Making Friends: Insights on Friendship from the World’s Leading Experts - Pt. 5, Dr.William Rawlins

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Learning About Friendship

This is the fifth post in a series designed to explore the act of friendship.

By interviewing experts in a wide range of fields, we uncover insights related to all kinds of themes: empathy, men’s friendship, unhealthy connections, and first impressions.

Today, we’re taking the discussion back to the classroom to talk with researcher and professor, Dr. Bill Rawlins.

Meet Bill Rawlins

Bill Rawlins is Stocker Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University. Dr.Rawlins has written extensively about the challenges of communicating in friendships, including his two books Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course (1992) and The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities, and Dialogues (2009). Dr.Rawlins’ ongoing research continues to address how friendships contribute to a well-lived life for both individuals and communities.

Why Friendship Matters

Sarah: You’ve written two books about friendship. What is the premise of these two books?

Dr. Rawlins: Friendship Matters was written at a time when there wasn’t anything like it anywhere. It was and still is a comprehensive treatment of friendship across the life course, how close friendships change and stay the same across life. I started with childhood which is significant because your first friends are those who didn’t have to care about you, but chose to.

The book is based on interviews, resources, and case studies. There are two chapters for each of the five life stages―childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and later adulthood. Each of these sections presents a synthesis of research available at the time and also tries to relate the insights to real life.

One interesting thing I found is that once people develop a mature understanding of friendship, they generally have three primary expectations: One, someone to talk to who listens and takes concerns seriously. Secondly, someone to depend on. These are the friends one can call at 2 a.m. if the car breaks down. And thirdly, somebody to enjoy being around. Friends are about enjoying life.

Situations change across life, circumstances change, and that’s vitally important. Friendship is very susceptible to circumstances friends find themselves in. But one thing people say across life is that they need people to talk to, depend on, enjoy.

Sarah: That’s already a lot of important learning and that’s only your first book. What about your second title?

Dr. Rawlins: With The Compass of Friendship, the title kinda suggests the focus of the book. How far can friendship reach? What is the scope? Can it help us build communities, build more humane workplaces? This book also looks at friendship’s capacity for reaching across differences as well as what kind of moral direction friendship provides in our lives.

The book demonstrates how we often depend on friends for moral guidance. For example, if we have an important decision to make, who would we talk to about it? The book doesn’t just look at close friendships, but also includes the role played by people who cooperate with us in various ways.

Aristotle talked about different roles played by personal and what he called civic friendships. I integrate Aristotle’s ideas throughout the book. But in brief, we all have friends we think of as “friends”―this is purely the whole reason they’re in our lives. It’s friendship an end of itself. It’s bonafide relationship.

We also have other relationships that include a dimension of friendship.Often we have one sibling we get along well with, become friends with. Hopefully friendship becomes part of a romantic relationship.

Sarah: There are obviously endless topics a researcher could explore, but you’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to studying friendship. Why? What is it that drew you to this topic?

Dr. Rawlins: I was in graduate school taking a course on relational communication and I was amazed at how little was written on friendships. Sociological questionnaires always asked about family or work, but not friendship. It wasn’t studied well.

I had also just left a band I had been playing with, my friends, to go to graduate school, so I was naturally reflecting on the role my bandmates had played in my life. I also read a piece during this time called In Search of Friendship by Robert Paine.

While studying and reflecting on friendship, I began to more fully understand how important it is to the well-lived life.

One of the first things that drew me in was wanting to show the friendship inherently involves tension. We tend to treat friend as a benign, positive word. You have to add descriptors like “fair weather friend” to make it negative. But just like positive moments usually involve friends, so do the worst moments. Friends let us down and betray us. It hurts. Like anyone else, I felt pain about how friends treated me. I’ve also felt great, great blessings. You never really have it in the bag. You make the effort, you respond, you stay in touch. Learning about all of it was fascinating.

Sarah: I’ve heard you say, and I agree, that people often take friendship for granted. Why do you think this happens?

Dr.Rawlins: There’s an assumption that friendship just happens. That we’re going to have friends.

I think people don’t realize there’s a lot of thought and feeling that has to go into friendship. That friendship depends, in part, on how your life and friend’s life are organized, what kind of responsibilities and pressures you’re under. There’s a lot of complexity to friendship. People need to understand it takes effort.

It’s taken for granted, in part, because it’s not contracted. You’re born into family, connected to kin by blood. You’re never not someone’s sister or daughter. If you tried to disown them, you’d still be their kin. If you go to work and sign a contract, but then break it, there might be legal sanctions. But you can drift out of friendship.

Sarah: I concur that friendship takes effort. What criteria would you tell people they should have in place if they are trying to form new friendships?

Dr. Rawlins: I would ask them, how is your life organized? Is it organized to allow you to meet the kinds of people you’d like to meet? If you liked making music or playing volleyball at some point in life, I would say, go find local groups and get involved. That’s where you’ll start making friends.

And I would say, don’t poo poo small talk. Smalltalk is fine. It can lead to big talk. Don’t think you have to get real so quickly. It’s threatening and inappropriate to go deep too quickly. People are sensitive and guarded for good reasons. Their lives have been dearly won. So be comfortable with small talk.

One of the most important aspects of friendship is someone who listens. If you want someone to listen to you, it’s a good idea to learn to listen. People like to talk about themselves. Ask questions and listen to what people say. You might realize there’s more to them than you need. Conversations can lead to common interest.

And know ahead of time, there are a lot of people who aren’t going to ask you about yourself in return. That’s a reasonable sign this person might not be a good candidate for friendship. Give them the benefit of the doubt and keep trying. But if they don’t have any interest in you, they may not be a candidate. These aren’t ironclad rules, but sensibilities.

Also, make time for friendship! If you flat out don’t have time, you can’t make new friendships.

Special thanks to Dr.Rawlins for taking the time to share his insights with Huffington Post readers this week. Check back soon for another installment in the Making Friends series.

Read the next post in this series on friendship here. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.