The new book Friendfluence: The Surprising Way Friends Make Us Who We Are (Doubleday, 2013) makes a seminal contribution to the literature on friendship. In this meticulously researched and eminently readable book, journalist Carlin Flora has mined the extant research on this complex topic and woven it together with real-life examples (both her own and others). In so doing, she helps explain how these relationships evolve and their impact on our day-to-day lives from childhood through adulthood.
Carlin was on the staff of Psychology Today for eight years and is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. I was so very pleased that my friend and colleague agreed to graciously share her thoughts on the book and some of the issues covered between the covers:
How would you define/explain friendfluence?
I define friendfluence as “the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends–past and preset–play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives.” Certainly many people and circumstances influence our development, but friends are strangely overlooked, considering the key role they play. Take a prominent person’s biography: It’s likely to focus on the subject’s parents, and then, later, on his or her spouse or professional mentors/colleagues. We don’t hear much about the friends who shaped that person’s viewpoints, interests, and values.
What motivated you to write a book about friendship?
The experience I had long ago of moving from the South to the Midwest as a teenager made me keenly aware of the importance of friends. Right at that time when friends are most central to life, I lost all of mine and had to make new ones–a difficult yet ultimately rewarding episode. Then on a professional level, more and more studies about friendship from all corners of psychology starting crossing my desk where I worked at Psychology Today. There are some great self-help books about friendship (including yours, of course!) but I wanted to write a book for a general audience that put together a lot of the research on the topic from childhood through adulthood.
Are friendship skills learned or innate?
Temperament is at least somewhat innate. Some children naturally move toward other children in a friendly way, others have an aggressive orientation toward other kids, and others are inhibited and “move away” from their peers. Those who aren’t naturally friendly, so to speak, are going to have a harder time making the friends that then teach them to be a good friend going forward. It’s a vicious cycle. Yet those who are motivated CAN learn the skills to make and be a friend. In my book, Carl Pickhardt advocates for teaching high school students friendship skills, for example. Why don’t we discuss with teenagers, in a structured way, how to navigate this relationship that will ultimately have such a big impact on their future happiness, health, and success? For inspiration, those struggling to make friends can look toward the many people with Asperger’s syndrome who have overcome innate disadvantages in the friend-making realm (difficulty reading facial expressions, for example) and have successfully formed friendships.
What advice would you give to people who have trouble making friends?
It’s useful to keep in mind what researcher John Cacioppo calls the loneliness paradox. The lonelier you are, the more cynical and suspicious of others’ motives you become. That makes you naturally less likely to pick up on friendly overtures. Just knowing that that bias exists might help you open up more and project a friendlier attitude. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that other people out there are lonely, too, and also want to make friends. Don’t be afraid to ask people out for coffee, just as you would if you were actively dating. Most people will be appreciative, even if it feels weird. Finally, the easiest way to make new friends is to think about your acquaintances and the friends of your friends. Who among those categories do you click with? You already have reasons to contact them and things to talk about, so they are the low hanging fruit of friendship formation, so to speak.
Were you surprised to find as much research as you did on friendship? were there any gaps in the literature?
On one hand, there is wonderful research on everything from social networks to health and friendship to the mechanisms of peer pressure. It would be impossible to cover all friendship research in one book. On the other hand, there is a lack of longitudinal studies on people and their specific friendships. It’s also too early to determine the impact of the Internet and social media on friendship, though preliminary research points to both pros and cons. It’s NOT the death of friendship….
What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing the book?
Just how flexible friendship is–and how that’s what gives it its strength. There is value in attempting to define friendship and then comparing it to other relationships, such as romantic ones and familial ones (in addition to some researchers, philosophers from Aristotle to Montaigne to the contemporary writer Mark Vernon have all done that beautifully.) When you think about how we actually talk and think, you see how blurred the boundaries are: “My best friend is like a sister to me,” or “My sister is my best friend,” or, “My husband and I have a deep friendship.” What these statements add up to, in my opinion, is the sense that friendship has the potential to morph into whatever shape the two people involved in the friendship need it to take on. It can fulfill emotional and practical needs. It can ebb and flow over time, without the need for a formal re-categorization. For some, friendship is the only close relationship they need in life. In no way does that make them lacking in any kind of emotional or social connection–on the contrary they might even be healthier than those with other kinds of relationships. For others, friendship can provide the sustenance and satisfaction that helps them successfully maintain the other relationships in their lives that are dear to them… It’s a fascinating bond.
“Friendship by the Book” is an occasional series of posts on The Friendship Blog about books that offer friendship lessons.