• Making Friends

The Basics of Starting a Friendship: Step One

Published: May 29, 2013 | Last Updated: May 12, 2024 By | 16 Replies Continue Reading
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All Smiles:The Organizers of Nametag Day in NYC

All Smiles:The Organizers of Nametag Day in NYC

Here are a few random tips for starting a friendship from the very, very beginning.

Although I’ve read a great deal about friendship, I have never found any precise scientific explanation of how and when friendships start.

When I surveyed women for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, and asked them about their closest friendships, respondents used the same phrase over and over to describe what happened. We just clicked, they said. But long before that, people have to meet. This is when making eye contact, smiling, saying hello, and acknowledging someone else, by name, come into play–simple but crucial first steps in making friends.

A few recent pieces in the press have focused on the issue of starting a friendship:

Eye contact

Sue Shellenberger wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the importance of eye contact in workplace communication. I suspect much of what Shellenberger found in the literature may also apply to social relationships outside of the office. She says that the ideal eye gaze is between 7-10 seconds. If you gaze too much longer than that, people may feel as if you are staring at them. If the gaze is much shorter, the other individual may get the sense you are anxious and uncomfortable. For those of us who are short, long or non-gazers, we may want to double-check how we appear by watch ourselves on video, she suggests.

Saying hello

Another article in the New York Times by Philip Galanes addressed the issue of whether it is obligatory to say hello to people you pass on the street, whom you may have known from school or the neighborhood, for example, but with whom you now have no real social connection. In the course of Galanes’ response to a reader, he wrote: It’s always nice to smile and be polite. After all, unless this is a friendship you actively want to discourage, I say, why not say hello?

Acknowledging someone by name

A grassroots group has designated June 1 as Nametag Day in New York City. The group plans to hand out between 20,000-30,000 nametags to random strangers, empowering them to get to know each other by name. In an article I recently wrote for the NBC Universal website, Life Goes Strong about Nametag Day, I mention that women for centuries have used an eye-catching piece of jewelry to stimulate conversation and interaction. Nametags sound like a great idea, too, if they make it more comfortable to approach people.

I thought you might like to see the You Tube Video describing the group’s hopes for Nametag Day:


What are some of the effective ways that you have found to connect with strangers and turn them into friends?

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Category: How to make friends, MAKING FRIENDS, Shyness and introversion

Comments (16)

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  1. Lotfi says:

    One of the most famous quotes about friendship is from Elbert Hubbard, who said “In order to have friends, you must first be one.”

  2. Sparky says:

    Hi all, I thought this was really appropriate to post, it touched my heart and my eyes filled with tears. It kind of sounds like us.


    A farmer had some puppies he needed to sell. He painted a sign advertising the 4 pups and set about nailing it to a post on the edge of his yard. As he was driving the last nail into the post, he felt a tug on his overalls.

    He looked down into the eyes of a little boy.

    “Mister,” he said, “I want to buy one of your puppies.”

    “Well,” said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck, “These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money.”

    The boy dropped his head for moment.Then reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change and held it up to the farmer.

    “I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?”

    “Sure,” said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle. “Here, Dolly!” he called.

    Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly followed by four little balls of fur.

    The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence. His eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way to the fence, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse.

    Slowly another little ball appeared, this one noticeably smaller. Down the ramp it slid.Then in a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up…

    “I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt. The farmer knelt down at the boy’s side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.”

    With that, the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. In doing so, he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe.

    Looking back up at the farmer, he said, “You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.”

    With tears in his eyes, the farmer reached down and picked up the little pup.

    Holding it carefully, he handed it to the little boy.

    “How much?” asked the little boy… “No charge,” answered the farmer, “There’s no charge for love.”

  3. Cynthia Anne says:

    I like it when friendships occur naturally and “ripen” over time. While I enjoy many work colleagues as well as my neighbors, I believe you cannot become close to a person overnight. It takes time to get to know someone on a deep, intimate level. Shared experiences and shared values are very important — and you have to spend a fair amount of time — months or years — building trust and true companionship.

    Book groups, neighborhood gatherings, and other group outings are a great place to start, for me. I also meet friends through my work — but I am also careful about preserving professional relationships and maintaining boundaries when called for. I prefer to keep some work friendships on a friendly but strictly professional basis — though I have become close friends with a couple of people I used to work with.

    What bothers me, these days, is how quick people are to call someone a “close friend” — especially when they’ve never met in person or communicate mostly online. Social media tends to make “friendships” happen overnight, which feels a tad superficial to me. For that reason, I limit my time online and make a point of getting out and meeting my longtime (real) friends face to face.

  4. Jane Boursaw says:

    I love the idea of Nametag Day. It seems to get more challenging to make new friends as we get older. More stuff takes up our time, and it’s important to carve out time to nurture both new and old friendships.

