How To Build Better Friendships

People with hordes of friends aren’t more likeable than anyone else. They’ve simply learned…


How to Build Better Friendships

By Sue Browder



s a newcomer to the small village, I had met June only twice before she died suddenly. She seemed pleasant, but unremarkable, so I was surprised to find the church overflowing at her funeral. Thinking I’d underestimated her achievements, I approached a man standing near the church door and asked, “Who was June anyway? Why are so many people here?”

The man looked perplexed, then replied, “Oh, they’re mostly just friends.”

Though I’d hardly known June, I left the feeling awed at the loss felt by the people there. The experience flooded me with images of my own friends – of those who had stood beside me through times of tears and laughter, and of those who had drifted away.

Being a good friend, and having a good friend, can enrich your days and bring you lifelong satisfaction. But friendships don’t just happen. They have to be created and nurtured. Like any other skill, building friendship has to be practiced.

What makes someone a good friend? In the years since I met June, I’ve learned many lessons about friendship – sometimes the hard way. And I’ve also consulted with researchers who have done studies on the subject. Here are some rules that I’ve found for building healthy friendships.

Make friends a priority. Many of us say, “I’d like to have more friends. I just don’t have time.” Yet we all have time for those things we truly want to do. To make room for friends, you simply need to be more creative.

Margaret, a busy attorney, keeps in touch with her friends by scheduling special rituals: she shops with one friend, plays tennis with another, lunches at a favorite restaurant with a third. My great-aunt Ada kept a “friendship book.” On the first of every month, she’d lift this volume from her desk drawer, note the friends she hadn’t spoken to for a month and call them.

Making time for friends may mean leaving the house a bit messier, letting the grass grow higher or skipping your favorite TV show. But aren’t these small prices to pay for the pleasures of companionship?

Note the little things. Standing by friends during difficult times is important. But the seemingly trivial act of caring are what keep friendships going: the birthday call, the note scrawled in a greeting card to ask, “How’s your back?”

Steven Duck, author of Friends, For Life, asked people to recall the most important conversations they’d had during a day. He found the talks that matter most tend to last only two or three minutes. “It’s not the long meaning-of-life conversations that remind old friends you care,” says Duck, “but the brief comments like, ‘Good luck on the job interview.’”

Risk being yourself. Some people resist telling friends their deepest feelings. They’re afraid to vent their fears, disappointment and negative emotions. But there comes a time in all friendships when you must open up.

While away at school, my teenage daughter, Erin, became friendly with two other girls. One Sunday these two girls went shopping together, leaving Erin hurt that she hadn’t been included. When the girls returned, Erin’s first impulse was to feign indifference. But she was so upset that she blurted out how miserable she’d felt. The girls suddenly realized what their friendship meant to Erin and apologized. At 16, Erin had learned a valuable lesson in friendship. Others can feel close to you only if you let them know you.

You may think if you allow friends to see your flaws, they’ll like you less. But they may like you more. Duck notes that, especially in the early stages of friendship, it’s more endearing to admit your faults.

Whenever a friends moans about doing something dumb or embarrassing, I mentioned the time I stopped to mail letters on my way to the airport – and dropped my airline tickets in the mailbox!

Friends support us by letting us know we’re not alone in our human frailties. That’s why it’s important to let them know the real – imperfect – you.

Embrace your differences. When we spend a lot of time with a friend, we might be reminded of the adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” We may start to notice annoying traits: “Richard is always so tense” or “Melissa shouldn’t flatter people so.” But don’t get too picky; a friend’s “faults” may be virtues in disguise.

Anne, a 70-year-old artist, once told me about an 81-year-old friend who drove everyone nuts because she refused to grow up. The artist recalled, “When I turned seventy, I felt depressed because I was getting so darned old. But my silly friend threw a ‘seventy-years-young’ party, at which she insisted we all skip rope, play hopscotch, toss Frisbees and run through the lawn sprinklers. Our adult children were terrified one of us would break a log or sprain an ankle. But I’ve never had such fun!”

