Friends? Not So Fast

Getting from acquaintance to friend is a complex process, so pay attention to the cues of your potential pal.

By Annie Murphy Paul, published on January 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

It's what your mother always told you: to make a friend, you have
to act like one. Research on the transition from acquaintanceship to
friendship shows that people getting to know each other adopt what
psychologists call a "communal script," responding to each others' needs
instead of demanding tit for tat. But because they risk embarrassment if
the other person doesn't share their desire to get closer, they protect
themselves by paying careful attention to all that their potential pal
says and does. "When people are in transitional relationships, each
interaction carries more weight, has more consequence," says John Lydon,
Ph.D., of McGill University in Montreal.

Participants in Lydon's study of "preunit" relationships, as he
calls them, said that they would be just as likely to accept a request
for a favor from a potential friend as from an established one, but that
they would feel less comfortable carrying it out. When they imagined that
the potential friend had done them a good turn—say, paid for
dinner—subjects thought the gesture had more meaning, and were more
anxious to return the favor, than if it had come from an old

Lydon says that this tendency to attribute "surplus meaning" to
small actions and gestures is probably common to all relationships in
transition, including those about to end. A couple that's thinking of
separating, for example, might agonize over a trivial disagreement, while
a happier pair might brush it off. "In our day-today lives, we just don't
have time to analyze every single behavior," comments Lydon. "And when
our relationships are stable, we don't have to."