Creating new relationships at university
When moving to a new place to go to university everything is likely to feel very different. This may be particularly noticeable if you just arrived from a different country. But the environment may not be what you notice the most, it is likely that your attention is on the people around you hoping to make new friends.
Now that you have been a few weeks at university, or perhaps you are returning after a period away from your studies, you may be wondering whether you can make friends with your flatmates or other students in your classes.
Perhaps you feel a little apprehensive at first contacting people you don’t know. You may wonder what you can talk about with them, or may find it difficult to keep the conversation going to find some common ground.
At times, it may feel as if others are getting on with their activities and you may feel a little as if on the outside. Rather than focusing on the difficulties, treat yourself with kindness as you would speak with those you care about (Kneff, 2011). Notice the self-judgments that are affecting your self-confidence, notice the feelings of uncertainty, and experiment anyway so that you can contact others an begin to make connections (Brown, 2010).
Establishing new relationships takes time, and while things are still new you may be missing your friends back home. And it is good to maintain contact with them to see what they are doing and share your experiences. However, it is also important to approach others, without comparing, so that you can begin to create new relationships.
How we communicate
Communications via smartphones or internet are easier now as they allow us to communicate with family and friends via Skype, Facetime or Whatsapp. Technology makes it possible to maintain relationships despite long distances and different time zones.
We can also write a text or comment online without having to engage in a long conversation. Increasingly, people seem to be relying more on sending a brief note adding emoticons to illustrate or convey an emotion. It is also possible to include pictures to share what we are doing so that it can feel as if we are creating a sense of closeness.
In addition, smartphones can show notifications to let us know when we have a message and allow us to respond instantly so that it can feel almost like having a conversation. In some cases this can bring people closer, although it can also lead to misinterpretations and become a source of tension when others do not respond promptly, or when it seems the communications are not including everyone. This may lead to having the feeling of not being included.
As most people tend to keep their phones in their pockets or bags it creates an expectation that a response should come almost instantly. And if they don’t respond soon, particularly when not knowing people very well it may lead to wondering whether they want to be in contact. The likelihood is that they may be busy, or perhaps do not have access to their network so they may have not received the message.
The challenge is that it is easy to get used to this form of communication so that when being face-to-face with others it may feel awkward to maintain a conversation. Often people sitting at a café or at a restaurant can be seen looking at their phones instead of talking to each other, preventing them from establishing a meaningful conversation.
Communicating via our digital devices can be very useful, and essential to keeping in touch with people far away, but it can also prevent having a sense of close connection with those around us. It can prevent interactions from feeling spontaneous and authentic. However, it all depends on how we use technology in our relationships. By becoming aware of how much we rely on our digital devices to keep in contact with people we can make efforts to increase the face-to-face time with them, to experience a sense of connection and allow relationships to grow.
It is human nature to need social connections and to seek meaning. People differ in their need for social contact – some may like more social contact than others, and this is normal. Everyone can feel at one time or another a bit lonely even if for a short while, particularly when moving to a new place as there hasn’t been time to establish social connections yet. Feeling lonely is a subjective experience which can feel a bit like having physical pain (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).
In fact, it is the physiological reaction that the body experiences to signal it needs social connections. Just like when we feel hungry we seek something to eat, or when we feel thirsty we reach for a glass of water. In the same manner, when feeling lonely it is a signal to reach out and connect with others around us. It is not a signal that something is wrong with us, instead, the feeling is indicating that we need to do something. Just like when feeling thirsty it is a signal to hydrate ourselves so is loneliness a signal to connect with other human beings.
Our brains are wired for us to collaborate with others. So we have developed the capacity to be aware of others because this helps us to identify whether others will cooperate and help us, or not (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). For some people this can turn into an ongoing preoccupation with how others view them, and increasing feelings of distress if they don’t feel others respond as they expect. Generally, when feeling low one can become more sensitive to the negative aspects of a social situation and miss the positive aspects that could help to lift the mood to reach out and make contact with others.
It might appear as if it is harder these days to make close friends, to feel connected and understood by others. The sense of feeling lonely may trigger apprehension making it more difficult to take the initiative to contact others. In order to cope with feelings people may tend to use negative coping mechanism such as alcohol, smoking, or withdrawing from social contact (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). This in turn may affect people’s health.
Experiencing feelings of loneliness might seem paradoxical given that social media allows us the opportunity to connect with others no matter where they are, and instant messaging allows us to have immediate responses giving a feeling of that people are closer. However, research indicates that despite the accessibility of digital connections high use of the internet may lead to feeling lonely, and to having a sense of unease in social situations (Turkel, 2011).
It is important too, to be aware that we all need some quiet time, where we can have the opportunity to reflect and recharge our batteries. Spending time alone does not mean that one is lonely. On the contrary, learning to be comfortable in our own company is necessary to focus on what matters to us, to understand ourselves and to regulate our emotions (Beer, 2008).