Says Robert Weiss, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts: “One recipe for friendship is the right mixture of commonality and difference. You’ve got to have enough in common so that you understand each other and enough difference so that there is something to exchange.”

Don’t keep score. Too often people get hung up on the duties of friendship: who was the last one to phone or write? When you forget about getting as much as you give, you’ll make more friends.

During her travels, Stella Wolf, owner of a travel agency in New York City, has made dozens of friends all over the world. Why? Because she practices the art of friendship as French novelist Alexander Dumas defined it: “Forgetting what one gives, and remembering what one receives.”

Whenever stella sees a friend in need, she goes all out to help. When one was fired, she gave him a job in her agency. When her single friends mention they’re lonely, she plays matchmaker. Yet Stella shrugs off the many favors she does for others, stressing instead the ways they repay her: the “special bouquet” one friend sent after Stella treated her to a night on the town; the “touching letter” another sent to say thanks for visiting her in the hospital.

Let your friends be generous. It may be better to give than to receive, but it’s important to let your friends know you need them. Just as you feel happy to help a friend, give him a chance to help you.

My car broke down last year, and I desperately needed to get to an interview in another town. Mary offered to drive 60 miles out her way to take me. Not wanting to be a burden, I declined.

When I hung up the phone, I realized that she’d sounded disappointed. Our friendship cooled. Then one day I phoned her. I mentioned I was going on vacation and was wondering what to do with my high-strung cat. “Let me take her,” Mary eagerly volunteered. This time I gratefully accepted her offer. After that, our friendship deepened. This experience taught me the person was right who said, “If you want a man to be a friend, ask him to do you a favor.”

Laugh with your friends. A distinguished-looking man beside me on a long flight once complained, “I have the most irritating friend. She knows I hate gambling. So for my birthday, what does she give me? Sixty-one lottery tickets – one for each year of my life!”

Reaching into his coat pocket, the man pulled out a small velvet box containing an emerald-colored ring. “This is for her,” he confided. Mystified, I asked, “But if your friend annoys you so much, why are you giving her that lovely ring?” Grinning devilishly, he replied, “Because she loves jewelry – but despises the color green!” Friends for two decades, they make each other laugh with inappropriate gifts several times a year.

Physician and writer Sir William Osler called laughter “the music of life.” It is laughter that can brighten a friend’s day and bring good friends closer. And at critical times, laughter can help release tension and give your friend a new perspective on a seemingly grave or hopeless situation.

One day, Dr. Bernie S. Siegel, author of Peace, Love and Healing, got a call from a policeman friend who said morbidly, “I have nothing to live for. I just called to say good-by because I’m going to commit suicide.” Without a pause, Siegel quipped, “If you do, I’ll never speak to you again.” Astounded, the policeman started to chuckle. Instead of shooting himself, he decided to go see Bernie for a heart-to-heart chat.

Rekindle old friendships. We sometimes think that if we haven’t seen a friend in five, ten, or 20 years, getting in touch again will be awkward. It needn’t be.

During our early years of marriage, my husband and I were such vagabonds that friends frequently lost track of us. So we started throwing “phone-a-friend” parties. We’d pop a huge bowl of popcorn and take turns tracking down old chums by phone. When a friend no longer had the same number, we’d call a parent, co-worker or brother who might know where he was. Some of my fondest memories are of watching my husband munch popcorn as I gaily chat with an old friend I haven’t seen in years.


Friends demand a lot from you. They ask you to listen to their problems, watch their kids when the babysitter is sick, lend them your lawn mower. But the commitment is worth it. In the end, you realize that Robert Louis Stevenson was right when he said, “A friend is a present you give yourself.”


2 thoughts on “How To Build Better Friendships

  1. Sue

    I appreciate your article. I scrapbook and like to include background info on a person’s quote. Cannot find Robert Weiss associated with Univ. of Mass.? Could you share your footnotes? Thanks!

  2. I am very sorry, Sue. I picked this article from old Reader’s Digest issue, I can’t seem to remember exactly which, I only have a retyped digital copy of it. Maybe I will try to find some info regarding Robert Weiss.

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