Whether you are a classic introvert or sit somewhere in a middle we all need human interaction. Humans evolved into our current form partly because of our ability to organize large groups to work on complex tasks. Despite a heightened focus on an individual in modern western society, our human connections remain key to everything from performance in life to happy living. Yet we feel increasingly isolated based on polls conducted even before the pandemic.
A model of human connections
The question on the number of connections optimal for humans was answered by anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research based on the size of brains in relation to social structures. Dunbar discovered that the magic number is 150 accounting for all of the connections in your network. The model of connections is layered like an onion with 4-5 friends in immediate proximity, another 10-15 people that you know well but do not consider close friends, and so on.
The social network we build is similar to neural connections in its behaviour. Akin to neurons wiring together who spend time in a common activity become related. Bond of old friendships strengthens as our relationship progresses through life. The rule “ If you don’t use them you lose them” applies equally to neural links and friendships. Not staying in touch with closest friends weakens the bond to a point that friends become acquaintances or somebody that you used to know as the popular song goes.
The struggle to build new social connections
Through my experience as a social events organizer, I learned that people struggle to build new connections after finishing schools and universities. This was confirmed by researchers suggesting that in our younger days we explore new friendships and choosing to focus on existing connections in our adulthood. Unfortunately, life gets in a way and these old connections move on with their life gradually disappearing from our lives.
Thankfully the technology comes to rescue offering a few options to build layers of the social onion. An Internet search will reveal platforms specializing in events offering a number of interest groups to join from hiking to whiskey tasting. In addition:
- There are ex-pat communities with large networks in major world cities that welcome both locals and foreigners at their events.
- You can meet new friends by hosting travellers in your city with non-profit community-based companies that offer a platform for homestay and social networking services.
- Your favourite social network most likely to have a few groups dedicated to your hobbies.
Going into the wild can be intimidating there is no doubt about that. People often register for an event and do not turn up or sit a few tables away by themselves building the courage to join the group.
Grow your social muscle
The anxiety is a common phenomenon and needs to be tamed slowly while you are growing your social muscle. To begin to join an activity that you can enjoy without forcing yourself to speak for instance hiking, meditation, or a movie night.
Choose an event focused on a subject you are familiar with – stock trading, language exchange, or playing board games. Once you get used to attending events follow a few simple rules to start finding people on the same wavelength:
- Start with small talk – the weather, weekend plans, reasons for joining a meet-up are good warm-up choices.
- Share stories about your life. Vulnerability takes courage but it’s an effort that pays off with the creation of authentic connections.
- Avoid topics of religion and politics unless your meet-up is specific to these. Identity, beliefs, and values are intertwined. Because of that, your opinion about the current president may be considered as a personal attack by your new chat buddies.
- Let others talk. The best conversationalists are also great listeners. Dominating a discussion unless you a stand-up comedian on the stage is considered bad manners
- Move around the scene. There is no obligation to stay with the same group it unless it is a choice. Simply say “It was nice chatting with you. I am going to mingle a bit and we will catch up later”
Steps to grow your social network
By following these following steps and attending a few events your social network will start growing gradually. Once you have a few developing relationships start investing in those.
- Use numbers from Dunbar’s research as a guide to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Focus on maintaining a relationship with 4-5 close friends and keep in touch with outer layers of the connection onion by attending events and messaging on social networks.
- Facebook has a birthday reminder – reconnect with old friends by sending good wishes. See someone’s post that you like – leave a comment.
- Take the initiative by suggesting a coffee catch up or lunch. Check-in on your friends now and then.
- And a quick reminder – do not be pushy. Nobody likes unwelcomed attention. If someone has not responded to two of your messages there is no need for a third one. There could be many reasons for a lack of response. Life gets busy, maybe you are not on the same level as you originally thought, who knows. Be comfortable to let go and spend your time where it matters.
- Another alternative is to become a beacon for friendships by starting a social group yourself.
- Using one of the previously mentioned ideas you can schedule your own meet-ups.
Defining your social network
Lastly the proverbial saying “show me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are” turned out to be true. In various studies, researchers found that characteristics of people in your friends’ network will define your habits and personality from smoking to levels of happiness.
Because of this, we need to review our human connections if we are not satisfied with the quality of our lives. Tune in to how you feel around certain people. Do you find conversations inspiring? Are you still growing in the same direction? Based on these findings you can decide whether it is time to build distance or invest more time in this relationship.