Yet, despite what appears to be the negative side of technology, we can take action by reframing the situation and changing our perspective. By raising our awareness of the potential drawbacks of digital communications and its potential to trigger feelings of loneliness, we can then focus on the benefits we can derive from using digital communications. By being proactive and taking the initiative to meet new people we can develop the skills and the confidence to discover new people we can be friends with.
What may get in the way of connecting with others
It may be that past experiences in school or college may trigger feeling sensitive to what others say or do. If our attention is on negative experiences we may tend to interpret aspects of current situations as confirmation that similar things continue to happen in the present.
The risk is that by focusing on the negative aspects, we may be personalising things that are not being meant in this way. Furthermore, in order to prevent potential negative experiences we may decide to withdraw and reduce contact with others. This reaction can exacerbate feelings of apprehension making it harder to try to make social contact, and it can further affect self-confidence (Leary, 2007).
It is helpful to keep in mind that it is normal to feel some unease when meeting new people, particularly when in a new environment where everything is different. Give yourself credit for your efforts to contact others even if you feel nervous and self-conscious. You can also keep in mind that generally most people are focused on what is going on in their world, and they are likely to want to meet new friends too.
If you notice that when you make efforts to socialise you find that you worry a lot and feel nervous, you can use some mindfulness techniques to relax your mind and give yourself some time to restore your energy (Kabat-Zinn, 2018). You can set yourself an activity, for example when you are next in a lecture and before the lesson begins, ask the person sitting next to you about the topic of the lecture, or find out what they are interested in.
Perhaps, when you go to the shop or cafeteria ask the student in front or behind in the queue what would they recommend. By focusing on day-to-day topics you can engage others in conversation and this can lead to further topics. Practising taking the initiative to speak with others on a daily basis will gradually turn into a familiar activity, while at the same time it will increase your self-confidence.
Taking the first step
“We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone…and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.” (Sandra Day O’Coonor)
We are social beings and we want to be part of a group. We want to feel accepted and to have a sense of belonging (Fiske, 2010). When we feel we can relate to others we feel better as we can participate in activities and have fun. We also need to have contact with others who we can trust to share our experiences.
If at first it feels as if the social contacts are not as close as those relationships you have with your friends back home, it is understandable. Your relationship with your friends back home have developed over years giving you the opportunity to get to know them, and they got to know you.
It is best not to compare your new relationships with your long-term friends as you are beginning to get to know them. It will take time to develop a sense of ease with the new people you are meeting.These are normal feelings when beginning to establish social connections.
One thing to consider is that we all have different temperaments, some people tend to be very outgoing and others are more reserved. This does not mean that those who are quieter do not want to socialise, instead, they generally are more comfortable in conversations within a small group. When getting to know new people it is helpful to identify their preferences, and that you express your preferences. You will eventually find people you feel comfortable with and by nurturing the relationships they will gradually grow. In some cases, you may realise that you have more in common with a few people and these are the relationships that you choose to nurture.
In any social group there will be a variety of ways of relating to others. Some people seem to naturally become popular as they are more outgoing and can engage others in conversation with ease. It may appear that they are the ones who have more friends. Sometimes, when socialising it can feel as if going against the majority could be problematic, possible wanting to prevent the possibility of criticism or feeling left out.
As social beings it is important to us to feel accepted by our peers, so that if you notice that others seem to be getting on with each other and your point of view is not considered, it is understandable that you may feel distressed and worried. If this is the case, acknowledge your feelings and reflect on what is important to you. Sometimes, the issue may be something that is not a priority for you so can let it go by. However, when you feel it is important you can express your point of view respectfully, and agree to disagree. It may feel uncomfortable at first, although with positive communications you can clarify differences and find common ground (Pristein, 2018).
At first, you may notice that although you have met a few people it still feels uncertain, and you may have a sense that it is too early to tell whether they will become friends. Perhaps you may be feeling a bit disappointed that things are not working out as you hoped.
At times, it may feel rather awkward if you perceive that others seem to be doing more interesting things and appear to be having a good time. In these situations it can be helpful to remember that what you are observing on social media for example is not necessarily a reflection of how things actually are for them, or how they feel. In addition, when feeling shy or nervous it is more likely that you may perceive that others socialise more easily.
Experiment with focusing on the future possibilities of meeting new people. Even if you feel uncomfortable focus on the fact that everyone wants to establish meaningful social connections. Take the initiative to contact others anyway maintaining the view that others are likely to want to make new friends too. As you practise notice how gradually it becomes less challenging, and with the added bonus of getting to know more people who can become friends.
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Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Minnesota: Hazelden.
Cacioppo, J. & Patrick, J. C. W. (2008). Loneliness. Human nature and the need for social connection. New York: W.W.Norton & Company.
Fiske, S. (2010) “Social cognition: Making sense of others.” In Social Beings. Core motives in social psychology. (2nd Ed). Chapter 4, pp127-175. USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hari, J. (2018) Lost connections. Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions. London: Bloomsbury.
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Neff, K. (2011) Self-compassion. TGhe proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: Harper Collins.
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