Throughout our years working with students from the two Sheffield universities, we would have between 4-6 for Sunday lunch every week during term. It was of course only possible because of Rachel’s remarkable gifts of hospitality. But it was a crucial way to get to know everyone who came to the church as individuals and all kinds of things developed from that. However, we quickly stumbled on the insight that having a group exclusively made up of 1st years led to social disaster.
On several occasions they would all be in the sitting room while Rachel & I popped to the kitchen to do whatever, and we would find ourselves deafened by the awkward silence next door. They were all just sitting there, passive, awkward, desperate for someone to break the ice.
As a result, we subsequently made sure we always had one or two 2nd or 3rd years. For they’d already learned the art of acquaintance-making (usually!).
There are probably many reasons for this little social phenomenon. The key one though was that for many, coming to Uni was the first time they’d been away from their childhood home – for most, they’d grown up with the same peer group from primary to secondary school. Making new friends was an art undiscovered. Of course, it didn’t take long for most – but it was a salutary lesson for those of us brought up with greater fluidity. After all, if you’ve hung out with the same people, why should you know how to handle new people?
So it was interesting that Wired magazine had a little side-bar with the mildly absurd “How to make friends in 5 minutes” this month: a curious context for it, but revealing nonetheless. It’s far more important than simply how to get a date, in our socially inept age. Much of this would have been very useful for our first years all those years ago. Sadly, though, there are a number of more mature people out there who could do with taking a leaf out of this particular book.
- LEARN TO JUGGLE
Starting a conversation is an exercise in multitasking. “Learn to make and hold eye contact, smile, give a positive affirmation, lift your hand up in greeting and say something pithy,” advises Elise. “That’s how you create a good vibe.”
- AVOID INQUISITIONS
Asking questions shows interest, but don’t overdo it. “Anyone who has been trapped ona plane next to an inquisitor knows it’s horrible,” Elise says. “Avoid pushing the conversation along with questions; use statements instead,”
- MAKE BIG TALK
Dispense with talk about the weather and go straight to grand theories of the universe. “People often welcome more significant conversation,” says Elise. “The best subject, however, is what’s been on the mind of your new friend lately.”
- TALK LIKE YOU’RE FRIENDS
Statements that include both of you in the same storyline establish fast rapport, such as: “I don’t know about you, but I could go for a burger right now.” “These sort of statements encourage interaction without demanding it,” says Elise.
- DON’T BRAG
When it comes to self promotion, subtlety is required. “You finished second in your age group at the London Marathon. You can rebuild an Aston Martin’s clutch in 30 minutes. Great, but hold back. Let them find out later.”
- BE SILLY
People trust you when you trustthem enough to let your guard down. “Tell an embarrassing story,” Elise suggests. “Tryout your bad American accent. Laugh at yourself, and people will feel more inclined to open up to you.”
- DON’T FIX THEIR PROBLEMS
Strangers often complain as a safe way of making conversation. “You don’t have to fix their problems,” Elise says. “It’s more constructive for your friendship to reassure them they have the ability to solve the problems themselves.”
- DON’T THINK – LISTEN
It’s tempting to spend the time they are talking planning what you’re going to say next. Don’t – just listen to what they’re saying. “The answer to the riddle of flowing conversation is not in your head,” says Elise. “It’s right in front of you.”