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  • Writer's pictureEmma Lawton

The recipe for friendships that last

How to optimise your events to help people forge strong friendships.

I’m Emma and I’m an acquaintanceoholic.

I don’t make a very good long-term friend. I’m not just being self-deprecating here, I'm genuinely not that good at it and I have a number of irate WhatsApp threads, long emails and blocked contacts to prove it. I’m (I think) a nice person, I’m very loyal, fun, will go to that very niche/a bit strange looking play/gig/exhibition If it’s important to you, I’m good at advice and knowing when you need it and I give brilliant, if not slightly tickly, hugs.

So why do I fill my life to the brim with new people and mainly focus on gathering more rather than maintaining those who are already in my life? I find it fascinating that my friendships fit very neatly into Dunbar’s Number theory until you get to the ‘Acquaintances’ level. Mine is not only quite bulbous, but I’m constantly on a mission to make it more so. Psychologist Robert Dunbar suggests humans can maintain about 150 stable relationships based on brain size and social groups. I think in a way I’m constantly trying to make my ‘very close friends’ and ‘close friends’ circles as full of wonderful people as possible, knowing that over time they will wane.

Robert Dunbar's number suggests humans can maintain about 150 stable social relationships based on brain size and social groups.

I collect interesting strangers and fast-track them into friends almost daily. Over the years many have moved up through the circles and others have spectacularly, snakes and ladders style, ended up on the outer circle or in the no-man's land beyond it. I put this down to our lives and priorities changing so much in our middle ages, marriage, children and moving out of the city made it a lot harder to maintain an active friendship and I guess, looking back on it now, perhaps neither of us fought for it enough.

It’s a proven and sad fact that our close friendships dwindle over the years. People form around 400 close connections in their life but generally only 1 out of 12 friendships are so close that they last a lifetime. [source]

I have a couple of hands full of close friends and one, and it sounds so twee when written by an adult, ‘best friend’, Sarah, who is my first thought when I have a +1 ticket, can calm me in under a minute and her whole existence in my life makes me happy. I lost her for a bit during the COVID lockdown when she experienced multiple bereavements and I became frozen with fear at saying the wrong thing, so said nothing. She became distant. I became devastated. Luckily we both wanted to get past it so we did and I’ll always be grateful that she understood my behaviour.

Sarah came into my life through a mutual friend. He invited me to give a talk about a blog I was starting where I would be trying something new every day. Sarah, a Psychologist who coached in meditation, was in the audience and offered me a Gong Bath session, something I agreed to and then heavily Googled when I got home. It was a fantastic experience and I bonded with Sarah really quickly, because she was lovely and interesting and the session involved me needing to switch my overthinking off, a vulnerable state for me that I felt safe she wouldn’t take advantage of. She joined me for a lot of the other activities during that blogging period because she was just so easygoing and fun to spend time with.

Examining this relationship, speaking to friends and family about their closest friendships and reading on the topic, I can see a set of common conditions for friendships to start, grow and stand the test of time:

  1. Shared Interests and Activities

  2. Trust, Reliability and Honesty

  3. Shared Life Experiences

  4. Communication

  5. Acceptance

  6. Positive Influence

  7. Adaptability

And some that can break them down:

  1. Shift in priorities

  2. Geographical separation

  3. Life events (marriage, starting a family, personal hardships)

  4. Values

  5. Interests

  6. Waning tolerance for toxic relationships

  7. Social media (no longer feeling the need to actually physically see each other)

So why am I telling you this?

At More Human, we believe that organizers of events or get-togethers have the power to harness some of these conditions to help people start and grow strong, high-quality friendships and help those who are lonely feel connected with just some minor tweaks and additions to their planned events.

👭 Shared Interests and Activities

This is probably a fairly obvious place to start, and the area with the most amount of opportunity for you to engineer conditions that build friendships. At More Human, we refer to these conditions as ‘Vertical Glue’ and ‘Horizontal Glue’ (terms we borrow unashamedly from community building genius Andy Pakula)

Vertical glue: things in common and shared interests This will be the reason people show up the first time so your event description is incredibly important. Adding in some text about why the event is appealing and describing who it’s for will help people know if it's for them and if people like them will be there. You’re essentially pre-qualifying a group of people as potential friends for each other.

We build events for our More Human members every day and know all the things to bake into the event description to help people know it’s a good match for them. You can sign up to become a member here.

💬 Communication

Some events just don’t lend themselves naturally to building friendships, for example, a theatre trip or dinner where people are stuck at particular tables. This is where the power of Horizontal Glue needs to come into play.

Horizontal glue: Bonding with other attendees

This is the reason people come back again and again and has a huge social impact beyond your group. We think of it sometimes as a wrapper you can put around activities that could very easily consist of your attendees sitting all facing in the same direction, not talking, and then going home!

So if we take our theatre trip example, organising for your group to meet somewhere unintimidating before heading into the auditorium is a great start. This often won’t be the foyer of the theatre as people will be flooding in and could be a slightly stressful experience trying to find their group. A nearby cafe, open space with benches if the weather’s ok or simply outside the venue will help your attendee's experience start on a calm, controlled way.

We then have an interval to play with, so gather everyone together for a drink and a chat about the performance. Often venues like this have a separate space they’d be happy for you to gather in so it’s worth asking. That way your group will be able to hear each other and any shy people will be more likely to join in. Some organisations have a community outreach program where you can go backstage and talk to the actors or dancers which would make a great shared experience. If you don’t ask, you don’t get!

It’s always important to remember that different people like to participate in different ways so reassure people it’s okay to just listen or watch. I’d be willing to bet you that after a few events, they’ll start to come out of their shell.

🎫 Shared life experiences

Jeffrey Hall, a Researcher from the University of Kansas studied the time necessary to bring a new person into your closer friendship circles. Hall found it took between 40 and 60 hours to move from an acquaintance to a casual friend, from 80 to 100 hours to call someone a friend, and over 200 hours of togetherness before someone becomes a ‘best friend.’ [source]

At More Human, we always suggest creating repeatable get-togethers for several reasons. The most important being it’s easier for people to get to know each other when they’re meeting regularly. If you’re doing the same event each time that makes it easier but regular attendance to different events by the same people can be achieved very early on by making them feel like a community that does lots of different things together. So, for example, naming a particular group from your community the ‘The Adventurers’ will make them more likely to accept your invite if they know the other Adventurers are going. You can always use the name creation as a great bonding exercise too.

❤ Acceptance and empathy

If a new attendee sees others being empathetic they will feel more obliged and happy to return it. Try to bake an element of your attendees sharing what they’ve done, and what’s been hard and easy about their week into your event. Make sure everyone knows that stories told don’t leave the group. The closeness that comes from breaking down walls and being vulnerable in front of new people is difficult but rewarding when you feel supported.

👍🏼 Positive Influence

By finding out more about a new attendee before they arrive you can then match them with group veteran buddies who embody things your newbie would like to be or achieve. Make sure the buddy is open to forming new friendships, not simply providing a service for your group.

So there you have it. Just by tweaking your events slightly, you can make even more of an impact than you already are. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our knowledge and experience, something our members find elevates both their events and their impact. Sign up to be a member and you’ll reap the rewards of what’s in our brains as well as countless other benefits.

A YouGov study revealed that 26% of Britons have friends they’ve never met in person. Let's get people out and making high-quality, long-lasting friends in real life. You really do have that power.


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