Add as friend: social networking in real life

By Josh Roberts

A recent study by educational and behaviour experts in the US, published last week, has found that for over 80 percent of new university students “making and sustaining meaningful relationships” is their number one concern about starting university life. And while it’s certainly not prudent to believe everything that comes from across the pond (Lady Gaga’s claim that she can speak to the dead or Tom Cruise’s belief that the world was created by an alien called Xenu should, for example, be taken with a pinch of salt) it does seem that these pre-college, friendship-related nerves experienced by our transatlantic brethren are just as prevalent here.

This fact is quickly confirmed by a brief exploration of online discussion boards and threads: CrazyLaura_21 is “really worried about not making any friends!!” while a nervous @bieberluver wants to know, “Will I miss out on meeting people by being under 18?”. And “will people think I’m nerdy if I bring my Warhammer collection to Halls?” queries Satanlover666. It’s also apparent that this anxiety is by no means purely a Fresher’s concern.

Indeed, the threads are also littered with second and third year students looking to develop or ditch old friendships from last year or simply make more and better friends. This begs the age-old question of how people make friends. How can you market yourself so as to be more attractive to others? Once you’ve got a set of pals how do you keep them? What should you do if things turn sour or you get bored?

It might seem a little odd to approach friendships and socialising in a forensic manner, breaking down emotions to mechanical science, but if you are nervous or think yourself a potentially a bit awkward harnessing a few quite simple techniques might just double your Facebook friend count.

American psychologist and selfhelp guru Dale Carnegie is the undisputed champion of advice in this area. In his best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie outlines three facets of behaviour that people should adopt in their character in order to (yes, you guessed it) win friends and influence people.

Firstly, and he suggests most importantly, people should avoid “criticising, condemning, or complaining” when around potential pals. This can be interpreted in several different ways, but in a college environment it is perhaps wise to see this as being a generally happy person: smiling, being helpful and looking for the positive in things, Carnegie suggests, tends to win folk over.

For example, instead of “yeah, my course is OK but the lecture theatre smells like Kerry Katona’s armpit”, go for “yeah, my course is OK and the great thing is that because it smells of Kerry Katona’s armpit not many people go, so you can hear what the lecturer is saying”. Obese ex-Atomic Kitten singers’ armpits aside, it is important to remember that sycophancy or roaring with laughter every time your friend hints at a joke is likely to have the opposite effect – people like to have their egos massaged a little but overcook the “I’m really nice” pudding at your own peril.

Carnegie goes on to detail how you should give “honest and sincere appreciation” to potential friends which essentially amounts to being a good listener and a good encourager. Lending a listening ear to problem-stricken classor flat-mates is especially beneficial for developing friendships, according to relationship expert Dr Catherin Lawton: “people tend to gravitate towards those of their peers in whom they place greater trust… listening to a person’s problems and offering motivation in the face of them is one way to achieve this.”

But this advice comes with a warning. Yes, it’s true to say that listening and encouraging will get you into the fabled friend zone, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a good chance your position there might be irreversible. Research shows that shoulders to cry on rarely become anything more.

Secondly, “honest and sincere appreciation” of someone means not being a backstabber, not being nice to them in lectures only to slag them off to others over lunch in The Buttery or a hazelnut latte in Cafe Sol. According to Dr Lawton this type of “social dishonesty” is damaging in two ways. Not only does it mean that you are investing pointlessly in a relationship that you don’t find rewarding or enjoyable and are therefore “needlessly wasting social capacity” but it’s also likely to deplete the trust that others place in you.

The thinking in your audience is that if you are happy to spread malice about one person behind their back you could be doing it to them as well. Dr Lawton concludes that if you dislike someone or if they annoy you should move on. She says, “when a relationship goes south, is irreparably damaged or never got off the ground in the first place the best option may be to simply cut your losses and find a replacement.”

Carnegie’s third, and perhaps most cryptic, advice to people trying to form friendships is to attempt to “arouse in the other person an eager want.” This is open to wildly varying interpretation. Although I think we can be fairly sure that he’s not talking about arousing sexual desire in potential buddies. We’re not supposed to, in the words of DJ Jazzy Jeff, try to “get fresh and funky” with everyone we meet and want to befriend.

Instead the general wisdom is that you have to make someone actually want to be your friend, there has to be something in it for them. For example, if you’re good at maths someone might want to be friends with you because you can help them with their study, if you’re good at telling jokes someone might want to be friends with you because you make them laugh, if you’re ugly someone might want to be friends with you because you make them look hotter, and the list goes on. Everyone has some of these “selling points”, whatever they may be, which once identified and displayed correctly will attract others. So if you’ve got an insightful comment about the rugby slip it into conversation, if you know your way around a Texas Instruments TI83+ (it’s a calculator) let it be known or if you’ve got a cracking gag up your sleeve then don’t sit on it.

You do, it should be said, have to be careful when identifying your selling points. If you decide that you are the funniest man alive when in fact you’re about as funny as stage five melanoma you might look a bit of a plonker, and a mateless plonker at that. So there you have it. If you do want to make friends, and assuming that as a rule of thumb people do, you should aim to be smiley, helpful, complimentary, honest, a little bit cut-throat, talented in some respect and desirable. Or you could just try to be yourself which also, I am told, tends to work.