When speaking with women (and men) about the difficulties they sometimes face building friendships, I commonly hear that it's not always the meeting part that's tough, but rather turning those occasional or chance meetings into something resembling a relationship.
How do you turn an acquaintance into a friend? How do you build a friendship with the person you chat with at the gym—without seeming like a stalker? And why do some friendships never get off the ground, despite your best efforts?
Certain roadblocks pop up over and over again, particular common behaviors in which we engage without thinking. But these mistakes may be keeping friendships from taking off. Here are seven common missteps that can easily derail burgeoning friendships:
- Not asking questions and following up. It's like being caught in some small-talk purgatory: You see someone all the time, but you never edge past a discussion of the weather (which, let me guess, has been crazy). But ask yourself: Are you actually showing an interest in the other person's life by asking (not too intrusive) questions, and paying attention to the answers? If you're not giving the other person the opportunity to express themselves, you're simply having a soliloquy without the stage makeup. Ask questions, show genuine interest in the responses, and follow up the next time you meet. Only then are you building a foundation for a true, personal friendship.
- Letting one mistake paralyze you. So you made a joke that you shouldn't have, or you forgot to have your phone on when she was supposed to call you to meet up. Sometimes when a friendship is in the early stages, one false move can feel like a death sentence. But it's how you handle the mistake that has the lasting impact, not the mistake itself. A specific, gracious apology, and a true effort not to let it happen again, usually gets the friendship back on track nicely. Being so embarrassed that you do a disappearing act? That will kill a friendship more quickly than whatever mistake you made.
- Being pushy, or overly indecisive, about plans. So, you're finally planning to share a smoothie with the woman from spin class, or a drink after work with a colleague, or a barbecue with that other family after your kids' swim team practice. But maybe you've squandered the plan by being too pushy—insisting it must be at this spot, or that you can't linger a moment later than a particular time. Friendships flourish when both parties make plans as easy and natural as possible. Setting up a bunch of rigid parameters will only make the other person wonder if you're worth the effort. And if you're on the opposite end of the spectrum—refusing to pick a restaurant, despite their asking thrice, or saying, "Whatever works for you" 17 times when they actually could use some guidance on logistics? That too may make them think that building a relationship with you requires too much effort.
- Trying too hard to impress. It's an understandable impulse—building a friendship is a lot like dating, after all, and the temptation to extol your own virtues or name-drop can be hard to resist. But nothing says "insecure" like your fourth mention of once having dated Matt Damon's third cousin. Bear in mind that research shows we tend to like people who can be self-deprecating and expose some of their vulnerabilities. Constantly inflating yourself could move you into competition mode, which is much more conducive to frenemies than to friendships.
- Breaking confidences. You might feel so honored to have been told something juicy by your new friend that you can't help but tip your hand to another friend about it. Or maybe you didn't really think the news was as sensitive as it was, and it didn't really dawn on you that you shouldn't share it. Either way, you're already putting cracks in the building blocks of trust and intimacy needed to form a genuine relationship, whether they find out about your loose lips or not.
- Gossiping too much. Some people think that any talk about other people is a bad thing. As someone who ponders human behavior for a living—and who has spent more time opining on celebrity break-ups than I care to admit—I find that unrealistic. Sometimes, discussion of others can serve as a sort of social glue to help build community, and it doesn't always have to be malevolent. But, of course, some gossip can be truly toxic. When you talk about others to make them look bad, directly or indirectly, it's only going to make your new friend wonder what you're saying about him or her when they're not around—and if they might be better off just backing away now.
- Missing cues. The very best friends are empathetic, responsive, and sensitive to their friends' needs. Not being able to take a hint that this week is a really bad time to meet; that a certain topic is uncomfortable to talk about; or that they don't quite share your renegade views about income tax, can turn you into a chafing presence, or even a steamrolling nightmare. Listen. Observe. Make eye contact. Notice body language. And respond accordingly. Sometimes, we're so caught up in what we want to say to a new friend that we forget that it all should depend on what we hear from them in the first place.
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Copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.
I am a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of the upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and The Friendship Fix, and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check.