Thursday, February 21, 2013

How To Make Friends

Dr. Richard Mollica of Harvard Medical School once explained that: “The best cure for depression is a job.”

Unfortunately, the therapy culture, and psychoanalysis, in particular has tricked people into believing that they can cure depression by falling in love. Since psychoanalysis has touted itself as a cure by love, one is within one’s rights to assume that it is going to provide a therapeutic benefit.

By my lights, the second best cure for depression is making a new friend.

Of course, finding and working at a job will produce a new group of friends and acquaintances. More than that, when you work a job, you belong to a group and function according to its rules.

What more can you ask?

However good it feels to fall in love, it does not make you feel like you belong to a group. Two-person partnerships are not groups.

On Tuesday Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal  reported on some of the most recent research about making friends.

It shouldn’t really come as news, but researchers have discovered that friendships are best when they develop gradually through a mutual exchange of information. Saying that this exchange must be balanced is saying that neither party should overshare or undershare.

Bernstein reports:

"You want to be slow and reciprocal," says Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, in New York, who developed the protocol. "If you disclose too much too fast, you put someone off."

Not sure how to find the sweet spot between disclosing too little and disclosing too much? Remember how badly you wanted to get off the plane the last time someone in the next seat downloaded way too much information.

Oversharing is often seen as one-sided, overwhelming and socially inappropriate, Dr. Aron says. How can you tell if you are doing it? The other person may seem tense, fidgety or at a loss for words.

Exactly. Aristotle couldn’t have said it better, though he did say it first.

If friendship is based on a controlled exchange of information, then you do not develop a friendship by emulating what Hilary Mantel called Princess Diana’s “emotional incontinence.” (See yesterday’s post on Mantel and Kate Middleton.)

It is impossible to follow Dr. Aron’s instructions if you have no self-control. You cannot follow it if you have difficulty reading emotional cues, either.

Normally, we believe that it takes time to develop a solid friendship. Many people believe in love at first sight, but friendship at first sight… that sounds like a stretch.

So, one is surprised to read that Dr. Aron believes that two people can become fast friends in 45 minutes.

There, he is both right and wrong. On the one hand it feels like an equivalent to love at first sight; too good to be true. On the other hand, we have all had the experience of meeting someone for the first time and feeling an affinity that grows into a friendship.

Normally, fast friendship depends on finding that you have a great deal in common. If you see and hear someone who resembles you, you will be more likely to feel an affinity. Or better, you will feel more trusting. If the other person is stranger, you will require more proof that he is trustworthy and that you are both speaking the same language.

Dare I say that someone you know for 45 minutes and for whom you feel an affinity is not your best friend. Friendship must be earned, over time. How can you know whether you can trust another individual if your interactions have never required him to demonstrate trust?

As it happens, Dr. Aron offers some guidance about how to forge a fast friendship. By his lights, the gradualist approach involves asking a series of questions that are increasingly intrusive and invasive.

Bernstein reports:

Questions in the first set are only slightly personal ("Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?" "When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?"). In the second set, they are a little more personal ("What is your most terrible memory?" "Is there something that you've dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven't you done it?"). The last set is personal ("When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?" "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find the most disturbing?"). Each set of questions also includes a relationship-building exercise ("Tell your partner what you like about them").

To be fair, these questions were devised as part of a research project. Yet, I fear that people will read about Dr. Aron’s research and come away thinking that they can become better friends by interrogating their new acquaintances.

For my part, I advise people to avoid this technique. Gradualism in friendship involves respecting boundaries. You are not respecting a virtual stranger’s privacy when you start asking intimate and personal questions. Developing a friendship should not feel like being deposed.

Also, you have not advanced your friendship when you have each confessed your most humiliating experiences. Aristotle stated clearly that friends see the best in their friends, Dr. Aron’s idea might make you feel like a card-carrying member of the therapy culture, but it will not make you a better friend.

Why? If your new friend knows something that would, if it were divulged, damage your reputation, then you will be trying to maintain good relations, not because you value the other person’s good character, but because you are living under a threat.

Dr. Aron’s questions are not just intrusive and invasive; they all involve feeling. None of them really involves fact. None of them involves sharing information about the economy, the political scene or the upcoming pennant.

Perhaps his questions will resonate for women, but they will draw a blank from most men.

For my part I am persuaded that people will get along better if they offer before they ask. It is better to start a conversation with a stranger by offering an opinion about a matter of mutual interest: be it the weather, the election, the noise at the bar, the ball game or the way the people at the party are dressed.

Once you have established common ground, you can try to move to the next level. You do so by sharing a piece of personal information. You should not blurt out an intimate secret, like how you prepare for telephone calls or why you prefer mid-afternoon trysts. You do better to share some information about your life: where you work, where you went to school, where you come from, the name of your Cocker Spaniel.

If your interlocutor reciprocates by divulging some information about himself you are both on the same level. If not, you should regroup and return the conversation to more neutral ground.


Sam L. said...

And then there's the Dale Carnegie book.

The number I had to type is significant to me.

Sam L. said...

And then there are we non-garrulous folks from the Mid-West.

This number is not significant.