With the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, it’s difficult to keep friendships alive, let alone strive to be a better friend. Of course, that doesn’t mean that this is a time when we can let our relationships fall by the wayside. We need our friendships now more than ever.
Still, we are all busy. Moreover, so many “be a better friend” articles involve incredibly difficult and abstract tasks like “become a better listener” or “be more empathetic.” Yes, yes you should become self-actualized and achieve nirvana. Of course, there are a million DIFFICULT things to do to improve your relationships. But there are also so many hacks to strengthen your relationships that are easy, fast, fun, and (nearly) free even for those of us who aren’t perfect individuals yet. Here are twenty-five ideas to be a better friend.
1. Become a Better Friend Just By Reaching Out.
Just initiate – reach out to your friends. Don’t be afraid of being seen as too forward or intruding. Most people are going to be grateful.
Reach out in the most personal way you can. Be daring! This can be on social media if you are only friends on social media (holla Twitter family!). But you shouldn’t only rely on social media because most people have no shortage of social media contact. People do have a dearth of in-person and vocal contact.
The hierarchy is in-person (socially distanced if necessary)>video call>phone call>physically written card>email>text>social media private message>social media public.
2. Spend Garbage Time Together
Jerry Seinfeld famously mocked the idea of “quality time.” Instead. he celebrated the idea of “garbage time” – that weird boring time you spend together where you’re just eating cereal and doing mundane things. This is the time that basically makes up your life.
So you don’t have time to hang out with your friends. Or you’re social distancing and can’t physically be with them. Spend your garbage time with your friends. Call them on your commute. Do your chores while Facetiming. Record long video messages for each other if you truly cannot find a time that works together – then it’s like you’re Facetiming at different times. Play an online word game together when you’re waiting in line (my friends and I are obsessed with WordFeud). It gives you experiences together even when you’re far apart. And it makes your boring chores more enjoyable.
3. Remember Important Dates.
Y’know I wrote this blog post of 25 tips just because of this tweet. Too bad it’s actually not tip #25. (But I always just write random numbers so I’m quite happy that I only put 25 and not …50).
I wrote the tweet because of something that happened earlier that day. Because my head is a blizzard of ideas and thoughts, I keep everything in a calendar. My friend told me her child is having an important scan next month. So I put the date in the calendar.
Often we think our calendar can only contain “important” business items for our life. Some people think that personal stuff has to be kept in our heads to be authentic; if you have to be reminded, it seems less personal or meaningful. But your friends and family don’t care how you remember their important milestones- they absolutely care if you forget. We can and should use tech to help us remember important dates. (Here’s a more extreme example). Using tech is smart, not impersonal.
4. Remember Birthdays.
Didn’t I already say that you have to remember dates? Well, birthdays are different and deserve their own bullet. Keith Ferrazzi retells this unforgettable story about singing happy birthday to a friend on his special day. Your birthday is the one day of the year when you expect people to reach out to you and it can be devastating if no one does.
One time, I calendared my friends’ birthdays from Facebook for the entire year. At the beginning of each month, I send out a physical card to everyone with a birthday that month.
Look, it would be better to send each card out right before their birthday. However, the mail can be unpredictable for arrival times and that’s just a lot more mental energy than I like to keep buzzing in my head. Also most people will be thrilled to receive a card at all, even if it’s early or belated. If a friend is upset that the card didn’t come ON their birthday, cut that person out immediately. They don’t live in reality.
5. Check in On Their Concerns.
So much of what we want from a friend is a sympathetic ear. But most people are distracted. The best thing we can offer is a distracted ear – and that’s fine. You just have to remember ONE THING.
What is that one thing? It’s ANYTHING really. If you talk to your friend and just remember one thing your friend talked about and you ask about it again specifically the next time you talk, they will feel like you were giving them your undivided attention.
I know there are lots of things on this list that involve remembering, but you can easily use your tech to remember things for you. After I talk to my friends, I jot down notes about their current concerns and follow up later. If I remember it, it’s probably because they talked at length about it, so it’s probably an important thing. But even if it’s something frivolous, it’s cool that you remembered.
6. Send Funny Memes.
Sending something funny associates your relationship with fun. If you see something delightful, it’s likely that your friend will also be delighted. Now you’re sharing something fun together. And God knows we could all use more fun.
7. Ask About Feelings Instead of Giving Advice or Speaking About Your Own Experiences.
Too often we jump to offer our own takes on someone’s life or problems, through relating to our own experiences or giving advice. But instead of jumping in, try one time just to ask how someone feels about their situation.
I call this “being on my side.” I can tell my friends a story about a bad date and maybe I’m in the wrong about the date. The last thing I want is my friend to point out the date’s perspective. If they do this, I’ll say, “Be on my side! Tell me he’s wrong and I’m right and that my hair is shiny!”
I’m extroverted so I process my thoughts and feelings by talking them out. After I feel like I’ve been heard, I will very likely come to the conclusion that I was wrong about the date, but I need to figure that out for myself.
Often, our friends are just looking for someone to listen to us so that we can return to emotional balance. Be that person who asks about our side and hear your friend out. It might be exactly what he/she needs but can’t ask for.
8. Give Specific Compliments.
This is a tactic that I first learned about in a parenting book but works just as well among adults (older kids, as it were). Obviously, giving compliments will get you in good with people, but specific compliments are even better.
