Category Archives: The Hard Facts

The Hard Facts: Losing Together

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

“The average female will shed more than 10 pounds when she has girlfriends who are willing to eat healthily and train with her. But a fifth of those who choose to go it alone don’t drop a single pound. The study of 3,000 women also revealed 61 percent find it almost impossible to summon up the energy to exercise alone. However the same proportion enjoy going for a jog or taking a swim with a friend – and admit they push themselves harder if they have company.” (“Women Who Work Out Together Are Far More Likely To Lose Weight,” The Daily Mail 6/10/2010)

A few months ago I admitted that I’d put on some weight since starting my BFF search. When you’re eating out a lot, it’s hard to cut back calories—and eating with other people has been scientifically proven to make a person eat more.

But good news! While friends giveth pounds, friends can taketh away.

Since I wrote about the wine and sushi (and cupcakes and fries) taking over my midsection, I have shed some of the weight. Not all. But, you know, some.

And that some can be directly linked to both new friends and general friend-making efforts.

First, my co-worker encouraged me to run a 15K with her. I’d been slacking on my treadmill dates, so this was a perfect incentive to get back on the wagon.

Coincidentally, my cleanse started on the day of the race. I went straight from one get-fit project to another. The reason I signed up for the cleanse was that it was based on a support system. (Also because it wasn’t a wacky only-drink-your-own-urine type of weirdo diet. This was just about eating clean – fruits, veggies, oats, nuts.) We met every Wednesday to learn about what we were doing to our bodies, and every Sunday for yoga. There was even a movie night.

Now that both my projects are over and it’s back to motivating myself with the sheer desire to be healthy, I’m already having a hard time. Not so much with the nutritious food aspect (the cleanse really helped in that regard. I’m much more interested in eating real food now. And, if you can believe it, I’m still off caffeine! Success) but in the drag-your-butt-out-of-bed-and-to-the-gym aspect. Except on Saturdays, when I meet two new friends for dance class. ‘Cause that’s just fun, and brings the promise of a girls brunch afterwards.

See what I mean? Those researchers know what they’re talking about.

Do you have more success with weight loss or get-fit efforts when you’re with friends? Or are you of the “diet is personal and the gym is my me time” mindset? (I used to love going to the gym alone in the mornings, it was my moment of Zen. Not sure what happened to that…)

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A Global Understanding

There’s been a lot of great conversation on the blog this week. I’ve been fascinated to read your take on mean girls and online friending, not to mention last week’s discussion of appropriate birthday greetings. (Birthdays are a touchy subject—I love it!). Yesterday I was super intrigued by the divide when it came to huggers and non-huggers. And the comments brought to light another friendship topic I’ve had on the brain: Cultural differences as they pertain to BFFs.

In response to my awkward hugging encounter, one commenter, a German native, wrote: “Maybe this is a cultural thing, but I only hug people I feel somewhat close to. … I don’t hug old-coworkers, classmates or sports buddies just because I haven’t seen them in a long time. We shake hands (this is much more common in Europe, and it’s not at all business-like, just friendly).”

An Australian reader wrote: “North America is a hug or handshake culture and it seems awkward to shake hands with a friend or non-professional acquaintance. Here in Australia we mostly do the European cheek-kiss thing. It still sometimes brings awkward situations but not as much.”

Acceptable friendship behaviors, and the general expectation of what a friendship will be, vary pretty significantly from one country to the next. For example, a reader once told me that in Italy it is totally acceptable to ask a solo diner if you can share a table with them. (Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of every romantic comedy ever?) Not always the case in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Then there are the Croatians and their “friendship over business” stance.

When I first started writing about my search, I discussed it over email with a friend who’s living in Hong Kong. He wrote, “I would be willing to bet that Americans are much more likely to relate to your blog for the simple reason that they are much more likely to travel. In fact, I heard once that something like 85% of the world population ends up living within 20 miles of the house in which they grew up.” I haven’t been able to confirm that exact statistic, but I can say that Americans are the most mobile people in the world. We move, on average, every 5 years. If adults across the globe are more likely to stay in one place, they’re obviously less likely to encounter problems of the I’m-moving-how-do-I-make-new-friends variety.

