It Takes a Long Time To Grow an Old Friend

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I have never struggled to make friends at any age — provided, of course, I can speak their language. A simple, “Hi, that’s a neat t-shirt” is usually enough of an opener to see if a person is interesting, kind, and fun enough to spend time with.

I like to exchange names early in the process of getting to know someone, too. I ask repeatedly if they have a unique name that’s tricky to remember. I often ask for a spelling. I want to get it right because I like it when people know my name is Suzanne and not Susan. It shows they care, if only a little.

Of course, I misjudge people all the time. New friends can disappoint me, and I’m forced to start over socially wherever I am. It’s good to balance new and old friends. Keeping a healthy group of friends and developing long-term relationships that are positive and supportive are part of the next-level work.

It’s easy to find a bunch of drinking buddies. Just show up at the bar. But making friends who help you get to the next phase of your growth? That’s something else. It isn’t easy to find people who understand that you will be different next time they see you, and that your growth doesn’t discount their growth (or lack thereof). When friends can’t handle your growth, you’ve outgrown them. Thus, the need for new friends.

Remember the 1980s TV show "Bosom Buddies"? Two guys can't find an apartment so they dress in drag to live in a women's only building. Talk about going all-in for a friend. And isn't it funny how outrageous that show would be today?

For many people, making new friends is a challenging task. Currently, I am one of those people because I live in a country where I barely speak the language. I can have a nice transaction when buying persimmons from the man with glasses and puffy, gray hair at the fruit market, and I can chat a little with the people in my weekly meditation group. But when it comes to making jokes on the bus, I instead tend to look uncomfortably out the window.

I won’t lie: On the bus, I’m likely listening to a podcast or an audiobook (in English, no less) in my earphones. I’m not even open to someone who speaks my language and could say something I’d appreciate. When earphones aren’t an option — like in the sauna, for example — I close off my body language to avoid conversation. I reply in mumbles. I’m too insecure in my Spanish for friendly small talk.

Insecurity, it seems, is at the heart of many missed friendships. When you allow yourself to be open to a stranger, you are by definition vulnerable. They may reject you. They may laugh at you. And in my case, they may talk so darn fast that I stare blankly at them and muster up what little sense of humor I can find to laugh at myself in the situation.

You may think that you make a poor first impression and that many people don’t really like you enough to want to form a friendship. This is known as the Liking Gap, and it’s scientifically proven false. People like you just fine. People like you more than you think they like you.

As a way to sweep that insecurity under the rug, you may think that making new friends is kid stuff. After all, remember how easy it was to make friends in school? Lindsay happened to have the same permed, brown hair and glasses as I did. I had to decide in that seventh-grade moment whether this pseudo-doppelgänger would be my best friend or my arch enemy. I’m glad I choose the former.

Are you more likely to be friends with someone who looks like you? I suspect so, but I also think it's a shame that we miss out on horizon-expanding connections. Source:

Maybe you think you have enough friends. Me, I never do. I would love to run into someone (besides the man at the fruit market) who smiles when they see me every day. I love it when my friends call me or send me a note. I love to support people through their hard times, paying it forward for the inevitable time when things turn upside-down in my life. We’re all in this together, right?

I’ve recently learned about Dunbar’s Number, which states that due to the size of the human brain we can only maintain 150 meaningful contacts — or, in other words, real friendships.

This concept is based on research by Robin Dunbar, who breaks down the theory into concentric circles of different levels of friendship maximums. We tend to only have five of our closest loved ones, 15 good friends, 50 actual friends, 150 meaningful contacts, 500 acquaintances, and 1,500 people you can recognize on the street and offer a passing hello.

Yes, people who consider themselves extroverted may have a larger network of meaningful contacts, for example. But then introverts may have a larger number of very close friends. Women tend to have more close friends than men, according to the research.

How this research fares in the face of social media is an interesting debate. If you’re like me, you are already thinking about the number of people who are your Facebook friends. I currently have 1,842 Facebook friends, and I have shaken the hand of 95%.

The few whom I haven’t met in person, I’ve likely connected with through a group and have embarked on an accountability challenge together. For example, it’s fun to stay in touch with Agnes, the woman from Kenya with whom I shared an extended fasting experience when I lived in Uruguay. People who are different than you may, indeed, have a lot in common.

A few years ago, I culled my Facebook list down by about 500 contacts. Did those people even notice that I wasn’t in their news feed anymore? Unlikely, according to Dunbar’s Number. Those people were those who never felt like they wanted me to win. They were “frienemies,” and we can all do with fewer of those in our lives.

What about those people who have assistants who send flowers on birthdays and reply to invitations? Of course, they have more people in their lives because they’re paying someone to do the emotional work of friendship. After all, friendship can be work.

Currently, I have a number of friends going through hardship. More than one is breaking up with her lackluster boyfriend. Another is quitting drinking alcohol. Another is trying to get a new job. Another is struggling with losing weight. Another is having trouble with family. I talk with all of these friends regularly on the phone. I want them to succeed. I spend time listening.

After all, I think that listening is the true key to friendship. How good of a listener are you? We all move so fast in today’s world, scrolling with limited and disrupted focus. Even my father, during the annual holiday video call, was staring out the window as we talked. He’s so used to Twitter and TV that I’ve grown boring. Friendship requires patience as we develop a slow-moving, in-depth understanding of another person.

It’s part of why I wrote a long, creative non-fiction book in the first-person. It’s a disruptive experiment to see if people would sit down and get to know the main character, who happens to be me. There’s no scrolling mindlessly through a 500-page book. I love long-form prose because it requires a little investment on behalf of the reader. I sure hope it’s worth it — for my old friends, new friends, and people I’ll never meet.

It takes a long time to grow an old friend. And friendship won’t grow unless you first plant the seed.