By Michelle Riddell
In March 2018, social scientist Jeffrey Hall published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships called, “How Many Hours Does It Take to Make a Friend?” His research sorted friendship into four categories: acquaintances, casual friends, friends, and close/best friends, and established the amount of time it took to move through the stages, from superficiality to a more intimate level of connection. Hall determined that friendship is a function of hours spent together, shared activities, and everyday talk—and that time was the most important factor when predicting closeness.
When I first heard about this study, I was skeptical. I mean, how could something as mysterious and complicated as friendship be reduced to an equation? I had always thought of friendship as an organic melding of personalities and pet peeves, with maybe some pheromones and magnetic attraction thrown in—more like atoms sharing electrons in a covalent chemical bond than linear arithmetic. Hall’s research, complete with graphs and charts, rejected the presumption that friendship was a serendipitous force of nature, and proffered it instead as something dry and clinical, something along the lines of compounding interest.
I became intrigued. If friendship wasn’t serendipitous, if it wasn’t something that spontaneously happened when the lunar orbits aligned, how did it develop?
According to this study, it took 40-60 hours to move from mere acquaintances to casual friends, 80-100 hours to be considered friends, and over 200 hours to become close or best friends. Hall’s findings suggested friendship wasn’t a gift bestowed upon us passively, but instead was the expected result of time and effort—and while this didn’t make the prospect of making new friends any easier, it did give it a sense of agency.
I considered my own friendships. I applied Jeffrey Hall’s hypothesis to past relationships in high school that seemingly blossomed at band camp overnight, college roommates with whom I just “clicked,” a lab partner in Biology class, carpool buddies, the neighbor I powerwalked with. Then I focused on the last ten years, notably the happiest of my life, and added up coffee dates, shared rides to away basketball games, shelving books in the library, hours and hours volunteering at my daughter’s school. In every single instance, Hall’s theory fit.
Of interest, I also noticed that the gaps in my social life, the times when I couldn’t count my friends on one hand, coincided with periods of isolation or abrupt change, like, when I left college mid-semester and moved home, or right after I got married, or while my husband and I waited for our daughter’s adoption to be finalized—and then the challenging months afterwards, when I was a new mom. Those dry spells, according to Hall’s theory, were nothing more than interludes in connection, where circumstances made the essential elements of friendship scarce. They weren’t, as it felt at the time, the universe’s way of rejecting me: The recipe failed because it lacked ingredients—not because I was unworthy of companionship.
Perhaps it was disingenuous to retrofit the pain of being awkward and anxious into a tidy explanation, and perhaps Hall’s conclusions generalized the subtleties of friendship, but so what? I took comfort in the idea that it wasn’t my personality, my neediness, or my tendency to overshare that made me lonely—it was a lack of exposure.
Once I viewed making friends as a formulaic process, and friendship itself a payoff on an investment, I couldn’t see it any other way. It answered the question why, when we socialize constantly on the internet and boast friend lists numbering into the hundreds, people report feeling more isolated than ever. I wanted to shout from the rooftops of my social media platform to every self-deprecating introvert below, that it wasn’t their fault they had no friends—it might be their choice—but it wasn’t their fault.
We already knew having friends improved your mental and physical health, and that friendship was a predictor of happiness, but this kind of tangible information was different. It was simple. It was dynamic. It gave us control. By acknowledging the basics and putting forth the effort, we could forge friendships and move through the stages of intimacy. We could learn to be proactive when it came to interpersonal contact—we could essentially make our own happiness.
Could it be this easy?
Hall’s premise was indeed simple, but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
If the secret to building authentic connections was showing up and being together, mothers of school-age children had a distinct advantage, and I could certainly attest to that—but where did that leave the moms who were at home with little ones, parents bogged down with full-time jobs, women with chronic pain diseases, or the dads who weren’t tasked with childrearing duties? And what happened to the friendships after the school events ended and opportunities to spend time with each other dried up.
My current close-friend group consists of fellow moms whose kids have been going to school with my daughter since kindergarten. We tick off all the boxes in Hall’s study to claim legitimacy: we spend time together, share activities, and talk daily—but as these functions are inexorably linked with our children’s lives, I can’t help but wonder, what would become of us when our kids graduate? Would we gradually lose touch, find less in common, our chatty visits in the pickup line yet another casualty of their growing up?
Are our friendships dependent upon our kids? My sources say yes. They are a beautiful, unexpected perk to being parents—much like children themselves. Decades or so devoted to the well-being of others has its rewards, but it is sobering to think of all that hinged on this facet of our lives. Knowing these friendships, like our children, are fleeting, makes them no less challenging and even more precious. It will always be a matter of time.
Michelle Riddell lives with her family in rural mid-Michigan, where she writes, edits, and teaches. She credits her sanity during the difficult years of parenting to friends she made volunteering at her daughter’s school.
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