As social distancing orders remain in effect, the old adage, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder,” has never felt more true. On top of having to navigate relationships with SOs and family in lockdown, anxiety over how to maintain connections old and new alike is setting in. Even in a pre-pandemic world, making and keeping friends can be challenging. The circumstances have only exacerbated this truth, one that Kat Vellos, author of We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships and Connected from Afar has explored for twenty years. In addition to writing two books that have been helping adults around the world heal from disconnection and loneliness, as a connection coach, Vellos has been creating communities where people find belonging and authentic connection. We spoke with Vellos about how to make and keep stronger friendships as an adult, how to get better at asking friends for support, why small talk can actually do more harm than good, and three ways to stay connected with people that don't involve social media.
Making friends in adulthood can be challenging. Can you explain why this is?
In my book We Should Get Together, I describe the four biggest challenges adults face when trying to make and maintain friendships. Those are: our highly transient and hypermobile cities, overly busy schedules and lives, the demands of family and partnership, and insufficient ability to navigate intimacy and take a light friendship to a deeper place.
Any one of those challenges on their own will make it hard to experience robust friendships in adulthood. But when somebody is dealing with two or more of those challenges at the same time it's going to compound the issue and make it harder for them to make and maintain friendships.
That doesn't mean it's not possible, though. The reason I wrote this book is because I wanted to show that it is possible. The book offers solutions for all of these situations. You can overcome life with these realities — and have thriving friendships at the same time.
What are some actionable tips for making friends in the time of social media and “hustle culture"?
It's important to realize that each time you interact with a friend on social media — especially in fleeting ways like a quick comment on Instagram or a reply to a tweet — realize that this is just one tiny slice of that person's day and an even smaller slice of their entire life. What we see of each other on social media is only a fractional view into that person’s reality. It's easy to slip into a phenomenon that I describe in my book called parasocial relationships, in which, by consuming snippets about the other person your brain gets tricked into thinking that you're closer to them than you really are.
It's vital to reach beyond the screen and have a human to human connection that goes deeper than whatever is being shared on social media. Friendships are an opportunity to get into the VIP area. Go behind-the-scenes and get the inside scoop. Or even better, ask your friend to talk about things that they're definitely not going to post about on social media. Often those are the things that are most important to our hearts, more complex, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. Invite your friend to a VIP session and have conversations about those things. A good conversation starter for that is to ask a friend, “Tell me about three things that you’ve been thinking or feeling lately that you're not posting on social media?”
And in terms of hustle culture, there’s nothing wrong with being determined to reach for your goals, but make sure you’re not slipping into unhealthy workaholism. As I describe in the book, being addicted to busyness is a clever way to avoid feeling lonely and it eats up space for human connection. Overworking makes it hard for you to find the time, mental energy, and emotional attention to connect with another person. So make sure that if you’re on that hustle, that you take breaks. Rest. Acknowledge when you need to find balance. Making a decision to nurture your friendships will mean doing fewer things, but getting a greater reward.
Some people tend to avoid asking friends/family for favors. How can they get better at giving and asking for support?
I hear this a lot in my interviews and conversations with people about their experiences of adult friendship. Everyone is so worried about being a burden. We overestimate how much of a burden we’ll be, and we underestimate how willing other people are to be there for us. It is a real gift to open up to someone for support. Doing so says to the other person, “I trust you. I have faith in you. I feel safe being vulnerable with you.” That is a massive compliment.
Reciprocal and mutually-beneficial demonstrations of support are a really key part of deepening friendships. Describe your challenges and invite your friends to share theirs, too. In my book I describe four different types of support — emotional, tangible, informational, and companionate. When you understand these differences, you increase your emotional intelligence and you can be more specific when you ask for support from a friend. If you aren't sure how to broach this topic with a friend, a good conversation starter is, “Can you tell me about a time where you offered support to someone else, and a time when you needed more support than you were getting?” From there dig into how you’re both doing in the current moment and how you might be able to support each other now.
You hate small talk so much that you created conversation-starter cards called "Better than Small Talk." Can you explain the pitfalls of small talk and how asking better questions can help enhance our relationships?
A lot of people assume that small talk is necessary in relationships, or that it absolutely must come first as a prerequisite warm-up to more personal topics. A limited amount of small talk can work well for building brand new relationships. It’s usually treated as the default first step for establishing connection, but it’s not the only way. Depending on how open or closed off people are, small talk can actually inhibit closeness, especially if you get stuck there every time you have a conversation with someone. Small talk can become the destination instead of the on-ramp.
