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How to Start Conversations and Connect with Others

Friendship is a Verb


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		  Friendship is a Verb   

 Last week I friendshipped two former colleagues in Arizona. What I did was use some spare time around a conference I was attending in Phoenix to have dinner with one, coffee with another. I had not seen either of them for about 20 years, even though I have kept in contact with them via email or an occasional phone call.     

Sure. I know how awkward my first sentence must seem. We can "be-friend" a person. Or we can "act like a friend." But, within our current English language usage, we cannot "friend" or "friendship" another. (Nonetheless, we can "garden" around our homes and in our gardens, and "fish" for fish in the ponds. English nouns are often used as verbs.)     

The principal mode for demonstrating, or enacting, friendship is conversation. Christmas cards are nice, as are postcards from abroad and birthday gifts. Even email messages are helpful for staying connected, especially if they are addressed only to one person. However, while not without the personal touch, these tend to be much less personal than the living voice transmitting spontaneous words.     

Even a few decades ago, connecting by long-distance phone was costly, nearly $1.00 per minute in today's money. Air travel costs, for many, was prohibitive. Instead, good friends often drove by car and stopped along the way to stay for a day or two with either close friends or relatives. Because we humans are tribal, we need to get up close and personal once in a while to renew our sense of touch and sound and smell of friends. We need to update our pictures of our friends with some facetime.     

Sociologists have written extensively about the rugged individualism of Americans and the attendant attitude that we are self-reliant and don't need others. Over 20 years ago, Robert Bellah of U.C. Berkeley described these shifts in the book he edited, the now-classic "Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life" We Americans have become more insular and independent from one another.     

Is frequency of contact a part of friendship? I think so, especially if contact is easy, as with a phone call. I understand friendships to be living things, like gardens, that need attention and nourishment lest they die for want of care. The idea that friendships, once established, are static and permanent, is false. All is change. People change. Life changes. The only way to stay current with changes that happen is contact.     

How can busy people manage to do this? Here are some ideas:     

1. Schedule some "friendship conversations" regularly if only occasionally. Make friends at least as important as a routine dental check-up.     

2. Show interest in major events in a friends life: illness, promotion, significant family events like births and deaths, and such as     

"Your son has been in an accident." "I'm sorry, but the lump is malignant." "We're phasing out your department."     

3. Be reciprocal . Friendship is a two-way street. Don't wait to be contacted. Take some initiative.     

4. Small things are big things. A 5-minute phone call. A condolence card. A surprise lunch invitation. A "Thinking of you" note.     

6. Create an occasional "friends get-together" evening, perhaps only once every few months, that gives you a chance to catch up with several friends at one time.     

When I was a child, my Swedish grandparents stayed current with the lives of their country neighbors. Despite having no phones and slow postal service, despite gravel roads and only Model-T Fords, they always seemed to know about their friends and neighbors miles away. No doubt some chance encounters at the general store, or the pitching-in to build a new barn to replace the one that burned down, or a weekly church service provided the face-time necessary for staying current with friends.     

In those days, there was much physical work to be done, but many fewer emotionally numbing distractions, such as striving to succeed, endless hours in trance before the Tiny Vision set, and constant appetites of consumerism that demanded "More, more, more."     

Fortunately, we need not succumb to the current consensus trance that suggests friendships take care of themselves. With a little extra mindfulness and some modest change of habits, we can both nourish, and be nourished by, our friends.   


Loren Ekroth 2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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