The Hard Facts: It’s Not What You Know

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“If you are a typical American, the probability that any two of your social contacts know each other is about 52 percent.” (Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler)

Quite often the first thing I do when meeting someone new is play the name game.

“You went to Skidmore? Do you know Emily?”

“Oh, you’re from Montclair, you must know my cousins.”

It’s an easy icebreaker, a way to get the conversation started.

It’s also sort of comforting. A quick way to vet someone—to assure yourself she isn’t a serial killer. This is even more helpful in romantic dating, as knowing someone in common can help confirm he’s not a creep before getting too heavily involved. But it holds true for friendship as well.

In fact, one of the most fascinating things about Facebook these days is when I make a new connection and can check out all our common “friends.” So often we’ll have a few mutual contacts, and they’ll be people who I never would have expected to see grouped together. It’s a fun reminder of how small the world is.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin talks about the psychological phenomenon of triadic closure. “People tend to befriend the friends of their friends,” she writes. “Friendships thrive on inter-connection, and it’s both energizing and comforting to feel that you’re building not just friendships, but a social network.”

This is why set-ups are such a good way to go about friend-dating, at least in the beginning. Instead of establishing a number of one-on-one relationships, you can insert yourself into a community.

But I have to say, throughout this year I have found a lot of satisfaction in relationships where we didn’t know anyone in common. Part of the reason for this BFF search was that I wanted to establish a life for myself in my new city. I knew a good number of people in Chicago prior to the quest, but I always felt like very few friends were really mine. Many of my social connections were through my cousins or through Matt, and I craved some pals who weren’t connected to those other parts of my life.

Once I made those friends—either through my online “want ad” or by signing up for various activities—not only did I feel more socially connected, I felt more at home in Chicago. Forming independent local bonds was exactly what I needed to stop feeling like a visitor in my new home.

Of course, it does get hard to keep up a handful of isolated friendships. It means separate friend-dates all the time, which can fill up a calendar but quick. My solution was to start introducing people. That way I could hang out with a bunch of my new friends at once.

Which, of course, brings us back to triadic closure and Christakis and Fowler’s 52%.

When it comes to meeting new people, which do you prefer? Do you tend to befriend your friends’ friends, or would you rather establish relationships all on your own?

5 Comments

Filed under The Search

5 responses to “The Hard Facts: It’s Not What You Know

  1. I definitely find it comforting to make friends with people I have someone in common with. Strangers kind of scare me.

  2. Elise

    I think the source of the friend matters less than the quality/type of the friend, though the two are often linked.

    When you join an existing group of friends through a common acquaintance, often you’re perceived (at least for a while) as “X’s friend” (vs. just another member of the group). It’s usually pretty hard to imagine yourself doing something one-on-one with another member of the group (without X, your common acquaintance). So you don’t really get the kind of “I can call you any time, even just to talk about Teen Mom” friendship that makes you really feel at home.

    But I think there are definitely exceptions to this rule, and they occur especially with mixed-gender groups. When I join a group of friends through a mutual guy friend, I can bond with a girl in the group and develop a good friendship without feeling like I’m “stealing” from the person who introduced me.

    In fact, when I was deciding where to move in January, the fact that I have a friend with an established group of friends in Chicago was one of the biggest factors that eventually had me apartment hunting in Lakeview last weekend!

  3. Just goes to prove that when it comes to social contacts, there are no six degrees of separation.

  4. I like befriending friends of friends, but I’ve found that when the friendship is broken, then I lose a whole bunch of friends instead of just one. So it’s a mixed bag for me.

  5. Pingback: The Hard Facts: The Role Genes Play in Friendship | MWF Seeking BFF

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