By Laurie Santos
Have you ever been to a packed house party - surrounded by people - but found yourself feeling totally alone?
I’ve certainly been in social situations where, rather than engaging with new people, I’ve wound up checking my phone or petting the host’s cat.
I certainly don’t plan to attend events with the intention of shunning human interaction… but it often ends up that way anyway.
It turns out I’m opting for what the psychologist and friendship expert Marisa Franco calls “covert avoidance”.
“We show up at the event, but when we do, we don't engage with people,” says Marisa. “We need to show up. And then when we get there, we need to start introducing ourselves saying 'hello'.”
People with large numbers of friends – both intimate confidants and breezy casual acquaintances – tend to be happier. (See my previous article on loneliness.)
But making new friends – particularly in adulthood – is tough. And sometimes we make it harder for ourselves. We let our insecurities and inaccurate assumptions get in the way.
The first of such assumptions is that friendships “just happen”. We might recall how easily we met new people in school, or college, or when we joined the service. In situations like those, it feels easy to meet new people and bond with them.
Marisa says memories like these cause us to take a passive approach.
“People say to me: 'I want it to happen organically. I want friends to fall into my life.' A study found that people who thought friendship was based on luck were actually lonelier years later. Whereas those people that saw it as happening based on effort were less likely to be lonely years later. So it really takes intentionality to go out there and make friends.”
Which brings us to “covert avoidance”. Why would I go to a party and NOT talk to new people?
One worry is that the people at the party just won’t like me. I talked about our overblown fears of rejection in an article a few weeks ago, but this week I want to look more deeply at a cognitive bias called “The Liking Gap”.
In one study, participants were asked to estimate how much a new conversation partner would like them. After a real chat, that conversation partner was asked for their actual impressions of the person they had just met. They were more positive than predicted.
“People underestimated the degree to which the person they interacted with liked them. This research really suggests that people like us more than we think they do.”
The research also found that participants were super critical of themselves – thinking that their jokes should have been funnier and anecdotes more interesting. Their conversation partners were again much more generous than they assumed.
Participants also overestimated how nervous and awkward they appeared. The study showed that our conversation partners actually notice our nerves far less than we might fear.
Marisa thinks this is all great news for those of us who are hesitant to strike up party conversation.
“One of my biggest pieces of advice to get people into the mindset to make friends is start assuming that people like you.”
Despite being a friendship expert, Marisa sometimes fall prey to the same cognitive biases as the rest of us.
“I remind myself: 'People are going to accept me.' That's my new internal dialogue.”
We should all enter into a conversation with that same confidence. Often our internal dialogue tells us to be cautious and guarded – we don’t want to put too much of our true selves on show, in case we get shot down.
“We might do things to protect ourselves from rejection, like not seeming too interested, not seeming too enthusiastic. And in fact, the other person is afraid of rejection, too. So when we do those behaviors, the other person is like: ‘Oh, that person is rejecting me!’”
Not all conversations go smoothly, of course - new conversations can dry up or reach a dead end faster than you’d hoped. Marisa warns that these perfectly natural lulls are part of the normal rhythm of conversation and are no reason to panic and conclude that the other person is rejecting us.
“When the conversation gets quiet, we'll start disengaging and playing on our phones. These behaviors are also for self-protection, but it turns out that when we're engaging in these behaviors we make rejection more likely.”
Marisa also notes that you don’t have to be a comic genius or expert on science, finance or world affairs to be a good conversation partner. The key is just to show interest in the other person.
“Ultimately when it comes to making friends, we think the people that are good at making friends are really cool or really smart or really accomplished,” says Marisa.
“But in fact, what I find from the research. Is that the people that are really good at making friends are really good at making other people feel like they matter. They're good at affirming other people.”
Stay well and stay happy...