To get past the small talk purgatory, develop your ability to listen well and to ask thoughtful follow-up questions. My Better than Small Talk question cards give you 300+ questions (they’re all in the appendix of the book as well) that are a great jumping off point to bring more authenticity and depth to your conversations. And remember that curiosity goes beyond the start of the conversation. Open-ended follow-up questions are excellent to take it even deeper. For example, “Can you say more about that?”, “Can you give me an example?”, or “How did that make you feel?”
In-person visits with family and friends are extremely limited during this time. What are some ways to maintain meaningful connection during lockdowns?
When you have a lack of connection it’s kind of like being hungry. So first take a second to check in with yourself and ask yourself what kind of connection you’re hungry for. To stick with the food analogy, having some lighthearted fun is like having nachos, and when you need a heart to heart, that’s what your favorite comfort food is (for me that would be mashed potatoes). If you’re clearer about what you need and thoughtful about who can help you get that need met, you’re more likely to get that feel-good connection you’re going for.
Secondly, don’t think that the only option is having another unstructured Zoom call with the last couple people you talked to. My followers know that I’m in love with audio-only phone calls because of all their built-in flexibility. I find them soothing since I don't have to worry about what I look like, or the lighting, or dealing with a computer. I can walk around and it feels so much more intimate to have someone's words going directly into my ears.
Another method that can feel really sweet right now is writing letters or postcards. For years I’ve been an avid penpaller and snail mailer, and I highly recommend it as a way to experience your friends in a different way during coronavirus.
One big thing I’ve coached people on before is varying the ways that they interact with friends. Don’t only text, don’t only do video calls. Mix it up. In the absence of in-person meetups, having multiple methods to cross paths with someone goes a long way to feeling like your lives are more integrated. If you’re trading letters, and bumping into each other on social, and mixing in a call here or there, you’ll discover that this blend of shared contexts will help you feel more connected.
Lastly, look at the content of your conversations. We often repeat the same conversational laps like we’re running track. Are your conversations all about the same two or three topics? Of course the stuff that’s on the news or our favorite TV show is in our minds, but also take time to get to hear from each other on deeper levels. Have conversations about things that you never talk about. This is a great time to broach conversations that previously felt hard to bring up.
For example, if you’re talking about coronavirus or police brutality, take that to a personal level — ask about your friends’ experiences with health, privilege and racism. You can also use this time to motivate your friends to take action to create a better world, which I give suggestions for in one of my recent blog posts. Ask your friends what they’re uncomfortable about and how they hope to grow and improve. Take something that’s relevant in the world around you and make it personal. Help each other reflect, learn and evolve. You can do all of this from a distance.
As you once mentioned, author Sebastian Junger believes people feel closer during crises because they tend to create a shared experience. How can we maintain this closeness when the pandemic has passed?
During crises, people tend to be much more open with others than they typically are. A crisis requires us to show up as our best selves. Our guards come down and authenticity goes up. Similarly people’s willingness to support each other and to be compassionate to each other's needs rises in a time of crisis. Our light shines brighter to counterbalance the world getting darker.
We must hold onto this, and not allow our collective brightness to be dimmed. One way to do that is to take some time to reflect — either via journaling, artmaking, conversation or meditation. How have you grown during this time? What changes in other people do you appreciate right now? What is changing in the world that you are grateful for? How has this crisis illuminated the things that really matter to you?
There’s a line in the song "Virus" by Deltron 3030 that says, “Crises facilitate change.” As you acknowledge the possibilities and positive changes that this crisis has facilitated for you, write down how you want to make these changes an ongoing part of your life. How can you make openness a regular part of your conversations? How can you make courage one of your ongoing habits? It’s all of our responsibility to hold onto the potential for positive change that comes from this crisis. Don’t ignore it while wishing to run back to how things used to be. Use this moment as a chance to make things better than they were before.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or Instagram accounts on the topic of friendship and community?
A few that I really enjoy are the Friendshipping podcast, my two books about adult friendship of course (lol), as well as The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker which can definitely be applied to long-distance connection, and @thatjillian on Instagram has great content about finding your community.
Follow @katvellos_author for more tips on creating meaningful friendships