In July of this year, Marisa Franco went on vacation in Mexico alone. When she returned to Washington ten days later, she had formed a whole new group of friends.
As a psychologist who studies friendship, Franco has an advantage over most of us when it comes to forming bonds, and she used many of the strategies she learned while researching to write her new book, “Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends”
For example, she started from the premise that people would like her. And she recalled that people in transition — who have recently moved house, gone through a breakup or are traveling — tend to be more open to making new friends.
Aware of this, Franco struck up a conversation with another tourist she overheard speaking in English at a cafe and invited him to a meeting of people interested in practicing conversational Spanish, which she had heard about on Meetup.com.
“At the meeting to speak Spanish, I met someone else, I started from the same premises and we exchanged phone numbers”, she recalls. “I invited her to a Mexican ‘lucha libre’ event, and she came. In other words, people are actually very open to forming new friendships.”
Still, Franco knows that making new friends as an adult isn’t always simple, and that could be one reason the friendship is on the wane. In 1990, only 3% of Americans said they had no close friends; in 2021, it was almost 12%. The United States suffers from a crisis of loneliness that predates the Covid pandemic.
Franco’s book recognizes these difficulties and offers practical advice for making new friends and deepening existing relationships. She spoke to the New York Times about some of the best practices to follow.
Much of his work is about changing our preconceived ideas about friendship. What are some misconceptions you wish would disappear? One is the idea that platonic love is less important or meaningful than romantic love. We have this idea that people who have friendship as the central element of their relationships are unhappy or unfulfilled. I believed that myself: I thought that romantic love was the only one that would complete me. I put “Platonic” in the title of my book because I want to level this hierarchy a bit.
Another misconception is that friendship just happens naturally. Research shows that people who think friendship comes naturally, as a matter of luck, are lonelier. You really need to make an effort to get closer to people.
Is that why you think it’s so important to assume people like you? According to “risk regulation theory”, we decide how much to invest in a relationship based on how likely we think we are to be rejected. So one of the important tips I share is that if you want to create a connection with someone, you are much less likely to be rejected than you might think.
And you should, yes, start from the premise that people like you. This is based on research into the “like gap”—the idea that when strangers interact, the other person likes them more than they assume.
There’s also something called the “prophecy of acceptance.” When people assume that others like them, they become more cordial, friendly, and open. In this way the prophecy is self-fulfilling. I didn’t pay much attention to my mindset until I studied the polls. But our mindset matters a lot.
Even so, risking a rapprochement with someone can be stressful. Do you have any advice on this? My suggestion is to join some group that meets regularly from time to time. Instead of going to a networking event, for example, look for a professional development group. Don’t go to a lecture about a book, find a book club. This takes advantage of something called the “mere exposure effect”: our tendency to like people more when they are familiar to us.
The effect of mere exposure means that you can expect to feel uncomfortable when interacting with people for the first time. You will get tired. This doesn’t mean you should avoid meeting people, it means you are exactly where you need to be. Keep going a little longer, and things will change.
You also think it’s essential to show and tell friends how much we love them. Per what?We tend to like people who we believe like us. I used to join groups and try to make friends by being smart. It was my way of being. But when I read the research, I realized that the quality people appreciate most in a friend is the support they give their ego — that is, basically, they appreciate someone who makes them feel that they matter. The more you can show people that you like and value them, the better. Research shows that the simple act of texting a friend can be more meaningful than people often think.
At the same time, you make it clear that people shouldn’t blame themselves if they feel like they don’t have enough friends. Why does it seem so difficult to create this kind of bond? I want people to understand that it’s much more common that they don’t have the friendship issue all resolved. The data shows that far too many people miss a circle of friends, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m trying to teach people to swim against a current that is taking us in the opposite direction, because loneliness is a societal problem that affects most of us. In the past, our circles of friends were something we grew up in, not something we looked for.
Social networks are a good example. They can be a communication tool, but we mostly use them to spy on others, something that is linked to greater loneliness and lack of connection. But this is not necessarily our fault. Social networks are created in such a way that we do not consciously use them; we tend to just stay on them without thinking. There are simply many societal reasons why people feel lonely.
But I also believe that both are true. Yes, this is a systemic problem. But there are things you can do as an individual to increase the connection.
For anyone looking to make a new friend or strengthen existing friendships, what’s one easy tip you suggest they try today? I would tell you to look at your contact list, or look at who you were texting in the past year, and look for the person. You can say something simple like, “Hey, it’s been a while since we talked. I was just thinking about you. How are you doing?”
Translation by Clara Allain