One perk of being an online life coach who works with lots of gay men is that I get to spend plenty of of time on Instagram staring at people’s abs, pretending it’s for work.
One such six-pack recently provided me with the ultimate boner killer by posting a picture of himself and his dead Tamagotchi with the caption, ‘My best friend is dead’.
His previous pictures didn’t suggest a particular talent for sarcasm, so his post raised two questions. Firstly, how did anyone with a body like his have the time to look after anything else but his own meal plan? And secondly, how the hell did he manage to keep that thing alive since the nineties?
Turns out that Tamagotchis are making a bit of a comeback. See, clever marketing people have figured out that millennials aren’t just the self-entitled brats you love to bitch about. Apparently they can take care of other things too than just their social media accounts. Plus they’re old enough now to do nostalgia. Nostalgia for the days when they were six and you were 26 — in case you’re still clinging on to that ridiculous idea of being an Xennial.
After feeling a tad guilty for unfollowing said six-pack, I started to wonder whether I was the one who was missing a trick here. Maybe it was judgmental and ignorant to think somebody can’t be friends with a virtual chicken. And maybe I could even learn a thing or two about love and kindness from cleaning up some pixelated poop.
So, as the first in a series of articles on how to make friends as an adult, I’m investigating some of the external conditions necessary for making new friends, and whether it is indeed possible to become friends with a robot.
Here are the seven lessons I learnt. You may not like them.
Lesson #1: We need to get along in order to belong
We all depend on others for our survival. Throughout history, those with advanced social skills mostly had the upper hand compared to those who were fit but dim.
From an evolutionary perspective, these social skills served a tit-for-tat purpose. I’ll scratch your back so you can scratch mine later. Throw in a shoulder rub and a happy ending and you have my unwavering loyalty and trust.
Of course we seek more than just practical benefits by being sociable. All humans have a basic need for belonging. We have different interests, preferences and life stories, and we use those differences to decide which tribes and social groups we seek to belong to.
Like any other close relationships, friendships therefore play a very important role in the development of our self-identity and self-esteem.
Friendships allow us to compare ourselves with others — inside and outside of our group — and through that comparison we get to understand and define our own likes and dislikes, as well as our own beliefs and values.
So unless and until we belong to a tribe or a number of tribes, we can’t really build a clear identity for ourselves. Without knowing who’s in and who’s out of our circle, we don’t know who we are ourselves.
Lesson #2: Proximity is the key to starting a new adult friendship
The functional distance between two people is the most powerful predictor of whether you’ll hit it off as friends. It refers to how often your paths cross, rather than how physically close you are from one another.
This is basic mathematics. If you keep you bumping into Stephen from Accounts in the Starbucks downstairs, you’re way more likely to become aware of his existence. You’re also way more likely to strike up a conversation about his disgusting banana split frappuccino habit.
But there’s another factor at play here too. In social psychology it’s called the ‘familiarity principle’. Often used in advertising, this principle banks on people having a preference for certain things or people purely because they’re more familiar with them.
That means that even if you don’t like someone to start with, that dislike often fades once you’re exposed to them more often.
I can already hear you protesting as you think of that muscle-mary in the gym who’s been testing your nerves for months with his endless grunting, and I don’t blame you.
See, the familiarity principle only works when there’s something in it for you. We’ll only go out of our way to find things in other people we can like if polite society or the particular social set up requires us to do so.
When there’s nothing or nobody riding on it, we notice our own dissimilarities with others much more, which then leads to less liking. So unless you secretly want to do naughty things with Mr Muscle there, your dislike is only going to get worse.
Lesson #3 — Physical attraction matters, even if you don’t want to see your new friends naked
This may come as a surprise, but physical appearance is one of the most important indicators of whether we’ll initiate a friendship or not, alongside proximity.
Plenty of research shows that we have a preference for hanging out with people we deem attractive, just like we have a preference to interact with things that are beautifully designed. We rightly or wrongly associate beauty with other socially desirable traits.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, and when it becomes beauty standards we are one narcissistic and incestuous bunch.
Studies show that in terms physical attraction we’re most drawn to those who resemble ourselves and our parent of the opposite sex.
Which perfectly explains why all my friends are hot. Thanks mum.
Attractiveness is important in predicting whether we become friends with someone. But other things being equal, physical appearance usually doesn’t outrank other qualities — especially when it comes to developing the friendship further.
Also note that there’s a distinction here between physical attraction and sexual attraction, so you can take your mind out of the gutter. Or you can leave it there if you wish, because plenty of great friendships do indeed start off in the sack.
Lesson #4 — Birds of a feather rock together
Proximity and attractiveness may determine the first move, but personality takes over once you both decide to take the friendship further.
