Turning an Acquaintance Into a Friend

In one’s childhood and teens, friends come and go. Once you reach your thirties and forties, however, close, intimate friendships can be harder to find. The key is learning how to transform a casual acquaintance into something deeper and longer lasting.

The Problem

Of course, meeting new people is relatively easy. Even making friends is easy (if there is one thing the 21st-century produces in abundance it is lonely individuals in search of company!). The difficulty begins when you seek friends whose company you enjoy. The cure for loneliness isn’t “meeting new people” but meeting kind, good, loving people who make you laugh. The wrong kinds of people, those with whom you share nothing in common, will make you feel worse.

The problem, to put it crudely, is that the best people are in high demand. No one wants to spend time with the boring, miserable and ignorant. Life is hard enough as it is! The brilliant and witty, however, can take their pick. And by their mid to late twenties they usually have. Lonely people aren’t always lonely because they’re unlikeable. Often, they’ve simply missed the boat. We tend to make our closest friends at school and college. We then go through life’s major traumas with them by our side. And that forges a bond with which new friends cannot compete.

It can also be very hard to rid yourself of old friends. If you were to take a random stranger and ask him to be honest, he’d probably confess to not liking several of his friends. And this is much more common than we realize. How do you tell someone you’ve known since you were 12 years old that they bore you, that you’ve outgrown them and that you no longer want them in your life? To do so means losing mutual friends and creating enormous upset. People stick to old friends for the same reason they put up with unhappy marriages: it is just too much effort to bring it to an end.

Another major problem, especially from one’s mid-twenties onwards, is lack of time. Building good, deep, intimate friendships takes years. With children to raise and mortgages to pay, however, we barely have a moment. Indeed, many struggle to see old friends let alone make new ones. As has already been pointed out, that does not mean they like these old friends more than you. It’s just easier – like putting on an old sweater. And there are no uncomfortable silences. They have so much shared experience there is always something to talk about.

What People Look For

Before looking at ways to establish new friendships, you must not think of this as trickery. Forget those creepy books on seduction techniques, etc. You can’t trick people into spending time with you, whether they be lovers or friends. It may work at first, but it won’t keep working. No one will want to be your friend unless you have something to offer. That may sound cold, but it is true. The only people we love unconditionally are our children. When it comes to friends, lovers, business partners, etc, they must provide something. You can read as much relationship advice as you like, but if you remain miserable, whiney, and self-obsessed, these new friends will drift away. To win a friend you must be a friend.

Take a moment to consider the qualities you look for in other people. Do you possess them yourself? Have you made any effort to cultivate such qualities? If you haven’t, why do you assume anyone would want to be your friend? Eventually, they will see through you. If you are boring and full of self-pity, they will soon make their excuses and stop replying to your texts. So rule one is work on yourself.

Understand two things about the average person. First, most find life hard. Almost everyone has cause for complaint: John’s career is interesting but the pay is terrible; Sarah’s career is exciting and well-paid, but her boyfriend is an insensitive slob; Ron’s marriage is happy and secure, but he cannot stand his new boss, and so on. Second, many people struggle with self-esteem, so always try to make your new friends feel good about themselves. When you meet for a drink, they should leave your company feeling that life is worth the effort, and that so are they.

It isn’t a question of pretending but of cultivating likeable traits. You needn’t be a genius to work these out. Be upbeat and enthusiastic. Don’t overdo it (the overly chipper can be annoying, and everyone likes a moan now and then), but do make an effort to focus on cheerful, positive things: the clear blue sky, a wonderful book you’ve just read, even how tasty your sandwich is. Avoid subjects like cancer or traffic jams.

Also, be kind and sympathetic. That needn’t mean turning the other person into a victim. It simply means empathizing. Self-effacement is also attractive. When people make light of themselves, others relax. Their ego isn’t threatened and they needn’t compete – what a relief! Above all, the question shouldn’t be what can I get from you but what can I give.

When people are in their teens, they tend to be more impressed by style than substance. Who do they want to be friends with? The cool kids! They gravitate towards those with confidence, looks and attitude: the ones who listen to cool music and wear the right clothes. By middle-age this has changed. People now want substance. Indeed, those who were quiet and studious in their teens often find themselves more popular in middle-age than they ever were at 16.