A study released just last week delved into the differences in how American and Japanese friends communicate. The study discovered that while Americans are all about telling our friends everything, that doesn’t fly between friends in Japan. “[Researchers] found that Japanese people were more likely to feel that relationships were stable and because of this, were less likely to share so much information with their closest friend. However, Americans shared more information with friends than the Japanese because they saw their relationships as more fragile and shifting more often, thus requiring more maintenance via self-disclosure.” The simple fact that Americans move around more is responsible for other cultural differences in friendship behavior—including our tendency to share everything from our bodily functions to our morning drive traffic report.

Tell me, what cultural differences have you noticed? If you live in the U.S., have you observed any changes in friendship behavior when you travel? If you live outside the States, what is the difference between friends here versus where you live?

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Mean Girls at Any Age

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

“One recent survey of 273 third graders in Massachusetts found that 47 percent have been bullied at least once; 52 percent reported being called mean names, being made fun of or teased in a hurtful way; and 51 percent reported being left out of things on purpose, excluded from their group of friends or completely ignored at least once in the past couple of months.” (“The Playground Gets Even Tougher”, New York Times, 10/8/2010)

In my improv class last night, three women were asked to act out a scene in which they were coworkers around the watercooler. It didn’t take long for their characters to turn into mean girls, plotting to take down their poorly dressed coworker.

It struck me in that moment that mean girls exist way beyond our school days. They may wear the guise of a mature adult, but there are still office cliques and book club cliques and mommy cliques.

According to recent research, it’s not just that mean-girl behavior lasts longer—it starts earlier too. While social aggression used to start around fifth grade, now it can take hold as early as kindergarten.

Yikes. There’s no safe place. At a time when headlines are full of teen suicides due to bullying, it’s just plain terrifying.

In fifth grade I was the victim of a BFF-turned-mean-girl. My best friend decided that she didn’t like me anymore. We had been inseparable until one day when she decided that wait, never mind, she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. After a month it was “wait, never mind, we are BFFs again.” If memory serves, this happened twice in that same year. Luckily, I’ve mostly blocked it out.

Then, of course, there was the infamous letter my friend wrote me during the summer between seventh and eighth grade.

The worst part? For most of my youth, I was one of the popular kids. What could it have been like for the kids who had a harder time socially? I don’t even want to know.

What I do know is that female relationships are fragile, especially when girls are young. They can be flipped upside down with no warning. “Oh, yesterday we were best friends? Too bad, today I hate you.”

I’m not a mom, so I can’t speak to this from any anecdotal place, but according to sources in this article, many of the mean girls come from mean moms. Mean moms who encourage their daughters’ exclusivity.

It’s scary to think—and almost too hard to believe—that mothers might reinforce this kind of behavior. It’s enough to make a would-be mom (one day, that is. I have no announcements here) run in the opposite direction… How? Why? Whaaat??

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really don’t get it. Many of you are moms… can you enlighten me? Have you seen other mothers encourage their daughters’ mean-girl behavior? Have you seen moms behave as mean girls themselves?

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The Hard Facts: Did You Hear About Rachel?!?

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

“After criticizing other people, gossipers’ positive emotions were reduced by 16 percent and negative emotions increased 34 percent.” (“Is Gossip Good for You,” New York Times, 10/8/2010)

I love to gossip. I do. I don’t want to love to gossip, but given how much I engage in the activity, reason would have that I must enjoy it.

According to the latest research, some gossip has positive effects. When you gab with a girlfriend about how great someone else is, and shower the unknowing party in compliments, positive emotions are raised 3 percent, negative emotions are reduced 6 percent, and self-esteem is raised 5 percent.

But, seriously, how often do people engage in complimentary gossip?

If what I know is reality than the majority of time people engage in gossip they’re not saying anything they’d want to share with the group.

The examples of “positive gossip” in this study are sayings like “So-and-so’s husband is adorable” instead of “she married that lout?”

