When I’ve talked with women (and men) about the challenges they face making friendships, I commonly hear that the hardest part is not always meeting people. Instead, it’s the difficulty of turning those occasional, chance meetings into something resembling a relationship. What’s the magic formula for turning an acquaintance into a friend? How do you build a friendship with the person you chat with at the gym — without seeming like a stalker? And, why do some friendships never get off the ground, despite putting forth your best efforts? Certain roadblocks pop up over and over again, common behaviors we do without thinking about it. These mistakes may single-handedly keep your friendships from taking off. Here are seven of those missteps that can easily ruin a burgeoning friendship — and keep you forever banished to the acquaintance-zone.
1. Not Asking Questions or Following Up
It can be like being caught in some small-talk purgatory: You see someone all the time, but you never edge past a discussion about the weather — which, let me guess, has been crazy. But, are you showing an interest in their lives by asking (not too intrusive) questions and paying attention to the answers? If you’re not giving the other person the opportunity to express themselves within a conversation, then you’re simply having a soliloquy without the stage makeup. Ask questions, show genuine interest in the responses and follow up the next time you see each other. Then, and only then, are you building a foundation for a true, personal friendship to grow on.
2. Breaking Confidences
You might feel so honored to have been told something juicy that your new friend revealed that you can’t help but tip your hand to another friend about it. Or, maybe you didn’t really think that something was as sensitive as it was, and it didn’t really dawn on you that you shouldn’t share it. Either way, you’re already putting cracks in the building blocks of trust and intimacy that are needed to form a genuine relationship, whether they find out about your loose lips or not.
3. Letting One Mistake Paralyze You
So you made a joke you shouldn’t have, or you forgot to have your phone on when she was supposed to call you to meet up. Sometimes when a friendship is in the early stages, one false move can feel like a death sentence for the relationship. But, it is usually how you handle the mistake that has the lasting impact, not the mistake itself. A gracious and specific apology and a true effort not to let it happen again usually does the trick quite nicely to get the friendship back on track. On the other hand, being so embarrassed that you do a disappearing act will likely kill a friendship much more quickly than whatever mistake you made.
4. Being Pushy or Overly Indecisive About Plans
So, you’re finally at the stage where maybe you’ll have a smoothie after a workout with someone, a drink after work with a colleague or a barbecue with that other family after swim practice. Maybe you squander this by being too pushy — it must be at this particular place, you can’t stand this particular food, you can’t stay a moment later than such-and-such particular time. Friendships flourish when both parties are looking to make the process as easy and natural as possible. Setting up a bunch of rigid parameters will only make the potential friend wonder if you’re worth the effort. And, if you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, refusing to pick a restaurant, despite their asking thrice? Saying, “Whatever works for you” 17 times when they actually could use some help with the logistics may also make them think that building a relationship with you requires a bit too much effort.
5. Trying Too Hard to Impress
It’s an understandable impulse; building a friendship is a lot like dating, after all, and the temptation to extol your own virtues or to name-drop can be hard to resist. But nothing says “insecure” like your fourth mention of once having dated Matt Damon’s third cousin. Bear in mind that research shows we generally tend to like people who are not too self-enhancing, because we view them as more honest and more authentic. Constantly inflating yourself could move you into competition-mode, which is much more conducive to building ‘frenemies’ than friendships.
6. Gossiping Too Much
Some people think that any talk about other people is always a bad thing. As someone who ponders human behavior for a living — and who has spent more time opining on celebrity break-ups than I care to admit — I find that unrealistic. Sometimes, a discussion about others can serve as a sort of social glue to help build community and it doesn’t always have to be malevolent. But, of course, some of it can be truly toxic. When you’re talking about others to make them look bad, directly or indirectly, it’s only going to make your new friend wonder what you’re saying about her behind her own back — and whether she might be better off backing away.
7. Missing Cues
The very best friends are the ones who are empathetic, responsive and sensitive to their friends’ needs. Not taking a hint that this week is a really bad time to meet, that a certain topic is uncomfortable for them to talk about or that they don’t quite share your renegade views about income tax can turn you into, at best, a chafing presence, or worst, a steamrolling nightmare. Listen. Observe. Make eye contact. Notice body language. Respond accordingly. Sometimes, we’re so caught up in what to say to a new friend that it makes us forget: it depends on what we hear from them in the first place.
copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. Adapted from The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.
Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express’s longtime advice column Baggage Check. Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook. This article was first published in HuffPost.