The Hard Facts: The Capacity for Friendship

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

“Here’s what the capacity for friendship looks like in action: asking about others, making someone feel welcome, making suggestions for joint activities, sharing (but not dumping) information about oneself. … Perhaps the strongest signal of problems in the friendship realm is the existence of cutoffs. A string of ex-friendships is a sign of rigidity, indicator of an inability to tolerate conflict or stress in relationships or work out their complexities.” (“Clues to Charater,” Psychology Today, June 2011)

The cover story of this month’s Psychology Today is this article about how you can tell who a person will become. Certain traits, like a capacity for friendship, are apparently pretty stable over time. Someone who is good at making friends as a mini-person (that’s my word for, you know, the 3-year-olds) will probably have a good batch of pals as an adult.

There are also specific clues that can tell you upon meeting a person if she has a good capacity for friendship. None of the characteristics above—asking someone how they’re doing, making a person feel included—are all that unexpected. They seem like pretty obvious indicators. And yet, oftentimes when we meet someone and notice these behaviors, we make excuses for them. We figure she must be having a bad day or going through a hard time.

I get it. It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt. But now I’m telling you—or, actually, psychologists are telling you—that this is not a trait that will change. If someone doesn’t have the capacity for friendship on the day you meet her, she probably won’t have it ever. I’m sure there are exceptions, but let’s just accept this as a rule of thumb, okay?

Similarly, if a potential BFF has a string of broken friendships, trust this red flag. If she starts telling you why all her other friendships went wrong and explains that she’s always in the right but everyone around her ‘just doesn’t get it’… run for the hills. This is the first stop on the way to crazytown. You might very well end up uttering the words, “it’s not me, it’s you.”

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Psychology Today isn’t telling you anything you don’t know. If someone acts like a friend, they’ll probably make a good one. If someone reveals they have a string of ex-friends, you might fall into that category one day, too.

Why do you think we give potential friends a chance when they don’t show the “capacity for friendship” that Psychology Today describes? Are we wired to give people second chances? Or is that just called having an open mind?


Filed under The Search

8 responses to “The Hard Facts: The Capacity for Friendship

  1. my kids mom

    What if one recognizes this behavior in themselves and wants to change? Can a person develop the capacity for friendship when earlier in their life they did not possess it?

    • Ana

      I agree with you, this kind of bothered me…you can see how it could clearly become a self-fulfilling prophecy (if everyone avoids those that don’t immediately display “friendly” behavior, it follows that they will never make friends or get the opportunity to learn about how true friends behave). While I agree that there may be some innate personality traits that determine social interactions (I think you can tell at the playground who is going to be the popular girl in high school and who will be the slightly awkward one), I think other aspects of social behavior are learned and enhanced through our upbringing and experiences. And that we can consciously work on being a good friend by being more mindful of our behavior.

    • Julia

      I’m so with you on that. If somebody has changed and that was the reason for the end, then why not let it be? Sometimes crazy things happen in life.

      Or how about if their friends were doing drugs? I think that’s a GREAT reason to do a mass-dump of friends.

      But I do agree with Rachel, if your potential new friend is full of excuses . . . dude, who wants all that drama? Way too much work, and not that much fun, unless that person is a potential gay husband. And even then, still probably not worth it, 99% of the time it’s all negativity all the time. Not awesome.

  2. anonymous

    Maybe we don’t want to be judgmental? I mean, it’s probably true that a string of ex-friends is a red flag, but it’s not cool to condemn them to a friendless life because the shrinks tell us “they’ll never change.”

  3. Kate

    Oh yeah. This hits home for me. I have an ex-friend–or a few–for a combination of reasons. Primary reason: we graduated, moved, changed, etc. and subsequently grew apart. Secondary reason: she did something I could not forgive, like flake on my wedding or sleep with my boyfriend.

    I don’t think this is really about judgment. It’s about results. You could say I’m lousy at choosing friends, that I’m an unforgiving wench, or that I’m not willing to make the effort to keep relationship going against adversity. In any case, the common denominator is me. I think this is what Rachel’s trying to say.

    • I do think that everyone has an ex-friend or two. But I guess I just mean that sometimes a string of ex-besties and no current confidantes can be a red flag…

      • Kate

        What you’re saying makes complete sense–any street-smart gal would take a step back if a potential BOYfriend had a long history of “crazy” ex-girlfriends. There are always two sides to any relationship fall-out.

  4. Suzannah

    My experience has been that if I meet a woman of my same age, mid 30’s and she has few if any close friends, that is pretty safe indicator we don’t navigate friendships the same way.
    If she uses terms, about previous friends..such as ” selfish, high drama, needy”…but has no current sane friends…then yeah I am not jumping on that train quickly. I won’t write them off but I will keep my distance. Waiting to get to know her better.
    I think this research is right on. I firmly believe when you first meet a person they show you who they are fairly soon.
    ” When someone shows you who they are, believe them” Maya Angelou

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