Take an inventory of your friends, and act on it


Today people talk very loudly about how they want a job that lets them have a life outside of work. That’s smart, of course, because there’s a long list of scientifically proven benefits to your health and happiness that friendship brings. And this includes the findings of Gallup pollster Tim Rath that you are almost guaranteed to like your job if you have a real friend at work.

But part of the idea of having a full, well-rounded life, is that you have close friends who are not family or a significant other. That’s right. The family and signifcant others don’t count when we talk about the benefits of friendship, even if you are really close to those people.

But making close friends is hard. We are meeting more people online, and we’re meeting a lot of people through travel, but we are more frenetic than ever in how we live our lives. Time magazine reports (under the heading “Loneliness”) that, “The number we count among our closest friends — the ones with whom we discuss important matters — shrank over the past 20 years, from three friends to two. At the same time, the number of Americans who have no one at all to confide in more than doubled, to 1 in 4.”

So let’s agree on what friends are, because I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t have them. Here is what I think is the minimum for a close friend is:
1. You have been friends with the person when you were not professionally involved with the person.
2. The person knows the part of yourself you dislike the most.
3. The person returns your calls in 48 hours.

If you don’t have friends, but you think you have a good job, you probably have one or all of these problems:
1. You have a job that doesn’t allow you enough time to have friends.
2. You are mistaking work associates for friends.
3. You have no idea how to manage your time.

If your wife or girlfriend picks all your friends, they are not your friends. They are hers and she lets you tag along. If you talk about your husband’s job or your boyfriends dissertation with all your friends, you can bet that your so-called friends are not particularly interested in your life. Or you’re not. Either way, such talk is a barrier to friendship. I use gender here loosely — it could be reversed. Relationship incompetence is not gender specific.

And one more thing, you cannot be true friends with someone who you have power or authority over. If you only hang around people who you have some sort of authority over then you have a problem relating to people as equals.

Maybe you are saying to yourself that it’s a time issue. First of all. I don’t believe you. It’s a priority issue. Because you have time to watch TV. Time to work overtime. Time to hang out with people who are not friends. But, even if it is a time issue, there is very little you can do with two hours once a month that will have so much impact on your well being as talking to a friend.

So what can you do to get a close friend? Here are three things:

1. Look at the friends you have.
Concentrate less on developing new friends and more on improving the quality of the friendships you already have. This suggesetion is based on research by University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who says the quality of relationships has more to do with your happiness than anything else.

2. Go visit someone.
Have a face-to-face meeting with one of those friends you IM all the time but have never met. Visiting them just once can increase the value of the friendship significantly. The nonverbal information you get about a person from talking with them face to face can make you feel much closer, after just one time, according to reaserach by psychologist Edward Hallowell.

3. Change your personal patterns.
After a big life change, like graduating from college, getting a divorce or moving across country, how you make and grow friends will change. You can rely on the tried-and-true techniques of your old life, you need to figure out what will work now – who to target, when to talk, what technology is appropriate. If you are having trouble making friends, try new ways of doing it.

And that, actually, is a great way to solve most of your problems: Try a new way of doing it. Not suprisingly, it’s something that’s easier to do with input from a friend.

11 replies
  1. Lea
    Lea says:

    As always, you make your points well. And of course, I’ve got a story to back you up.

    I moved from New York state to Virginia almost seven years ago, and the hardest part for me is that my closest friends live elsewhere. I’ve made friends here — non-“significant others” with whom I have fun, talk about personal issues, and otherwise enjoy their company — but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a local “best” friend. And it was inevitable that the physical distance between me and my closest friends (who live in Northern Virginia, Brooklyn, Rochester and New Hampshire, to give you an idea of the geography) has translated into some emotional distance. We visit each other, but the visits are few and far between. The phone and e-mail can only do so much.

    Making friends in the post-college world is difficult, particularly if you change jobs and move to another state simultaneously. When I came to Richmond, I initially met only coworkers, and while they were great people, they all had their own lives and weren’t looking for new friends. At the time I was active in the Goth scene, so I sought out the club nights in Richmond where I’d find others of my ilk. It worked — I found a boyfriend and five other close friends, and we did everything together for about a year before our little group imploded.

    Since then, I’ve tried a bunch of traditional methods to meet friends, from volunteering to taking classes. But what’s worked best is being a part of LiveJournal.com, a blogging site. I’ve met great people there, and now I’m part of a group that meets weekly for dinner and other activities (game and movie nights, for example). So as you advised, it can pay to get off the computer and hang out with cyber-friends in person.

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for this comment, Lea. I am always going on and on about the benefits of blogging, so I like that you wrote about people forming local communities from blogs. That’s great to hear.


  2. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    Relationship incompetence not gender specific, says, career advisor, Penelope Trunk.

    I like it. If I can find a way to relate it to recruiting, I’ll put it on my blog.