We like those who like us. Or at least those who like the same things we like (including ourselves). The more similar someone’s attitudes and character traits are to yours, the more likeable you’ll find that person.
If someone acts, talks and thinks like us, then that validates the way we act, talk and think. It supports our sense of self, our values and our core identity. So by interacting with others that are like us, we get to reinforce and validate our own identities.
Creepily enough, a recent study by Dartmouth College found that friends have similar neural responses to real-world events and researchers can predict who your friends are simply by looking at how their brains respond to video clips. Friends had the most similar neural activity patterns, followed by friends-of-friends who, in turn, had more similar neural activity than people three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends).
It gets even creepier. Research by the University of California suggests that we naturally seek out friends with similar genotypes to our own. In fact, their data found that friend pairs were on average genetically as close to each other as they were with their fourth cousins.
So you might want to be careful about that sleeping with friends thing after all.
Lesson #5: Show them yours and they’ll show you theirs
Intimacy and proximity are a powerful friendship mix. That is why intense experiences such as group therapy, hikes, retreats, or wasted cuddle puddles in the bowels of Berghain can create lifelong bonds.
According to psychologists, for intimacy to take place one person needs to disclose personal information, thoughts and feelings to a partner. They then need to receive a response from that partner and interpret that response as understanding, validating, and caring. Easy.
In other words, without some level of self-disclosure and an appropriate response to it, there can be no friendship. This self-disclosure can be factual (I don’t drink coffee) or emotional (banana split frappuccinos make me want to vomit). It can be non-intimate (I don’t like the sweet taste of it), or intimate (I have IBS).
In any budding friendship you’ll walk a tightrope between being boring (factual) and intense (emotional), although research does show that friendship is more highly related to self-disclosure in intimate than non-intimate topics.
You might want to keep your IBS stories for another time though.
Beware also that emotional intimacy doesn’t mean an unrestricted license to vent. Remember that like seeks like. If you’re on a downer, you’ll find that negative people might flock to you, while the same is true if you’re feeling positive.
So go ahead and be vulnerable. Vulnerability elicits trust. And it’s pretty damn attractive too.
Lesson #6: Flattery (and frankness) will get you everywhere
Closeness, contact and supportiveness are very good predictors of whether a friendship will be maintained, but if you want to turn it up a notch or two, add flattery.
Also known as ‘social-identity support’, it refers to the way in which a friend understands and then supports our sense of self in society or in our group. That social identity can be based on our nationality, job role, sports team, sexual preferences, religion, or any other ‘special club’ we might be a member of.
Best friends are often part of that same club or category. But what made the friendship so strong is that they boosted each others’ self-esteem by affirming one another’s identity as a greatly cherished member of said club or category.
“John, nobody else in this room full of Crossfitters smashes his weights on the floor as loudly as you do.” Or, “Will, you’re the prettiest twink at this Ariana Grande concert”. You get the drift.
Our desire for identity support can be so strong, that it may even make a difference for the those who are addicted. Studies found that people with substance abuse problems were likelier to kick their habits after three months when they felt more conflict between their drug use and their social roles and sense of self.
Those who felt socially in sync with the drug use were less likely to become substance-free. Something to think about if you’re feeling affected by the ongoing chemsex epidemic.
And yes, while social identity support is important, do keep it real boys. Friendship is based on trust and that involves frankness and honesty in equal measure.
Lesson #7: You can become friends with Siri
Friendship might be a big word in this context, but people can and do form strong attachments with objects.
In the 2013 film Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a Siri-like operating system that’s designed to meet his (almost) every need in life. Of course falls in love with it.
When he finally admit to his ex-wife that he’s in a relationship with an operating system, she furiously blurts out: ‘You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually having to deal with anything real, so I’m glad you found one.” After which she storms off.
Honey, truth be told, we all want a husband or a wife like that. Ideally one that’s faster and has a bit more depth than my current Iphone 5.
According to researchers at Brown University, our universal need to belong means that — at least in theory — humans can bond with robots, provided those robots are social enough to reciprocate with regular and meaningful interactions.
What those interactions look like is somewhat open to interpretation of course, but here’s another key. People are also very good at projecting human-like characteristics to objects, animals and robots, potentially turning a cold piece of metal into a living being (at least in our minds).
In other words, any object or robot that we perceive to have a capacity for meaningful interaction with us, could pass a legitimate partner in social interactions with humans.
It doesn’t matter whether your Furby, Tamagotchi, IphoneX or Japanese love doll has the technical ability to interact socially with you or not. As long as you experience it to be social and you project a personality onto it, you can become friends with — or at the very least become attached to it.
So here you go, I’ll eat my words and admit I’ve been a tad judgmental.
Now, Siri sweetheart, please find me that six-pack again on Instagram. This gay life coach has some more work to do.
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