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Friends are good for your health
From acquaintance to friend
Life at UT-Austin is wonderful and exciting for so many reasons the large, thriving campus; being surrounded by people from all over the country and the world; and being in a diverse and vibrant city. But some of those same factors can make being at UT rather overwhelming, and students may struggle to make new friends and develop a sense of connectedness to the campus. This is a very natural, common adjustment faced by many students, and not just freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors, and graduate students alike may struggle to feel a sense of belonging.
Making friends can feel particularly challenging for students with unique situations or identities, such as veterans returning to school following military service, international students, nontraditional-aged students, and those experiencing significant changes in their sense of self. Introverts are also more likely to have a hard time, especially at a school as gigantic as UT. No matter what your situation is, if you've felt concerned about your success with establishing friendships, know that you are not alone.
Friends are good for your health
There are lots of great things about having friends, not the least of which is simply having a companion through some of life's everyday activities. Some college students might minimize the importance of making friends, thinking to themselves something along these lines: "I'm here to get a degree, not make friends," or "I'm obviously not good at this whole making friends thing""I guess I'll just stick with myself." But research shows that social support is linked to emotional health and well-being. And of course, healthier students tend to be more successful in college. So even though trying to make friends can be scary and hard, it's worth it and you're worth it!
Students are often surprised by how challenging it is to make friends at college. In high school, you tend to see the same people every day (sometimes for years) and often make friends based on proximity. But college is a different environment, and it takes effort to create situations where you see the same people regularly enough to have a chance at becoming friends. That's why it's important for students to connect to clubs, student organizations, and other activities.
Brainstorm about what has helped you make friends in the past. Maybe you met all your old best friends in your faith community; perhaps finding a similar context in the UT-Austin area will be an important step for creating ties in your new environment. Think about your values and interests (like creative writing). Do some research on student organizations and other groups and activities centered on those topics. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- HornsLink: A Directory of all student organizations at UT. You can browse the many student orgs listed to find something that jumps out at you, OR search specific interests by keyword (e.g., "anime," "feminist," "soccer").
- UT Intramural Sports. Scroll down the page to view the men's, women's, and co-ed leagues, as well as special events and tournaments offered by the Intramural Sports Program. Both team and individual sports are available.
Okay, you've taken steps to put yourself in a new situation with new people. Now what? Approaching a stranger and attempting to strike up a conversation from thin air can take just as much bravery as getting yourself to an unfamiliar event in the first place. Try some of these ideas for initiating that first interaction with someone new. Don't worry about trying all of these in one conversation; rather, choose one or two techniques to practice the next time you're getting to know someone:
- Focus the conversation somewhat more on the other person. Most people like talking about themselves. Asking questions also helps you figure out if this person might be "friendship material" for you. Be careful, though, not to focus SO much on the person that it begins to feel intrusive or interrogative. The best conversations are 2-sided.
- Offer a genuine compliment. Try to compliment something the person did ("You gave a great presentation in class! How did you get so good at public speaking?") or something that might connect to a shared interest ("I love your shirt. Did you get that at Comic Con?").
- Use open-ended questions that'll keep the conversation going. For example, "What fun things are you finding to do in Austin" as opposed to "Do you like Austin?" (which may just lead to a "yes" and the end of the interaction).
- Ask about interests and hobbies. For example, "I love your costume! Are you a big sci-fi fan?" "What do you keep yourself busy with other than school/work?" "How did you get interested in lacrosse?"
- Share common interests. If you find you both like a certain TV show or sport, for example, this is a perfect opportunity to keep the conversation flowing and to connect with the person. Then you can use these natural connections to move on to other topics, so that you don't end up focusing excessively on that one shared interest.
- Inquire about school (assuming the other person is also in college). "How did you decide on____ as your major?" "How are you finding the transition to Austin?"
- Keep it light. During early interactions with someone new, it's usually best to steer clear of discussing your personal problems, politics, etc.
- Keep it natural. Be sure not to memorize or mechanically go through these types of questions. It can help to be prepared and somewhat strategic if you're anxious, but still be yourself and let the interaction unfold organically.
A couple other things to think about
- Without being overly fault-finding with yourself, it is helpful to exercise a healthy level of self-awareness when interacting with potential friends. This includes doing your best to avoid behaviors that may get in the way of others getting to know how truly likable you are for example, expecting too much too soon from a new friend, frequently complaining or making self-critical remarks, or being overly judgmental of others. These kinds of actions tend to come from a place of anxiety, so finding ways to relax and just be yourself will be your best bet.
- Remember the power of self-talk. Our inner dialogue has a big impact on our feelings and behaviors, including the emotional risks we're willing to take as well as how we come across in social interactions. Positive self-talk messages, for example, about what makes you a good friend and person will help bolster your courage and how others perceive you. Self-critical thinking only drains your motivation to try, and it gets in the way of being your genuine, wonderful self around others.
From acquaintance to friend
The first thing to ask yourself here is whether there is someone with whom you want to establish a closer friendship. Is she nice, interesting, and fun to be around? Can you be yourself around him? Does there seem to be a sense of mutual liking between the two of you? If the answer to these types of questions is "yes," then you might consider investing the time and energy it takes to cultivate that connection and try building a more personal relationship. It can be helpful to start by thinking about the people you already know and consider which relationships seem worth nurturing.
Naturally, spending time talking and engaging in activities together is an important ingredient to taking an "acquaintance" to the next level of friendship. This can be really hard to do, especially for busy college students living in a large university and town. Consider making a commitment to yourself to reach out to acquaintances/friends on an ongoing basis in a way that works for both of you. Call with an invitation to lunch or a cultural event on campus. Send a text just to say "hi," to share a piece of good news, or to exclaim how crazy last nights episode of Walking Dead was. Something to keep the connection alive.
Though you're encouraged to "keep it light" when first interacting with a new potential friend, a big part of what helps deepen relationships over time is eventually sharing some of the more personal aspects of your life, such as dislikes, fears, and personal struggles. Still, taking it slow with this kind of sharing and balancing it with more positive topics is important to avoid scaring people off by being a "Negative Nancy" or coming on too strong too soon with really intense or overly personal self-disclosure. Start small, and do your best to read the other person's comfort with it. You may find that they provide comforting words and share something similarly personal with you in a way that brings you closer together. Or you may pick up on signs of discomfort, in which case it may be best to hold off on further self-revealing statements, at least for a little while.
Don't give up! Not all your efforts at making friends will work, but Don't let a rejection or failed attempt at conversation deter you from continuing to try. If you feel you could use some outside support with your friend-making efforts, consider joining a personal process group or the Making Connections group, which are frequently offered at CMHC: http://www.cmhc.utexas.edu/groups.html.
- Copeland, M.C. (2000). The loneliness workbook: A guide to developing and maintaining lasting connections. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Hefner, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2009). Social support and mental health among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79, 491-499.
- Mental Health America. Social support: Getting connected, staying connected. Retrieved from http://mentalhealthamerica.net/