  3. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I agree with all of the above – Especially Lea’s comment on making friends in the “post-college world”, except I would extend it to post-high school. High school is full of ready-made friends. In college, I was so focused on building a career that I missed out on those relationship building opportunities, and now I find myself out of college and surrounded by people who are either much older than I or married with children that absorb all their free time.

    It can be tough to find a girlfriend (or best bud, whichever may apply), when every day is from work to home and back again.

    * * * * * *

    This comment is a little treasure for college students. A reminder that college is about making friends. You have opporunities for friendship in college that do not come up at any other time in your life.  Don’t forget to put down your books, work fewer hours, and make great friends.


  4. Steven
    Steven says:

    A topic that I have been pondering for years now, and I have a question.
    Are “online friends” really “friends” enough to qualify for the list you are talking about?
    Recently I have had at least one online friend come out and tell me I am on their list of “true” and “close” friends.
    Are we making a mistake by investing too much in online relationships?

    * * * * * *

    I sometimes wonder the same thing. Then I tell myself that it’s about how much I am able to give of myself to a friendship that’s online. And I tell myself that if I’m going to invest time, I have to try hard to give a lot. Not that this is a proven technique. Just one person’s attempt…


  5. Alexandra Levit
    Alexandra Levit says:

    Hi Penelope, people should also note the difference between work friends and real friends, and should make an effort to move promising relationships in the former category into the latter one. Here are a few questions to determine if someone is a real friend, or just a person you hang out with when you happen to be stuck in the same building for 8 hours every day:

    – €¢If your friend left the company, would you still be in touch with her in a year?
    – €¢If you had a personal emergency, would you consider asking your friend for help?
    – €¢Do you hang out with your friend outside the office? (weekday lunch, happy hour and business trips don't count)
    – €¢Have you met your friend's significant other? What about his friends outside the office?
    – €¢If you ran into your friend in the grocery store, would you be able to talk to him for ten minutes without mentioning work?

    Kind regards,
    Alexandra Levit
    * * * * * * * *

    Hi, Alexandra. Thanks for this list. Very useful. And people should ask themselves these questions more often — good reality check for us all.



  6. Prashant
    Prashant says:

    With the current job scenario, it’s very difficult to have your good friends (those without any professional connection) to be in the same city as you are. What I’ve done, is to make a list of my friends – Once a month or so, I skim through the list to figure out who I haven’t spoken to in a long time.

    And yes, as far as your closest friends go, just one liners to keep in touch (e.g. emails or scraps on http://www.orkut.com) suffice. Once I met a very good friend after 2.5 years, and well – we really didn’t feel that it was after so long.



    * * * * * *

    I have a list, too. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. But I think it’s a good way to make a note to yourself about who, really, you intend to keep in touch with and make a commitment to being a friend to. Friends don’t just happen – they require focused energy. So I like that you wrote about your list. Thanks.–Penelope

  7. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    I wish it was easier, I did not have to worry so much before making good friends. The best part about friendship according to me, is discovering how much the other person knows and cares about you and how much you care about them. Everytime I find such a moment, that makes my day

  8. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    I think technology has really allowed people to have meaningful long distance friendships. Using tools such as email, IMing, groups (such as Yahoo groups), social networking sites, and picture sharing services make the distance seem a lot smaller. Most of my closest friends live hundreds of miles away and we all use these means to keep in touch. While we often go years between seeing each other, the relationships are just as strong as they were in college.

    The best part of a solid friendship is that even if you go a long time without talking – you tend to just pick right up where you left off last.

  9. Rowan Manahan
    Rowan Manahan says:

    Thought-provoking as always Penelope. I found that a certain stratum (successful, mid-40s, married with kids) of my clients had the obverse problem. Too many relationships, too little time. My decluttering tool for them was to get them to rank all their relationships objectively; without fear of guilt or judgement. So people were either a Double Positive, Single Positive, Single Negative or a Double Negative.

    The trick is to do the ranking AFTER tracking the amount of time you spend on the various people in your life over the course of a month or so. We saw startlingly consistent results – way too much time and headspace being given to emotional vampires and ‘friends from way-back-when’ with whom you have nothing in common any more.

    If too little time is your issue, this exercise (albeit harsh) can be very liberating.

  10. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    A few simple tips and tricks that seem to work for me:

    Religiously email your friends on their birthday. No matter what, you’re guaranteed to bring them a smile and get an update on their life.

    Any time you meet someone interesting, ask them to lunch. There’s nothing like a good 1:1 session to build a real relationship.

    Any time you see something that person might like, email them a link. It shows you care, and gives them an opportunity to write back.

    Hold on to the friends you have. Relationships do tend to decay over time, and a long-standing friendship is really something special. If you simply make sure that you don’t lose your friends, you’re already ahead of the game.

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