Once that’s easy, try saying hi to at least one person each morning.

If possible, repeat this at a similar time each day. This increases the chances of you meeting the same people day after day. Try to notice how quickly you start to feel like you know something about the other people you meet.

Once these kinds of social interactions are comfortable for you, you’re probably ready to start making new friends.

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Natalie Watkins writes about socializing for SocialPro. She holds a B.A. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Oxford, an M.S.c. in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience from the University of London, and is currently in her final year of an MSc in Integrative Counselling at the University of Northampton.

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