Reluctant to reconnect with an old friend? This BC study could help you understand why

Have you ever wanted to rekindle an old friendship, but couldn’t get around to it?

If so, you are not alone: ​​a joint study A study by psychologists in British Columbia and the United Kingdom has found that many people are as hesitant to contact an old friend as they are to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.

As daunting as it may be to take the plunge, study co-author Dr. Lara Aknin, a professor at Simon Fraser University, did just that two years ago and reconnected with her friend Dr. Gillian Sandstrom at the University of Sussex.

All it took was one message on New Year’s Day.

“I went up to Gillian and said, ‘Happy New Year, I miss you,’” Aknin said.

The two psychologists, who met years earlier as graduate students at the University of British Columbia, eventually decided they would work on a project together and, fittingly, chose to explore the ways in which people rekindle friendships.

What they quickly realized was that many of us are stubbornly reluctant to call, text, or email the people who used to play an important role in our lives.

“So the project became an effort to document it, try to understand it and maybe help people get through it,” Aknin said.

Fear of being an ‘imposition’

For their research paper, the co-authors conducted a series of studies involving nearly 2,500 participants combined, and the first ones shed light on how common failed friendships are, even among young adults.

Of the 441 college students surveyed for that initial study, only 40 of them – or about nine percent – ​​said they had never lost touch with an “old friend,” defined as someone they still loved and cared about. .

However, the vast majority of the 91 percent who had lost contact with someone expressed feeling neutral or negative about reaching out, for a number of complicated reasons.

“At the top of the list was the worry, or fear, that reaching out to them after all this time might be awkward and that their friend wouldn’t be interested in hearing from them,” Aknin said.

“They were just worried that they would be an imposition on their friend’s life.”

Guilt over growing apart was another powerful psychological obstacle that held people back.

Dr. Lara Aknin, left, and Dr. Gillian Sandstrom met in graduate school at UBC. (Source: SFU)

Interestingly, a follow-up study found that people were much more excited about the idea of ​​an old friend contacting them out of the blue.

“People were much more interested in reconnecting when they imagined listening to an old friend, which I think suggests that people are not averse to the idea of ​​reconnecting, they just maybe don’t want to be the one to initiate it,” Aknin . saying.

Are old friends just strangers?

In another study, 453 participants were asked to compose a message to an estranged friend as an exercise and then encouraged to go ahead and send their note.

Less than a third of them actually complied.

That was the case even though participants “wanted to reconnect” with their friend, believed their friend “wanted to hear from them,” and had the person’s contact information, according to the paper.

Aknin and Sandstrom theorized that part of the reason for that apprehension is that, over time, we begin to see old friends as strangers, and many of us have a strong aversion to approaching people we don’t know, for fear of not knowing them. what to say or you won’t enjoy the conversation.

But contrary to those common concerns, research has found that even brief conversations with strangers actually tend to “increase short-term happiness,” the co-authors noted.

For their latest study, the psychologists used a method that has been shown to alleviate that type of anxiety: a kind of “warm-up” exercise in which participants spent a few minutes chatting with people they felt most comfortable talking to, such as friends or current family members.

Those who did were much more willing to take a chance and send a message to a long-lost friend.

“Just over 50 percent of people who had done their warm-up activity sent the message, compared to around 30 percent (who didn’t), increasing outreach rates by almost two-thirds,” he said. Aknin.

Psychologists noted that friendships, new and old, are among the most reliable ways we can improve our well-being, and suggested that contacts already on our phones or social media accounts could be “very safe options” to pursue. those connections. .

It certainly worked for the two co-authors.

“We went from not talking for probably a year or two to being in touch probably once a week, on average,” Aknin said. “That was a real pleasure.”

After all, are old friends really strangers? Or could they be the same people you got along so well with in the beginning?

There’s only one way to know.

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