I spent last weekend at the most wonderful four-day house party with twenty eight other people. We got together at a rambling country mansion in the Peak district to celebrate a friend's significant birthday.
I didn't know many of the people there. I woke up on Friday morning wondering what they'd be like. And how we'd get along. Their ages ranged from 4 to 82. They lived in places as far apart as Bulgaria, Katmandu and Crewe. I came home on Monday feeling as though I'd known them all my life.
As well lots of diversity, the secret to our rapid bonding boiled down to a number of factors.
1. Neutral territory. Going away with people means everybody is on neutral territory. There isn't a 'host' who's opened their own house to a group, spent hours cleaning and then is left with all the mess afterwards. When everyone mucks in with preparation and clearing up some real teamwork skills come to the fore.
2. Kitchen collaboration. When everyone piles in to help with meals the cooking becomes a more communal affair. Specialisms are traded, my breadmaking for your potato salad recipe, and the kitchen is a place where some lasting bonds are forged over a bubbling pot of goodness on an enormous stove.
3. A gestation period for friendship. I hate parties where I spend just one evening with strangers. I usually strike up the best conversation with the most fascinating person as they are helping me find my coat on the way out. A four-day stretch allows you to pick up on those conversations over breakfast. It means like-minded others can join in as you pour yet another cup of coffee. Then a long walk can follow in which you talk more and more, until you've all put the world to rights and worked up an appetite for a hearty lunch.
This reminded me of the importance of doing a 'friends audit' on a regular basis. You might like to try asking yourself:
1. When was the last time you made a new friend?
2. How much of your time is spent with the same friendship groups?
3. How often do you go out of your way to expand your friendship group?
4. How many of your friends are at least a generation older, or a generation younger than you?
5. How many of your friends have a different ethnic or religious background to you?
6. How many of your friends work in totally different industries to the field in which you work?
7. When was the last time you let go of a friend?
Question 1: When was the last time you made a new friend? Many people make friends in childhood and early adulthood and then stop. The secret to keeping your friendships fresh is to continue to make new friends throughout life. Top marks to you if you've made a new friend in the last month.
Question 2: How much of your time is spent with the same friendship groups? Hanging out with the same people has all the comfort of an old blanket. You know each others' foibles, have shared jokes and shared histories. However, you also risk having the same conversations and becoming stuck in the same old behavioural patterns. You're doing well if you have a number of different friendship groups and you move easily between them.
Question 3: How often do you go out of your way to expand your friendship group? Most of us leave friendship to chance. Yet actually making an effort to get more friends is important if you want to avoid being stuck with the same people for life. And the more 'different' from you those people are the more chance there is that you'll learn something from them or be exposed to something exciting and new. A high score to you if you regularly go to new places and make a real effort to speak to strangers.
Question 4: How many of your friends are at least a generation older, or a generation younger than you? Most people have friends who are in the same age bracket as themselves. That means they grow older together and there's no-one around to keep them in touch with what's new and upcoming. Also, having much older friends means we get the benefit of experience and wisdom way beyond that of our contemporaries. To keep your friendships fresh try age-blending. Add at least one friend from an older and a younger generation, and just see how your eyes get opened in ways you couldn't have imagined!
Question 5: How many of your friends have a different ethnic or religious background to you? Studies show that prejudice against minority groups comes from a lack of contact with people who are different from us. Unless you want to become closed-minded and bigoted add people from a diverse range of groups to your friendship circle. Learn about each others' religions, customs and foods, swap recipes and songs, enrich your life with spice and variety. Don't just stay in your own tribe.
Question 6: How many of your friends work in totally different industries to the field in which you work? Birds of a feather certainly do flock together but they also tend to become narrow and boring. Group think sets in and cliques form. By knowing people who do a whole host of diverse and unusual jobs you will get a fresh perspective on the world. Then you'll be better able to evaluate your own life. If your social circle is mostly dominated by work colleagues, join a hobby club or course where you'll meet people who don't do what you do. The secret is to break free from cliques and do something different in both your working and your personal life.
Question 7: When was the last time you let go of a friend? Friends can be either radiators (warm, welcoming, giving as well as taking) or drains (sucking, exhausting, energy vampires). Surround yourself with radiators and let the drains go. We all need to de-clutter our lives every now and again and (hard as it may seem) this applies to friends too. Just as you feel re-invogorated and refreshed after decluttering your wardrobe, clearing out your friends closet can be liberating. You can always re-stock it with more positive people.
As humans we have evolved as social animals. It once made sense for us to stick to our own tribe because outsiders represented danger. They don't any more. Invite more outsiders into your tribe and freshen up your friendships and your life.