  5. Denise says:

    I almost always do these things, but never get a momentum going. Everyone, really everyone, I meet I’ve never had enough in common with to be friends. It just never gets beyond a certain point. I’ve decided not to worry about it because it can get depressing. I’ll find a friend when I meet someone with enough common interests.

  6. Melanie says:

    Great tips. I’m an introvert, so talking to random strangers doens’t come naturally to me. Doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be more comfortable with it though!

  7. ruth pennebaker says:

    As a Southern female, I spend my life doing this. I think it was taught in kindergarten.

  8. Christine says:

    This is all so interesting! We’ve moved a lot over the last 10 years so I’ve had plenty of practice at making new friends – but never realized the components (all of which you listed above) that I now realize were at play while forming those friendships.

  9. Roxanne says:

    Since I’m such a dog lover, I often can engage people by asking about a pet they have with them on the street (or wherever). I believe there is research about people believing that people with dogs are more friendly / more approachable. People talk to me MUCH more when I’m in public with one of my dogs.

  10. Alexandra says:

    This is such an interesting post! I do the compliment thing to some extent. I was burned in the past with a best friend, so am extra cautious in making new ones. Also, as one ages, these opportunities are fewer and far between. Another suggestion would be meeting as volunteers for the same cause and striking up a conversation.

  11. Sheryl says:

    I find that eye contact and a smile breaks through all but the most resistant people. But I will agree that there are some instantaneous friendships that are tough to pinpoint the exact reason for. When those happen it’s a
    wonderful thing!

  12. Zoe says:

    Sorry to go in an opposite direction..but I worked with a very sweet young girl, after college she moved back to our small town and was having a hard time making local friends…over lunch one day she asked why a felt these other young women didn’t include her in after work social activites…
    I assured her they liked her, which I completely believed they did..but she had a habit of when she was in a group conversation- and one of the lady was updating us on her sick grandmother’s condition, she would interupt to tell about another old woman who had a similiar ailment. Or if one of the girls was having boyfriend problems, she would start a story about a past room mate with a similiar boyfriend problem…
    I tried to acknowledge to her that I recognized these as attempts to show she related to the topic. I tried to tell her, the girl did not want to talk about sick grandmothers, she wanted to share about HER sick grandmother…or HER bad boyfriend..I told her to relate better start asking questions, seem interested in their particular situation…
    this very private conversation we had, made me try to recognize when I might do the same thing..being a mom and married for 20 years, it is easy to start a story about when I was engaged or pregnant..which is ok, if you go back what the original person was sharing.
    We had another much older co-worker who felt like 40 when she was 65..she told me one day, to stay young you must stay current..young people are interested intoday…try to talk about what is happening right now in your life..I learned so much from working with a large age span of ladies.

  13. Amy says:

    People love to talk about themselves and their kids. Asking open ended questions is a great way to start or keep a conversation going. Ask to see pictures too.
    Smile, even if you’re feeling uncomfortable so you’ll present yourself as happy and approachable.
    Use open body language, a nod of the head, leaning slightly inward says that you’re paying attention. Crossing your arms or putting your hands on your hips can unintentionally show displeasure or lack of openness.
    Mirror back what the other person is saying. For example if a person is talking about a car accident, say something like, “That had to be so scary.” Or “I was in an accident two years ago and I know how slow insurance can be.”
    When I was in my early 20s, living in a new town in my first career oriented job, I was quite shy. I noticed that my coworkers talked a lot about our city’s pro sports teams so during the lonely weekends, I began watching sports. On Mondays I could ask my coworkers if they watched the baseball game or if they saw the last minute touchdown to save the game. Turns out I learned to love sports and I was never without an icebreaker since.
    Avoid controversial topics like politics and religion unless you’re specifically screening out people of certain beliefs. The last thing I want to do is invest my energy in someone who is anti-gay, so I try to prescreen out folks, but I prefer to keep a smaller, more homogeneous circle of people who share my values.

    In my opinion, screening out potential friends is equally if not more important. Going slow with new relationships helps with this, as well as listening to your inner voice. I shy away from people with a history of unstable relationships, people with poor communication skills, people who jump to conclusions, people who thrive on drama, and overly sensitive folks because I don’t want to have to walk on eggshells.
    Quality friendships are more important to me than space-fillers for loneliness or boredom.

  14. Zoe says:

    I have always found that complimenting another lady on something she is wearing starts a conversation…This works for me, I like fashion in general..so if a lady has something super cute on- she tends to like to talk about shopping or where she found whatever…at worst you find out about small lil’ cute shops or great sales-It is a win-win siuation!!

    • Friendship Doc says:

      Yes, compliments are great conversation-starters because they put people at ease.
      Best, Irene

    • Aron Alakangas says:

      Compliments are great! Just make sure they are honest and not just plain flatter. Don’t just say something you think he or she wants to hear, make an effort finding something you admire about that person.

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