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Friendship by the Book: An Interview with Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence

Published: February 25, 2013 | Last Updated: February 22, 2024 By | 11 Replies Continue Reading
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Friendfluence by Carlin Flora

Friendfluence by Carlin Flora

The new book Friendfluence: The Surprising Way Friends Make Us Who We Are (Doubleday, 2013) makes a seminal contribution to the literature on friendship. In this meticulously researched and eminently readable book, journalist Carlin Flora has mined the extant research on this complex topic and woven it together with real-life examples (both her own and others). In so doing, she helps explain how these relationships evolve and their impact on our day-to-day lives from childhood through adulthood.

Carlin was on the staff of Psychology Today for eight years and is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. I was so very pleased that my friend and colleague agreed to graciously share her thoughts on the book and some of the issues covered between the covers:

Irene: How would you define/explain friendfluence?

Carlin: I define friendfluence as “the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends–past and present–play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives.” Certainly many people and circumstances influence our development, but friends are strangely overlooked, considering the key role they play. Take a prominent person’s biography: It’s likely to focus on the subject’s parents, and then, later, on his or her spouse or professional mentors/colleagues. We don’t hear much about the friends who shaped that person’s viewpoints, interests, and values.

Irene: What motivated you to write a book about friendship?

Carlin: The experience I had long ago of moving from the South to the Midwest as a teenager made me keenly aware of the importance of friends. Right at that time when friends are most central to life, I lost all of mine and had to make new ones–a difficult yet ultimately rewarding episode. Then on a professional level, more and more studies about friendship from all corners of psychology starting crossing my desk where I worked at Psychology Today. There are some great self-help books about friendship (including yours, of course!) but I wanted to write a book for a general audience that put together a lot of the research on the topic from childhood through adulthood.

Irene: Are friendship skills learned or innate?

Carlin: Temperament is at least somewhat innate. Some children naturally move toward other children in a friendly way, others have an aggressive orientation toward other kids, and others are inhibited and “move away” from their peers. Those who aren’t naturally friendly, so to speak, are going to have a harder time making the friends that, then, teach them to be a good friend going forward. It’s a vicious cycle. Yet those who are motivated CAN learn the skills to make and be a friend. In my book, Carl Pickhardt advocates for teaching high school students friendship skills, for example. Why don’t we discuss with teenagers, in a structured way, how to navigate this relationship that will ultimately have such a big impact on their future happiness, health, and success? For inspiration, those struggling to make friends can look toward the many people with Asperger’s syndrome who have overcome innate disadvantages in the friend-making realm  (difficulty reading facial expressions, for example) and have successfully formed friendships.

Irene: What advice would you give to people who have trouble making friends?

Carlin: It’s useful to keep in mind what researcher John Cacioppo calls the loneliness paradox. The lonelier you are, the more cynical and suspicious of others’ motives you become. That makes you naturally less likely to pick up on friendly overtures. Just knowing that that bias exists might help you open up more and project a friendlier attitude. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that other people out there are lonely, too, and also want to make friends. Don’t be afraid to ask people out for coffee, just as you would if you were actively dating. Most people will be appreciative, even if it feels weird. Finally, the easiest way to make new friends is to think about your acquaintances and the friends of your friends. Who among those categories do you click with? You already have reasons to contact them and things to talk about, so they are the low hanging fruit of friendship formation, so to speak.

Irene: Were you surprised to find as much research as you did on friendship? Were there any gaps in the literature?

Carlin: On one hand, there is wonderful research on everything from social networks to health and friendship to the mechanisms of peer pressure. It would be impossible to cover all friendship research in one book. On the other hand, there is a lack of longitudinal studies on people and their specific friendships. It’s also too early to determine the impact of the Internet and social media on friendship, though preliminary research points to both pros and cons. It’s NOT the death of friendship….

Irene: What was the most surprising thing you learned in writing the book?

Carlin: Just how flexible friendship is–and how that’s what gives it its strength. There is value in attempting to define friendship and then comparing it to other relationships, such as romantic ones and familial ones (in addition to some researchers, philosophers from Aristotle to Montaigne to the contemporary writer Mark Vernon have all done that beautifully.) When you think about how we actually talk and think, you see how blurred the boundaries are: “My best friend is like a sister to me,” or “My sister is my best friend,” or, “My husband and I have a deep friendship.” What these statements add up to, in my opinion, is the sense that friendship has the potential to morph into whatever shape the two people involved in the friendship need it to take on. It can fulfill emotional and practical needs. It can ebb and flow over time, without the need for a formal re-categorization. For some, friendship is the only close relationship they need in life. In no way does that make them lacking in any kind of emotional or social connection–on the contrary they might even be healthier than those with other kinds of relationships.  For others, friendship can provide the sustenance and satisfaction that helps them successfully maintain the other relationships in their lives that are dear to them… It’s a fascinating bond.

I loved this book and think you will, too. Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are is available at brick-and-mortar bookstores and also on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, Kindle and audio editions.

“Friendship by the Book” is an occasional series of posts on The Friendship Blog about books that offer friendship lessons.

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Category: Books & movies about friendship, OTHER ADVICE

Comments (11)

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  1. Friendship Doc says:

    Congratulations to Sheryl Kraft, winner of Friendfluence! I think you will enjoy this wonderful book.

  2. Cathy says:

    The book looks great.

    The friend who has the most impact on me is a gal I met several years at my Bible study. I was having a very difficult time with several of my relationships (family and friends) and after the study she called me at home, and asked me privately what was wrong. We now pray for eachother and are only a phone call away.If she had not reached out, I would not have been able to talk about what was worrying me.

  3. MyKidsEatSquid says:

    I find the idea of the loneliness paradox so interesting–we do sometimes tend to think about what we’re thinking, what we might be feeling, not necessarily that the other person might be feeling lonely too

  4. merr says:

    What better person to conduct the interview, and an interesting interview at that.

  5. Sheryl says:

    Interesting interview, and it sounds like a very important book. My friendships mean the world to me. I am so blessed to have good friends who I can count on.

  6. Living Large says:

    Hmm. The friendship that has influenced me most in my life. I would have to say they’ve all played an important role in my life. Whether they have made me a better person (sometimes by *not* being a good friend) or made me see things in them I aspire to be. I have a friend who has been one for over 30 years and while our values have greatly diverged, she is still a powerful force in my life for the unconditional love she shows in our friendship.

  7. Alisa Bowman says:

    This sounds like such an interesting read, and I’m always happy to see good journos publish good books. Thanks for pointing it out.

  8. ruth pennebaker says:

    Thanks so much for writing about this book, which sounds excellent. I’m curious: With all this talk about BFF, is it weird not to have a best friend?

    • Irene says:

      Good question, Ruth. People have different needs when it comes to friends. Some people enjoy having just a few intimate relationships; others enjoy having many. Some people have one best friend, others have several, and others have none. The problem comes when you are unhappy with the friendships you have or the ones that you don’t have.:-)

  9. Lilly, my border collie, influenced me at a critical time in my life when nearly everyone I love has been sick and/or dying. Amid the worry and caretaking, Lilly remained at my side when so many others did not or could not. Now that she is 13 months into her own life / death struggle, I’m returning the favor the best I can.

  10. Amy says:

    Looks like an interesting book, I love research. I’m interested in the types of research used in the book. I hope to win a copy :).

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