Lucia in Laos
Lucia to the test
Thousands of new students are flooding Groningen. Almost all of them are looking for new friends. But who is right for you? Can you make yourself more likeable? And if so, how?
By Christien Boomsma
One thing is clear: friendships are really, really important. Why? Because back when we were still hunting and gathering, we learned that being alone, makes you vulnerable. Whether it’s from the attack of a passing smilodon, or the simple fact that no one will look out for you when you’re ill, or because it’s hard to mate when you’re alone. . So we developed extremely good social skills to make sure situations like that never happen. At the same time, we got extremely sensitive to signs of rejection.
These instincts are so strong, that feeling lonely can literally make us sick, explains psychologist Simon Dalley from the RUG. ‘Loneliness and isolation have effects on mortality that is comparable to that of obesity, or even cigarettes.’
So yes, if you’re one of those students that left home and friends to live in a new city, you should find new people to be around. The good news? This is the best time to do it. ‘Going to university offers challenges and opportunities’, Dalley says. ‘We may lose friends, but also get new ones.
Everybody around you has the same needs and insecurities. And your fellow students are usually very open to the idea of becoming friends. ‘Our social networks can peak during our time at university’, Dalley says. ‘We’re experimenting with our social relations and that means we allow a lot of people in.’
I’m a new student in Groningen and ready to find new friends. But how do I do that? What makes people become friends in the first place?
It may seem obvious, but… You’ll have to be physically close to become friends. The internet just doesn’t work as well. Also, if you meet someone new and you expect to see him more often, you are likely to like that person better. ‘Because you just know you’ve got to get on with them’, says Dalley. So look around in class – you’ll be stuck with these people for some time -, your student house – same thing – or student association. They’re all full of people who are a little predisposed to like you.
Of course you can’t be friends with everyone. You not only have to pick and choose, but also have to be picked and be chosen. That’s where social skills come in. ‘You need to know how to initiate a conversation’, says Dalley, ‘make small talk, eye contact – just enough, not too much – and be responsive.’ The other person has to have the impression that you are actively listening. So you nod, respond, ask questions.
Lastly, friendship is two people. So who is right for you? Even though friendship is ‘strangely underresearched’ as Dalley says, one thing is clear as day. ‘We need the other person to be similar to us in some way.’ Conversations run smoother, there are less awkward silences and just more enjoyable. ‘The more similar you are in values and attitudes, the more likely it is that a friendship is going to develop.’
So, I’ve had some nice conversations with a fellow student in class. But that’s a far cry from a real and lasting friendship. How do these famous friendships for life develop that everyone is talking about?
The secret to real connection? Self-disclosure, says Dalley. ‘That’s when you’re sharing something about yourself with this other person.’ The more mutual self-disclosure in a developing friendship, the more satisfying that relationship is.
However, that doesn’t mean you should jump at everyone you like and throw your darkest secrets at them. If you go too fast, it makes people uncomfortable and that is something you don’t want. ‘Selfdisclosure is superficial at first, but as the friendships develops, it gets more broader and deeper. And that promotes emotional closeness or intimacy.’
Think of these bits of selfdisclosure as a flashing sign saying: I trust you and I like you. ‘But it has to be reciprocal’, says Dalley. ‘If the other person doesn’t disclose back, it may be a signal that the other person doesn’t want to become any closer.’
Right. But. Some people have to work hard at making friends, while others seem to attract just about anyone. What makes them so much more likeable?
Well, first there’s physical attractiveness. ‘When you’re goodlooking, people just assume you’re a nice person’, Dalley explains.
Being an extravert gives you a headstart too. Not because extraverted people are nicer than others. They just seem to be. ‘They tend to dress well, smile a lot and express more positivity. That attracts people’, Dalley explains. ‘They’re funny, interested in others, responsive and give other people the opportunity to disclose.’
Shyness on the other hand, tend to make negative impressions on others, because shy behaviour – avoiding others, not engaging because you’re afraid of negative responses – is easily misinterpreted. ‘You could say shy people are not disclosing enough’, says Dalley. And so people interpret them as aloof and disinterested. They feel like they’re being rejected and we’re extremely sensitive to that.’
But I’m just not good at starting a conversation with someone I don’t know. And if I try, it’s akwardness all around. Can I change who I am? Am I just doomed to be alone forever?
Of course not! Remember those social skills? Even super likeable people picked them up somewhere along the road. ‘And the more you use them, the better you get at them’, Dalley says. But you can too!
Take a good look at people who seem to be really at ease around others. ‘Observe what tricks they use to open conversations and break down social barriers’, Dalley advises, ‘copy and practice. It’s a skill you have to learn.’
That also means you have to get out there. Look for social activities that reflect the real authentic you – faking never works – and get close to your possible new best friend. If you’re scared to talk, try to think of a script. Even if that sounds a little bit desperate, it can help you not to freeze or be stumped by the situation. ‘Look at the newspaper, prepare a plan to engage.’
But what if they still don’t like me?
Don’t jump to conclusions. People tend to believe that they know what other people precisely thinking from their expression, or tone of voice. ‘But research shows that we are not good at that at all.’
So rather than being tortured by negative thoughts, engage with the other person and see if there are any issues. It’s ofthen not that bad.
Give others their space. Don’t try to get them to be interested in you, but show that you are interested in them. ‘Get them to talk about themselves’, Dalley advises. ‘People love that! That way you get them to selfdisclose.’
Compliment them – not excessively, because you don’t want to be sucking up – and stress your similarities. ‘You can ask them things like: “Where are you from?” and go: “Oh, I know it there. That’s a nice city.” Then they’ll like you and hopefully open up a bit.’
And even if you’re right and this other person has his doubts, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. ‘A lot of close friends didn’t like each other at first, until they started to mutually selfdisclose and found they had more in common than they realized.’