I’ve certainly shared those exchanges, musing over how cute someone’s baby is or what a fabulous catch her husband was. But I’m not sure that actually qualifies as gossip. According to my dictionary, gossip is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

So, “her husband is adorable” is not gossip. “I hear her husband’s a cheater,” is.

Despite getting constantly caught up in the rumor mill, I buy the research that says our negative emotions increase by more than a third when we trash talk. No matter how much I hope to vent or get something off my chest, I always feel worse after a bitchfest. Criticizing someone else isn’t going to change my own circumstances, after all. It’s not freeing; It’s exhausting. And in the end, above all else, it makes me feel like an ass.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is true of more people than just myself. And yet we keep it up. We feel worse after spreading negative gossip, but most of us can’t help it. We engage. Maybe not often (if you’re a better person than I), but it’s the rare person who can swear off the dish altogether. Why?

The answer lies in this sentence of the aforementioned New York Times article: “Whether kind or cruel, gossip was associated with a greater sense of social support for the perpetuator.” The mere act of gossiping—regardless of the content—makes us feel more connected. We get to exchange information with another party, and the mere act of this exchange—especially the exchange of gossip, which is often billed as “secret” even though everyone’s talking about it—makes us feel like part of the in group. We’re privy to something exclusive. We belong.

Moral of the story: Gossip is bad but we do it anyway. (Side note: The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin just posted an interesting video about her attempt to stop gossiping.) Do you gossip? Are you more of a positive or negative gossiper? Why is gossip so addictive, when it usually makes us feel bad about ourselves and does nothing to really strengthen our friendships? Come on, be honest. No judgment here!

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The Hard Facts: Are You An Introvert?

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

“While extraverts spend more time overall in social activities than introverts do, the two groups do not differ significantly on time spent with family members, romantic partners, or coworkers. Moreover, extraverts and introverts both report a mood boost from the company of others.” (“Revenge of the Introverts,” Psychology Today, Oct. 2010)

I am not an introvert. Officially, I know this because I took that Meyers-Briggs test recently and was deemed extroverted. But unofficially, I’ve always known—I like socializing too much.

For years I’ve misunderstood introversion. I thought being an introvert and being shy was the same thing. Introverts wouldn’t understand my search, I figured, because they didn’t understand the big deal about friendship in the first place.

I was wrong.

There’s a significant difference between being shy and being introverted. As Psychology Today explains, introverts spend time alone because they want to while shy folks would love to be social but don’t know how. “An introvert and a shy person might be standing against the wall at a party, but the introvert prefers to be there, while the shy individual has no choice.”

Also, introverts benefit from close friendship as much as extraverts do. Everyone gets the same jolt of energy from hanging with people we connect with on a deep level.

It’s a vital tidbit. When I started this quest I thought my friendship frustration was the curse of extroversion. If only I didn’t crave the company of others, I thought, I’d be so much happier. Turns out there’s no escaping it. Introverts need friendship too, they’d just rather have a thoughtful one-on-one than a dinner with a million people talking at once.

This should also serve as a reminder that introversion is not an excuse for giving up on friendship. A reader once left a comment saying she always bails on plans with her friends—specifically female friends—because she is an introvert and finds being a part of the female group dynamic draining. She didn’t understand the “high” of spending time with pals.

Being that I don’t identify as an introvert, I can’t purport to know what’s going on inside this reader’s head. But I would venture to guess that it’s not friendship that exhausts her, it’s the large groups. All the research I’ve read, and the majority of the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, says introverts do feel a “high” from socializing. It’s just that an introvert’s idea of fun “socializing” is different from an extravert’s.

If you’re an introvert, don’t hide behind your preference for intimate activity and quiet time. That doesn’t mean you don’t need strong relationships. We all do.

Are you extraverted or introverted? Does that trait define what you want out of friendship?

