How to actually make friends

Don’t be yourself.

The most common advice to make friends is “be yourself”. Don’t be artificial. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. But what if you are, very deep inside, an obnoxious troll? What if you’re insecure, always looking to status-battle, and very intrinsically unpleasant to be around? Is there any hope?

Now that we’ve done away with generic advice on how to make friends, let’s take a peek at evolutionary biology. I am mostly going to be re-hashing Robin Hanson‘s arguments, who I think is either the most important thinker alive today or the troll-est troll I’ve ever seen. Either way, I’m very impressed.

We still do it like the hunter-gatherers did

People often think that if they can impress others with my academic prowess or their sporting or musical skills, others would think highly of them and want to hang out with them. This turns out to mostly be misguided. The most obvious reason is that no one likes show offs. The less obvious reason is that we are all very deeply convinced that we are incomparable. We believe that we have achieved top status from our perspective, and anyone who thought deeply enough would arrive at the same conclusion. Hence, if some show off comes along and tries to, well, show off, we’d think that they were trying to claim a superior status to ours. And we are evolutionarily hard-wired to not let such a challenge go unanswered. People mostly respond to show-offs by making fun of them or avoiding them completely. At least the cool people you want to hang out with.

Another common technique in making friends is flattery. People often think that buttering up the other person is a sure shot way to getting into their good books. I would recommend against it for two reasons. The first is that when you butter someone up, you set up your status to be below theirs, which you’ll now have to maintain for as long as you know them. Hence, although they might have goodwill towards you (because you have recognized their genius that no one else could or something), you can’t really be friends with someone whose status you’ll have to maintain constantly above yours. For example, if you praise someone to the skies in order to be friends with them, you can’t ever disagree with them about important things. Otherwise they’ll realize that you’d only falsely raised their status, and hate you for manipulating and betraying them. Hence, although buttering up your boss for a promotion is probably kosher as they’ll probably always have higher status than you at the workplace, buttering up your way into a friendship has too many disadvantages.

The second reason is that unless you’re a seasoned flatterer (and there are some of those around, for sure), your flattery might sound insincere. And that would choke-slam any hope of friendship. I suppose I don’t need to explain this too much. If you’re already socially awkward, you’re unlikely to be convincing as a flatterer. Don’t even try. Just pretend to be shy and hope that someone takes pity.

So how can one make friends? In friendship, as in life, one is defined more by the things not done than those done. In pre-historic times, when society was mostly defined by small (<150 members) groups of hunter-gatherers, meeting a stranger (anyone outside of your hunter-gathering group) was a situation fraught with danger. Most of these encounters would end up in deadly battles. Hence, it was important to convince the other person that you were not a threat to them. Friendship, for clear evolutionary reasons, is something like that. When you meet a stranger, you don’t really have to be cool or smart or successful to become their friend. Most times, you just have to convince them that you will not try to harm them or their reputation as soon as they turn their back to you. That’s it. That’s all you need to do to become friends with someone. Convince them that you are not a threat to them.

So how do you do that? Well, you first have to convince them that you won’t badmouth them to others. One convincing way to do that is to praise your other friends, and not criticize people in general. That will tell them that you’re not prone to badmouthing, and this will help build mutual trust.

The second thing to do is to not assume higher status. If everyone is sitting on the carpet, don’t be the lone jerk who sits on the chair. Don’t take take the floor and regale everyone with stories about your fancy school or your high paying job or the time your quick thinking saved someone ten bucks. This will convince them that you’re not a status fiend who may challenge them for a status battle. It’s easy to join a group if you’re not straight away gunning for alpha. Of course, it will help even more if you claim a slightly lower status by helping them in the kitchen, etc without looking like a sucker for appreciation.

If people are convinced that you’re not a status challenger or a threat to their security and reputation, they are likely to invite you to parties and want to know you better, etc. And with enough of these out of the way, you’ll soon be friends! And note that you didn’t have to do that much! You just had to convey that you would not be a threat to their security, reputation or status.

It’s really about the mistakes you don’t make that often determine the quality of your social life. For evolutionary reasons. Because we really are, in all our social interactions, glorified primates.

Here’s to hoping that you soon get down to monkey-ing around and make a lot more friends!

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Graduate student

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