It’s often harder to make friends now than it was at school or uni or in our first jobs. How do you upgrade from Nearly Friends to Close Friends and everything in between?
“I just got a pang thinking about how all my school and uni friends live in different towns if not countries. There’s nothing like old friends, especially for a drop-in glass of Spumante. Move to Wellington!”
That was one of my Facebook posts last year, tagging in said friends. The first one to comment said I’d have to offer better than Spumante (which I’ve just discovered is a general term for Italian sparkling wine, not a really cheap wine brand that implies the potential to spew). I replied that I’d upgrade my bribe to a glass of Lindauer Special Reserve. And still no one agreed to up sticks! Perhaps I should have offered up the Moët & Chandon.
Since my awkward adolescence ended, I’ve always had good friends. In my last two years at Whanganui High School, six of us girls formed a group, sitting together at lunchtime and going to parties in the weekends. Three now live overseas, two in Whanganui and one (me) in Wellington, but we have an active WhatsApp group, and all meet up at least yearly. We did a joint 40th in Queenstown.
At university in Wellington, I was part of a tight group of around 10 of us, dispersed over a few flats. When I landed a job in Auckland, two of my colleagues became good friends. At those times in my life, making friends just kind of happened.
When, after a decade in Auckland, I moved to Wellington 10 years ago, two of my closest friends (school/uni) lived here. That was one of the drawcards. However, circumstantially, both ended up moving away (they assure me I don’t smell, and we’re still close). So, unfortunately, my three best friends live in different cities. But we often chat by text, Messenger, or WhatsApp, meet up when we can, and if I don’t see them for a while, we slot right back in where we left off.
For me, nothing beats having a bestie in the same town. You know, as in you can drop round with an hour’s notice, and rant about your bitchy boss or your partner’s scattered trail of used paper towels, as you drink a sav blanc and help fold the washing.
Once upon a time – even just 30 years ago – friends were more likely to stay in the same town, and generally we knew our neighbours better. Now, although being global citizens is great, it’s a shame (for me) that my close friends are scattered around the world. For me, nothing beats having a bestie in the same town. You know, as in you can drop round with an hour’s notice, and rant about your bitchy boss or your partner’s scattered trail of used paper towels, as you drink a sav blanc and help fold the washing.
I’d like to have a best friend in Wellington, but it hasn’t happened yet. (Being self-employed, without colleagues, makes it harder.) I don’t think I’m fundamentally unlikeable (I should do a totally-legit Facebook poll on that) but I do have a theory: that the strongest friendships emerge when you’re ‘thrown together,’ for a long-enough period to form strong bonds. At school, there were classes, lunchtimes and parties. At uni, there were university hostels, parties, flatmates, and friends’ flats. In my first job, there was grabbing lunches, and way too much Green Ginger Wine at social gatherings.
It turns out that my theory has friends. Since the 1950s, sociologists have recognised three essential elements of solid friendships: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. These criteria may be easy to meet when you’re 15, 20 or 25, but not so much in your 30s and 40s.
But how do you turn that friend of a friend, or someone from book group, into someone you see outside that?
We’ve all had friend crushes, after being introduced in one way or another. But how do you turn that friend of a friend, or someone from book group, into someone you see outside that? Just straight up asking ‘can we be friends?’ would feel awkward and inorganic, right? I actually call the process ‘friendship dating’ (no, that doesn’t mean romantically dating a friend, #badidea). It usually involves meeting up for coffee or a vino; in one case, sharing an office did the trick. But although my newish friends and I hang out here and there, it hasn’t progressed to the drop-by-for-a-rant stage.
It’s totally fine if someone doesn’t like me enough to make friends (though generally you can suss that out early). I also don’t take it personally if a Nearly Friend or New Friend is slow to message back, if catch-ups get postponed, or if they’re just too busy. It requires repeat interactions to seal a friendship, and many of us have barely had enough time and energy to maintain existing friendships let alone begin new ones, especially since Covid hit.
Being Facebook friends is arguably the loosest definition of ‘friend’. My test is simply, ‘if I saw that person on the street, would I stop to talk to them?’ However, it’s not always easy to go from Facebook friends to Real Life Friends. Could Facebook introduce a sort of ‘upgrade invite’ – a premium feature that establishes whether someone wants to hang out in real life? (Facebook developers, you’re welcome.)
How Do Friendships Improve Our Lives?
Humans are social animals wired for connection. Back in hunter-gatherer days, we needed friends to quite literally watch our backs. Now, we want a circle of social support – to enjoy the good times and be there for the bad. As ancient philosopher Aristotle said, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”
Carlin Flora, a former Psychology Today editor, wrote a book called Friendfluence. She coined that word to describe the effect of friends. “’Friendfluence’ is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends – past and present – play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives,” she writes.
Flora reckons friendships can help shape who you are, help give you life skills, help you define your priorities, help support you through life’s trials, help influence your behaviours, and help give you a reality check. (Sometimes, as Alanis Morissette would say, that’s “the good advice, that you just can’t take”.) Also, having friends can even help you get more friends, because it’s clear that people like you.
When it comes to friendships, there are various metaphors. Some see friendships as layers of an onion, or as different bubbles. Tim Urban, the globally-popular blogger-illustrator at waitbutwhy.com, has written about friend tiers and illustrated them on a mountain.
First up, in Tier One – “the green zone” – are your ‘Closest Friends’: “the people closest to you, those you call first when something important happens, those you love even when they suck… and whose relationship with you is eternal,” Urban writes. Then there’s the Tier 2 ‘yellow zone’ of ‘Pretty Good Friends’: “If you live in the same city, you might see them every month or two for dinner and have a great time when you do,” but you’re not gutted if they move away.
The Tier 3 orange zone of ‘Not Really Friends’? “Your relationship tends to exist mostly as part of a bigger group or through the occasional Facebook like… You may also try to sleep with one of these people at any given time” (is there an emoji for ‘oh so true that one time’?). Then there’s the ‘pink zone’: “people you’d stop and talk to if you saw them on the street but whom you’d never hang out with one-on-one”.
If I try, I can rank friends in my head – and I bet you can, too. Two factors are how long we’ve been friends, and how close we currently are. So, I have three Best Friends. Five (counted separately) Close Friends. Not counting those, a dozen or so Friends. Two sets of Couple Friends (we hang out as couples, not individually). New-ish Friends (maybe four). Maybe five Nearly Friends. I also have bubbles including school friends, uni friends, journalist friends, and book-group friends.
Although it’s generally harder to forge close friendships as you get older, it can be done. Suggest grabbing coffee, or doing something together – for instance, maybe you both like checking out new wine bars or seeing improv. You’ll soon tell if that person wants to put in an effort or not.
Nurturing long-distance friendships is also important. U.S-based clinical psychologist Dr Miriam Kirmayer, a researcher and expert on friendship, says “what matters more than the number of friends we have is the quality of the connections we hold on to”. We can keep making new connections while also deepening ones we already have.
With all that said, I’m off to my first ‘Zoom, wine and rants night’ with two friends – and I’ve even organised to catch up with a Nearly Friend for a flat white.