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The Hard Facts: You’re Damned If You Do…

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

According to a new study, popular people tend to catch the flu first. When the flu is going around, people at the center of social networks—those who are named as a friend by others—come down with the virus about two weeks earlier than a randomly selected group of people, the study found.” (“Study: Popular People Get Flu First”, CNN.com)

There are approximately one billion reasons why maintaining friendships is good for your health. Don’t believe me? See here, here and here.

But, as author Gretchen Rubin always says, the opposite of a great truth is also true.

And so it is with that in mind that I alert you to this recent study, which basically says if you’ve got a lot of friends, you should expect to be the first to get sick. It makes sense of course—the more popular you are, the more people you interact with and the more germs you are exposed to.

In this particular study, researchers (the very same ones who alerted me to the genetic factors of popularity) tracked the spread of H1N1 flu (the Swine!) at Harvard. But scientists are now considering the implications of these findings on a much grander scale.

“Monitoring the health of…socially connected people could serve as an early warning system for flu epidemics and outbreaks of other infectious diseases,” the article says. After all, getting a two-week head start on a sickness is a mighty large lead. “Identifying a group of central individuals…would provide a simple way of tracking and fighting epidemics, especially in self-contained settings such as college campuses and military bases.”

You know those people who are always under the weather? The amount they call in sick has become an office inside joke? Now I need to pay special attention to who they are, because I always figured it was either the ones with young kids or the slackers, but maybe it’s the social butterflies. If I can watch their health patterns, perhaps I’ll know when to start taking preventative measures.

If we’re weighing the health pros and cons of friendship, I still say you’re better off with a lot of social connections. You don’t need a million BFFs, mind you, but the more effort you put into meeting new people, the healthier you’ll be in the long run.

Until you get so popular you catch the early onset Swine.

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The Hard Facts: Paging Emily Post…

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

“According to [a new AOL study] more than half of children surveyed (54%) don’t personally know all the friends accepted into their social network.” (“AOL Launches New SAFE SOCIAL for Parents with Social Networking Teens” 8/24/2010)

There’s a new set of etiquette when it comes to friendship in the 21st century. Knowing not to hook up with your BFF’s ex, or that friends don’t let friends drunk dial, isn’t enough. You must also know that a friend who tags you in an unflattering photo is no friend at all.

I’m still navigating the world of social network protocol. Here are my most pressing dilemmas:

1) Should I accept friend requests from people I’ve never met? The answer to this question should be no (hello, Internet predators), and yet I have a good handful of these phantom friends in my newsfeed. You never know who could be The BFF, so I err on the side of “confirm.” The fact that teenagers accept strangers is entirely scary, but as an adult it’s less an issue of getting bullied by fake accounts and more just a general “how much am I willing to put out there” debate.

2) What if I want to unfriend someone? It’s a sticky situation, one so common that “unfriend” was named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2009 Word of the Year. Real-life friend breakups come with all sorts of guilt, and Facebook has added a whole new element. The reasons for unfriending must be serious—you’re cutting this person off from all information about you—and yet the act of unfriending itself is pretty passive. A simple click of a button. “This absence of body language, and the single click immediacy of online sharing has created problems that have no ready parallel offline,” wrote Austin Considine in a recent piece in The New York Times.

3) How soon is too soon to friend someone? Today I got a request from a new friend, one with whom I’ve gone on two friend-dates, with this message: “How many friend dates before we can be Facebook friends?” I love that she called out the awkwardness of this protocol. Clearly I accepted. But I’ve had girl-date situations in which the potential BFF has friended me after we’ve scheduled the plan, but before it’s taken place. Meaning we’ve met over email but not face-to-face. I think that’s too soon. I wait to send the request (or not) until after we’ve hit it off (or not). But if the soon-to-be friend requests me? I always accept, despite sometimes wavering.

It seems worthwhile to mention here (last time, I swear!) that this blog now has a Facebook page. So if you’re a fan of the blog, perhaps you want to become fan of the page? So I can see your pretty face? Why thank you!

The jury is still out on these Facebook conundrums. Do you accept strangers? How do you defriend? And when is the appropriate time to send a friend request? Weigh in!

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