“Remember to make eye contact, smile and ask about their kids.”
This is more than an etiquette lesson. It’s an ice breaker that’s part of a script written for parents who have lost the ability to conduct an everyday conversation.
The script — written by UCLA psychologists and regularly updated at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA — is one answer to a cry for help from Americans who have forgotten how to make friends.
Such prompts have become critical. The pandemic has led to an increase in remote work, limiting our interactions with co-workers. Race relations and social justice movements have resulted in a reexamination of our beliefs and behaviors. And technology is changing the ways in which we interact. All of these factors are stress-testing relationships that we might have taken for granted. As a result, we’re rethinking the art of making friends and the craft of friendship maintenance.
Research and solutions
Challenges to friendship are as old as friendship itself, as the bonds that connect us to one another have weathered wars, migrations and new technologies. For its part, UCLA has been asking about friendship, and the terrible cost of neglecting such bonds, for decades. And that was before new technology upended ancient understandings of what friendship is, what we expect from friends of various degrees and how it all works.
Such research cuts across all UCLA disciplines, from psychology to neuroscience. In 1978, researchers created the influential UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 20-question survey that measures the level of connectedness people are capable of feeling toward others. Respondents are asked to rank statements such as “I lack companionship” on a scale of 1 (never) to 4 (often). A low score indicates an outgoing, extroverted personality; a high one might point to extreme loneliness. Most of us fall somewhere in between. The Loneliness Scale has been widely accepted by the scientific community and is commonly used around the world.
Since then, UCLA scholars have also looked at how friends think alike, how mobile phones have eroded our ability to read social cues and how the internet will ultimately affect friendships — leading either to their erosion or their renaissance.
Micro-friends, old friends and everything in between
The classic rules of friendship — part of what Aristotle called philia — lay down criteria for what makes a friend: lifelong care, constant sympathy and positive action. To some, it may sound exhausting, but others may find it exhilarating.
And modern technologies, such as the explosion of Zoom videoconferences amid the pandemic, have created unexpected claims on intimacy. For example, some might be contacted by old buddies who have used their downtime to reach out from the past. But how can we tell if they are still “friends”?
That’s a relatively simple question, says Vickie Mays M.S. ’98, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College. If the conversations take off naturally from where you were years ago, then the relationship has just been sleeping. But if you run out of conversation, or the old pal feels a little stalkerish, then it’s dead. Be honest, but step away.
Some modern friendships are more fleeting by nature, Mays says. You may forge an instant bond at a work conference or open up to a stranger on a long-distance flight. But at the end of the event, you may realize those hours of “micro-friendship” were all that you both needed.
Not everyone enjoys such intimacies. In fact, many of us feel isolated, which can affect our well-being. Based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a 2018 Cigna-Ipsos survey of 20,000 U.S. adults found that nearly half of the participants sometimes or always feel alone. Most notably, the youngest generation of adults had the highest loneliness score.
Today, technologies are blamed for an increasing sense of isolation, even if we appear to be more connected than ever.
Different generations, different styles of friendships
We have different kinds of friends at different times of our lives. For example, during college, we often build close relationships with classmates, roommates and co-workers. And these friendships can be the most enduring ones.
However, as millennials — those ages 24 to 39 — finish school and become more involved with work or family, it’s common to lose touch with friends. “They might smile when you call but take longer every time to return your call,” one UCLA graduate says. In fact, a 2019 YouGov survey reported that 22% of millennials — or about 16 million Americans — felt they had no friends.
Members of Generation Z — ages 23 and younger — navigate relationships with real, transactional and toxic chums; frenemies; and carefully curated circles of mutual regard. Although they might talk endlessly about friendships online, they’re no closer than any other generation to defining exactly what friendship is.
There is hope, though: The YouGov survey found that only 10% of baby boomers — or about 7 million Americans ages 56 to 74 — always or often felt lonely.
How science helps kids make friends
One thing has not changed: Friendship requires empathy, a skill explored and enhanced at the UCLA Parenting and Children’s Friendship Program, part of the Semel Institute.
For more than 30 years, the program has helped children make friends, assisting isolated children and kids who tend to be bossy or shy. The friendship program teaches children several skills, such as learning how to make a good first impression, handling rejection and showing respect.
One core exercise is the detective game, in which children are asked to find out three things about another child, then another three and so on. This “perspective-taking” generates a lasting curiosity about others, which is fundamental to making friends, says Shilpa Baweja Ph.D. ’15, co-director of the program.
There are also classes for stressed-out parents. “You have seen parents at a school game staring down at their phones rather than talking to each other. They have forgotten how to engage with other parents,” Baweja says. “So we have written scripts for them filled with basic interactions: ‘Hello, I am Jenny’s parent. I think she is in the same class as yours.’ These scripts work, and they’ve been picked up in the community beyond our program. It seems like such a natural skill, but somewhere along the way, many people have forgotten small talk.”
She adds: “We also encourage parents to be more diverse when organizing playdates. Some anxiously pull back if someone might not share their values. This raises the question: Must my potential friends be like me? And if they’re not, is that enough to exclude them as friends?”
Learning social shorthand
One of the biggest divides in contemporary America is race. According to a Reuters poll, about 40% of white Americans have only white friends. In contrast, 9 out of 10 Hispanics have friends of different races. Some could argue that America isn’t a melting pot, but instead a mosaic of separated communities.
