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Reluctant to reconnect with an old friend? This B.C. study might help you understand why

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Have you ever wanted to rekindle an old friendship, but stopped short of actually reaching out?

If so, you're not alone – a joint-study from psychologists in B.C. and the U.K. has found many people are as hesitant to contact an old friend as they would be striking up a conversation with a total stranger.

Daunting as it can 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 a message on New Year’s Day.

“I reached out 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, ultimately decided they would work on a project together – and fittingly chose to explore the ways people re-spark friendships.

What they quickly realized was many of us are stubbornly unwilling to call, text or email the people who used to play a meaningful role in our lives.

“So the project became an effort to document that, to try to understand it, and to perhaps help people overcome it,” Aknin said.

Fear of being an 'imposition'

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

Of the 441 university students surveyed for that initial study, just 40 of them – or about nine per cent – said they had never lost touch with an “old friend,” defined as someone they remained fond of and still cared about.

Yet the vast majority of the 91 per cent who had lost touch with someone expressed feeling either neutral or negative about the idea of reaching out, for a host of complicated reasons.

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

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

Guilt over having drifted apart was another powerful psychological hurdle holding people back.

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

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

“People were way more interested in reconnection when they were imagining hearing from an old friend, which I think suggests that people are not aversive to the idea of reconnection, they just maybe don’t want to be the one to initiate it,” Aknin said.

Are old friends just strangers?

For another of the studies, 453 participants were asked to draft a message to an estranged friend as an exercise – before the researchers encouraged them to actually hit send.

Fewer than one-third of them followed through.

That was the case even though the 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 start to view old friends as strangers – and many of us are averse to approaching people we don’t know, fearing we won’t know what to say or won’t enjoy the conversation.

But contrary to those common worries, research has found even brief conversations with strangers actually tend to “boost short-term happiness," the co-authors noted.

For their last study, the psychologists used a method shown to ease those types of anxieties – a sort of "warm-up" exercise where participants spent a few minutes chatting with people they're currently close with.

Those who did were much more willing to then go out on a limb and message a long-lost friend.

“Just over 50 per cent of people who had done their warm-up activity sent the message, compared to around 30 per cent (who had not) – so that increased reaching-out rates by almost two-thirds,” Aknin said.

Friendships are among the most reliable ways we can improve our well-being, according to the psychologists, who suggested the neglected contacts who are already in our phones might be “very safe choices” for seeking out those connections.

It certainly worked out for Aknin and Sandstrom.

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

Are old friends really strangers, after all? Or might they be the same people you got along with so well to begin with?

There’s only one way to find out. Top Stories

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