Also, make an effort to read more. But read deeply and widely, everything from poetry to popular science. People who read a lot tend to be more interesting. In fact, those who read good books can often sense when others do too; their conversation is so much richer and deeper.

How to Ask a New Acquaintance to Be Your Friend

Rule one is relax. Even if you don’t feel relaxed, you must act that way. Nothing is more off-putting than desperation. And that is true whether someone is looking for a new friend or a new partner. Quite simply, desperation is unattractive. You mustn’t push things too far too fast, but you mustn’t let opportunities slip away either. This is a difficult tightrope to walk.

Obviously you must first meet these new friends, so take a moment to consider the people you want in your life. For various reasons – lack of time, lack of opportunity, low self-esteem, and so on – most people make do with the friends they have. But if you observe the sociable and popular you will notice that they maintain a variety of relationships. They have their intellectual friend, for discussions about poetry, quantum physics and the meaning of life; they have their goodtime friend for drunken silliness and laughter; they have their “rock,” who they turn to for love and support, and so on.

What sort of friend are you looking for? If you are married to someone serious and intense, maybe you just need someone lighthearted and fun; if your partner is easy-going but shallow, maybe you want someone to talk books with. Now consider the best place to meet such people. You are more likely to meet someone sensitive and thoughtful at the local Buddhist center than the local football club, and you aren’t likely to meet a party animal at the chess society.

Join as many clubs and societies you can. And be patient. You mustn’t expect too much too soon. If you find you are getting along with someone, don’t spoil it by rushing things. The key is to move the relationship away from the book group, squash club, or wherever it is you’ve met. And this can be tricky. Middle-aged men in particular often find it awkward and embarrassing. How do you ask another man to meet for a drink? Above all keep it casual. Don’t ask if they’d like to meet somewhere odd, like the zoo or cinema. Instead, suggest a coffee or a beer, ideally after the class ends rather than at some precise time next week.

Meeting for a specific reason is best. And this is why it is so vital to establish a mutual passion (and why those who take an interest in the world tend to be more popular). Remember, don’t be too desperate. This cannot be overemphasized. The fact is, no matter how casually you approach it, moving the friendship away from the place you’ve met and onto neutral ground is scary. No one likes to be rejected, and that is what you risk. It may help to find some kind of excuse. If you share a love of antiques, for example, invite them over to see an 18th-century vase or rare edition book.

Another approach is to simply be honest. That doesn’t mean you should say “god I’m so lonely, will you be my friend?” But if you have enjoyed the conversation say so. For example, you meet someone at a party and discover that you both love the novels of Jane Austen. As you leave, say “it was great to have met you. I don’t know many people who share my love for Austen. It would be nice to meet for a coffee some time and continue our chat – here’s my number.” Remember, honest, open and casual is best.

The final step involves “cementing” the friendship. Let’s say you meet the Austen fan for that coffee. You seem to get along ok, but she is a little distracted by the need to pick up her child from elementary school. She says a hurried goodbye and leaves without making a date for another meet up. Where do you go from here? Obviously you must judge the situation for yourself. Is this someone you’d like to see again? More importantly, do you sense that she’d like to see you? Some people seem cold and aloof when in fact they are simply shy. They fail to contact you not out of dislike but out of embarrassment.

It can be very hard to read people at times, and the early days of a friendship are as awkward and confusing as those of a romantic relationship. Again, you must walk that tightrope between over-eagerness and excessive distance. Real friendships take time to form. If she has friends from school and college, you may find it hard to compete – in a sense you are having to break into their world. And her other friends may resent this.

The only solution is to turn lots of acquaintances into friends and see what happens. Think of it as like watering lots of seeds and hoping for the best. If you made the first move to transfer the relationship onto neutral ground, it is now their turn. Don’t play little games with people. Always be open and friendly. If they fail to call and you later bump into them in the street, just smile and be pleased to see them; don’t sulk or make a sarcastic remark. Above all, relax.

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