Insular upbringings prevent us from learning the same shorthand — like jokes and pop culture references — that can link us together, Mays says. Racial differences do not, of course, preclude friendship. But race implies a shared cultural experience within groups, and the current conversations around race remind us that differences in experience also bring differences in perspective and expectation. But how do we transcend those?
It helps to be open to opportunities. “If you find someone with whom you share an interest — maybe music — then enjoy that. But do not expect too much too quickly,” Mays says. “Sometimes you could find yourself sharing more as time goes on, and connections may grow, but you cannot force it. And it all depends on how you define friendship.”
Finding a common cause — a dominant theme in the Black Lives Matter protests — can bring people of different backgrounds together. It can feel awkward for some to form alliances among diverse groups of people, but that effort can result in real friendships.
How technology changed everything
When the Apple iPhone arrived in 2007, all the classic rules of friendship were turned upside down. Just seven years later, Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College, led a study that found kids who spent hours looking at electronic devices lost some of their ability to read social cues, which are key to any relationship.
Today, technologies are blamed for an increasing sense of isolation, even if we appear to be more connected than ever. The problem is the poor quality of online relationships, says Michael Suman M.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’92, a lecturer for the communication studies department in the UCLA College.
“We can get to know people on social media without the effort of really getting to know them,” he warns. “Friendship is respect, honesty and social support. Online friendships may be shallow, lacking those small signals that in real life enrich the experience.”
Suman says those who self-monitor, seeing how they are being received online, may have more “friends,” but those may be empty calories; individuals who commit to smaller circles may find them more stable.
His research reflects Dunbar’s number — British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that we can only sustain meaningful connections with 150 people in our life. But we devote about two-thirds of our social time to just 15. “And those people are more important for our mental health and happiness than a million [social media] likes,” Suman says.
His observations align with those of Daniel M.T. Fessler, a UCLA anthropology professor who believes the idea of friendship is at a crossroads. “Friendship is an extended form of altruism, where we do things for other people without expecting an immediate reward,” he says. “We do not carry a spreadsheet of obligations with friends, although some might at work. This is where ‘friendly’ may mean allied interests, but not necessarily ‘friends.’ It’s easy to confuse.”
He adds: “A rich social life is good for you. Someone who has a lot of friends does not have to be as vigilant and biologically primed for threat as those who have outsourced such functions to a circle of good online ‘friends.’” Fessler is wary of online relationships, where a “quick hit” friendship enhances a mood in the same way junk food does. And, like pornography, it can erode satisfaction with real-life encounters.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we shall navigate this learning curve,” Fessler says. “Our species has proven itself to be very flexible. We shall discover benefits from exploring relationships online. Technology is bimodal — good and bad.”
Distance can bring us closer
Before the internet, there were pen pals who stayed close by writing letters — think of mail as the “slow-net.” For example, Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a feud about the shape and future of the country, but after they left office, they kept in touch by writing letters. Free of ambitions and everyday irritations, they became close confidants.
Today, with technological advancements, people can maintain friendships around the world, relying less on the need for physical proximity. Some of these connections are driven by shared interests or passions, such as discussing TV shows, music or sports.
Sean Metzger, vice chair of undergraduate studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, witnesses digital natives easily making friends online. “It surprised me at our Zoom town halls how quickly people felt a real connection with others, even among 300 people. It was very positive. Yet we are only starting to learn about how digital relationships work.”
Metzger worries that people who engage with a limited range of websites will miss the random connections that are possible in real life. “Such encounters can teach us more than staying in our own bubbles,” he says. “We benefit by reaching out beyond our comfort zones.”
A friendship measurement
Going outside our comfort zones, however, conflicts with another common aspect of friendship: shared values. In 2018, a team led by Carolyn Parkinson, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College, published research suggesting that friends — defined as people who share some type of social network — actually share brain wave patterns. People in the study were shown video clips of a gay wedding, a washcloth being wrung out in space, baby sloths and a soccer match. MRI scans showed that people who identified as friends responded to the stimuli in a strikingly similar way.
According to the research, “neural similarity was associated with a dramatically increased likelihood of friendship. These results suggest we are exceptionally similar to our friends in how we respond to the world around us.” So, yes, birds of a feather do flock together.
But the scans didn’t resolve some key questions: Do acquaintances become friends because they see the world as we do? Or is that bonding moment something more mysterious? Do we eventually learn to see the world through the eyes of our companions?
Are we overthinking this?
As new technologies and shifting social attitudes continually rewrite the rules, friendship has become more complex, with more moving parts. And yet, friendships don’t have to be so self-consciously complicated, believes J. W. Freiberg M.A. ’69, Ph.D. ’71, a social psychologist turned attorney whose book Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone explores loneliness and failed relationships.
Freiberg says the brain can calm emotions such as anger, but it can’t soothe the brutal sensation of loneliness. To improve health and happiness, it’s important to build strong social networks. “Friendship anchors us in communities and stops us from getting lost at sea,” the 76-year-old author says. “And sometimes they just work, without work.”
Freiberg adds: “One of my best friends of over 35 years has just passed. We never talked about anything heavy, just golf handicaps and stuff. But we knew we were there for each other. We could sit on the porch for 20 minutes without talking. Maybe that’s a real sign of friendship. Let’s call it the silence test — when no more words are necessary.”