‘There is nothing on this earth more to be prized,’ wrote the 13th-century Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, ‘than true friendship.’
Many of us, some 800 years later, still feel the same.
Human beings are social creatures and close, long-lasting friendships are one of the things that truly brings joy, happiness and contentment to life. As the Arab proverb runs, ‘you can live without a brother but not without a friend.’
Which is perhaps why the UN’s International Day of Friendship – tomorrow, July 30 – is so worthwhile.
This global celebration of bonding reminds us that having great relationships is not only a pleasure in itself, but also good for our sense of belonging, helps us learn new skills, reduces stress (it releases the so-called cuddle hormone oxytocin), boosts confidence and provides support in times of trauma.
Yet, more than half a century after this annual day was first celebrated in 1958 and almost a millennia since Aquinas made his famous declaration, there are concerns the art of being a good buddy may slowly be dying out.
‘In 2016, we have more ways to meet people – and stay in touch – than ever before,’ says Carmen Benton, founder of Lifeworks personal development training centre in Umm Suqeim, Dubai. ‘Social media and instant communications mean we live in a world where “friending” someone or speaking to a new person has never been easier.
‘But the evidence is that having this greater ability to connect is actually leading to a disconnection.
‘Younger people – in their teens, 20s and 30s especially – seem to increasingly view friendship as a commodity. Many of them are more interested in increasing their number of “friends” on Facebook than putting time and energy into developing real and intimate bonds.’
In the UAE, too, issues around developing relationships may be more exacerbated than in other parts of the world. Because this is a transient city where people inevitably come and go, there is often less interest and time to establish deep and long-lasting links.
‘This is one of the easiest places in the world to meet new people and receive invites to new places because so many of us here are in a similar position of having left friends and loved ones behind,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, personal development coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai.
‘But when it comes to turning those acquaintances into genuinely close relationships it is more difficult because people come and go so quickly.’
Yet, it need not be this way.
Meaningful friendships can – and should – be developed. And so today, to celebrate the aforementioned day of friendship, Friday speaks to experts and offers up eight top tips on how to form great relationships…
1: Make an effort
By the age of 25, most of us have more friends than we have ever had – and then we start to shed them.
That’s according to research published this year by the Aalto University School of Science in Finland and Oxford University in the UK. The study found increasing family and career commitments mean we start to lose touch with people more rapidly than we make new contacts.
The key to maintaining the mates that mean a lot to us – even if they happen to be living in another country – is simple effort: sending texts, dropping emails, and finding time to see each other.
‘Good friends don’t let time slip by without connecting.’ So says Dr Marie Hartwell-Walker, the celebrated American psychologist and author of Unlocking The Secrets Of Self-Esteem. ‘They are woven into the fabric of our lives. It takes time and, yes, work. But, like caring for anything we treasure, doing the maintenance is its own pleasure. The reward is a relationship that continues to be delightful and interesting.’
2: Be present
No one wants to be that person across a coffee shop table who’s competing with your mobile for your attention. When you’re with someone, be with them. Put the phone away, and leave it there. Connect with the person you’re actually, you know, sharing time with.
‘I’m often amazed to see so many people interacting more with their devices than with the people they are actually with,’ says Carmen. ‘That’s not enriching for either person. And for the person sat there being pretty much ignored in favour of a device – what they read into such behaviour is that this person is not interested in me, so they close up, and the chance for a relationship to develop really ceases to exist.’
3: Be yourself
‘Be yourself,’ Oscar Wilde famously declared, ‘everyone else is already taken.’ Good advice – especially when it comes to making pals.
‘Authenticity is absolutely key,’ nods Cindy. ‘If you’re not yourself – if you’re putting on an act to impress or trying too hard to fit in – others spot it straight away, and it makes you come across as being disingenuous, which certainly isn’t a quality that will win people over.’
There’s an equation here, and it’s actually quite simple: being yourself makes you more relaxed, being relaxed makes you happier, being happy makes you more appealing to others, and being appealing to others makes you friends. Easy.
4: Listen up
Friends in need are friends indeed. Being there for someone is arguably one of the greatest gifts you can give.
That means supporting them through trauma, helping in a crisis and offering your encouragement when asked.
But, just as important, it means listening and being a sounding board when they simply want to let off steam.
‘Friends create safe spaces for each other,’ says Cindy. ‘That’s a life coach term, but it simply means you make yourself empathetic, trustworthy and dependable so the other person can talk openly and honestly about any issues, problems or feelings they’re struggling with. You implicitly give them the permission to be themselves, without judgement.’
Sometimes they will want your advice, sometimes your opinion and sometimes simply your ear. The key is to give each one, as required, with love.
5: Don’t be a vampire
Being willing to listen comes with the implicit expectation that sometimes you will be listened to; that sometimes you will be allowed to vent your own frustrations.
Quite right. Go ahead and have a good whinge – that’s what friends are for.
But this isn’t a free hand. It is not permission to become a habitual whiner. Burdening others with a constant stream of complaints, problems and worries drains them. It makes spending time together hard work. It puts people off wanting to get a coffee with you.
Lisa Laws, an independent UAE-based coach and hypnotherapist, has a term for such moaners: energy vampires.
‘They suck all the positive energy out of others,’ she tells Friday. ‘They are not good friends to have. Do not become one.’
6: Have fun
There will be plenty of advice on this list, and some of it will be serious and some will be hard work.
But, above all, being a good friend is about being enjoyable company; about bringing light and laughter to another person’s life; about having a rattling good time together.
‘No one is saying you have to be an entertainer or a comedian, or always do exciting things,’ says Carmen. ‘It can be nothing more than grabbing a drink together and having a giggle. But if it’s not, for the most part, a pleasure to see the other person, then that’s not a friendship that will last.
‘Great friends leave each other feeling happy and energised – and that’s best done through having fun.’
7: Be a fan
Real friends are each other’s biggest cheerleaders.
They would buy the scarves and rattles if they existed. They celebrate wholly in one another’s achievements, however small they may be.
At least, that’s how it should be.
‘With some relationships, envy can creep in if one person is doing particularly well and the other less so,’ says Cindy.
‘This is not uncommon but it is unhealthy – for both of you. This is your friend. You should revel in their success without feeling personally diminished by it.
And if you do feel pangs of jealousy, that is an issue you need to address within yourself.’
It should go without saying but, along similar lines, real friends – just like real fans – don’t belittle, criticise or disrespect. Those who do are toxic, says Maria Vitoratos, an executive and personal coach based in Shaikh Zayed Road, Dubai.
‘They not only distract you, but slowly destroy your essence,’ Maria adds.
In short, don’t be that person.
8: Remember: you can’t be best pals with everyone
Research shows, says Cindy, that in a room of 30 people, there will be roughly 10 you simply don’t click with.
That’s no one’s fault – not yours and not theirs – it’s just human nature: nothing personal but we can’t get on with everyone.
Indeed, experts generally agree there’s a limited number of true close friends any one person can have.
The figure tends to be between six and 10. Go above that number, says Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, and you ‘water down the concept of friendship, it’s one of those things where less is more.’
‘So,’ says Cindy, ‘don’t waste time worrying about trying to be friends with absolutely everyone you meet. Of those same 30 people in that room, on average, there will also be 10 who have the potential to become really true friends. Focus your attention on them, enjoy their company, be yourself, and be positive.’