Here’s an unfortunate little truism, taken from a study recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships: “It is not possible to have friends without first making friends.”
Look, I’m very much in favor of having friends. I even have some myself! It’s just that the making friends part — the ambiguous zone between meeting someone new and comfortably calling them a friend — is, if we’re all being honest, kind of awful: the small talk, the worrying about coming off as either too needy or too disinterested, the pretending not to size each other up while really sizing each other up. There’s a reason everyone likes to complain about how much dating sucks, and yet we rarely talk about how forging new friendships is just another variation of the same awkward dance. It’s like when people say they wish they could skip straight to the comfortable Netflix-and-sweatpants stage of a relationships; the earliest days of a new friendship would be so much nicer if you could bypass conversations about siblings and alma maters and go right into being able to carry on a G-chat conversation that consists mostly of the word “ugh” back and forth.
But we all slog through it anyway, because the end result of putting in that work is that you end up with someone you can have those conversations with. And in the aforementioned study, author Jeffrey Hall, a communications professor at the University of Kansas who researches interpersonal communication, calculated just how long you have to spend in the tunnel before you reach the light at the end: On average, it takes about 50 hours of time with someone before you consider them a casual friend, 90 hours before you feel comfortable upgrading them to just “friend,” and around 200 hours of quality time before you’d consider the two of you to be close.
For the first part of the study, Hall recruited 429 online volunteers who had moved to a new city in the past six months and asked them to pick a person they’d met since relocating. Participants then filled out a survey about their relationship with this new person: how long ago they’d met, what they did when they hung out, how much time they’d spent together over the past week and how much time in a typical week. They also rated the person in question on a scale of closeness, from acquaintance or friend of a friend all the way up to good or best friend. In the second part of the study, Hall administered a similar survey to a group of 112 new college freshmen, asking them to pick two new people they’d met so far on campus and track the time they spent together over several weeks, rating their closeness at several points along the way.
But as Hall notes, not all time spent together can be counted equally. The study differentiates between “relationships of choice,” which he describes as “ones we want to have and would prefer to have if unconstrained,” and “closed-system relationships,” those you have with people you default into seeing, like co-workers or neighbors.
“There are many obligatory relationships we have at work and school or even in our neighborhood or apartment building,” he explains to me in an email, that “require us to engage — at least at a minimal level — in a courteous manner with people who we wouldn’t necessarily choose to be friends with.” Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, you have probably, at some point in your life, spent way more than 200 hours working alongside a cubicle mate who you would nonetheless never consider inviting to brunch.
There’s also only a small window in which those hour counts apply. Some research suggests that acquaintanceship flips over to friendship somewhere between three and nine weeks after people first meet each other, and that generally, if you haven’t hit friendship status within three or four months after meeting, the odds are that you never will.
In part, Hall explains, that’s because we’re more likely to make deeper connections during times of change, when we’re seeking out and meeting more people than we normally would. “There is very good evidence that friendships are more likely to develop during times immediately after geographic [re]location or entering into a new environment, like a new job or starting school,” he says. “People seem to pair off with potential friends shortly after that transition, meaning it seems that people know who they want to pursue a new friendship with among the new people they meet.” In other words, if you haven’t bonded after a certain amount of time after being introduced, there’s probably a reason for it.
My favorite part of the study, though, is this: While there was a correlation between closeness and time spent together, there wasn’t a correlation between closeness and time spent talking — a finding that should come as a relief for anyone who’s eager to get to that place where the two of you can easily sit in comfortable silence.