Instead of a generic “This card is lovely”, you can say to your friend “I’m so touched that you made the time to pick it out even though you’re so busy.” This puts emphasis on your friend’s agency and talent, as well as your emotions, which makes the compliment more memorable and more authentic.
Instead of “You’re so successful!” try “I’m so impressed with your perseverance and initiative.” Say “You’ve got such a delightful sense of style” instead of “nice shoes.” Ask for advice on someone’s dieting and training regimen rather than saying “You’re ripped!” This can also start a great conversation. Acknowledge your friends’ work in your compliment and make them feel great about it.
9. Get Over-the-Top Excited When They’re Celebrating.
When I learned I passed the bar, I ran into the office of the first coworker with an open door and shared the news. She was a fellow first year and she literally SCREAMED with excitement for me. To be honest, it was slightly embarrassing, but it was also one of the best memories I have. I wouldn’t say we were particularly close but it made me so happy to feel so celebrated. It feels so much better to have to say “it’s not that big a deal” than to have to ask for some excitement from your friends.
So the next time your friend has a success, BE THEIR BIGGEST CHEERLEADER. Dance. Throw virtual confetti. Yell embarrassingly loud. Life is tough; every win should be celebrated to the greatest extent possible.
10. Share a Vetted Vulnerability.
We all know that everyone struggles and yet people go to great lengths to conceal these difficulties. Your friend will feel like a trusted confidante when you share. I caveat this by saying that you should aim to share something that is not small talk and not shallow, but don’t go off the deep end. If you’ve only ever talked about the weather with your friend, don’t pivot to the details of your nasty divorce.
Don’t feel the need to share something you’re uncomfortable with. For me, I have a few quirky tidbits about myself that I don’t care that people know but seem very personal.
Some great tidbits to share are weird things you love. It’s better to be positive than negative because you avoid offending people if you state you hate something they love. Share that you adore British baking shows, Keanu Reeves, and Spam (as I do). Tell embarrassing stories that you like to talk about (see, e.g. all the weird stories I’ve included in this blog or on Twitter). Maybe you’ll find new commonalities or at least open the door for your friends to open up about their likes.
11. Ask for a Favor.
Here’s an extra tip for being vulnerable – ask for a favor. Many people do not enjoy asking for help. Ironically, humans are wired to want to help. People like you better when you ask for help, specifically help from them. If there’s a rift in the relationship, this may give that person the opportunity to repair that rift (at least in their minds).
Furthermore, so many people feel lost and useless right now. Lots of people are unemployed. That can cut off social ties and social utility. You might feel like you do not have a purpose. And lack of purpose can lead to a spiral of negative thoughts.
If you ask your friend for a favor – not too big to be an imposition, but not too small to seem stupid – this can give someone purpose and can help you as well. And hey, this means you can help both of you at the same time. Some ideas are picking something up from the grocery store, recommendations on an area of their expertise, advice on a problem, or sharing or liking something you wrote on their social media. Just make sure your request is personalized – blanketing the request makes it seem like multi-level marketing, not a bid for intimacy.
12. Ask an Off-the-Wall Question.
Isn’t it weird how we can spend so much time with some people and not know basic stuff about them? But asking open-ended questions can lead to intimacy in a short time. Here’s a list of 36 questions that you can keep in your arsenal to get to know your friends better (you can just memorize a few and drop them into conversations). I started asking similar questions to my parents, and it has really brought us closer together and opened them up in a way that I’ve rarely seen before.
13. Bury the Hatchet.
I’m not just talking about grudges, even though you should bury them. Bury the hatchet just refers to any quarrel or conflict. So many times we are nagging our friends or family for the same old mistakes. In my family, we admonish our brother for speaking too loudly. When he gets excited, it can feel like he’s yelling. We’ve been doing the same thing for 30-some years.
One day, after reading about how madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, I told my brother I would stop mentioning his volume. He knows where I stand on the issue – he should be less loud. But repeating it wasn’t getting results and it created this tension between us. When I told him this, I could tell he was moved. And now, he’s still as loud as ever, but I’ve learned to accept it. After all, I can’t change him – I can only change myself.
Are there nitpicky things you keep bringing up with your friends? Serious issues you disagree about that you keep fighting over? Do you keep bringing up past wrongs? Maybe you can just let them go. It’s unnecessarily causing conflict in your relationships and you can just….stop.
14. Think Positive Thoughts About Your Friends.
The Law of Attraction seems loopy, but what you think CAN affect how you act. If you fixate on loving someone, you can’t help but be more empathetic toward them. Further, as someone who grew up in the church, I can attest to the power of knowing that someone is thinking positive thoughts about you and willing good things for you. In Christianity, you do this through prayer, but in the secular world, it’s “sending good vibes.” And people appreciate it.
So before your next meal, send some good thoughts to a friend and then text them to say you did so. Though it sounds loopy, the warm sentiment is real.
15. Create Random Acts of Delight.
My favorite thing to do is to send random care packages. Everyone loves a care package. They love gifts, getting stuff in the mail, and they love being remembered.
But who has time or money for crafting a care package? Dial your care package expectations WAY DOWN. Get a small old Amazon box (or whatever box you have around). The beauty of a small box means that it’s less intimidating and time-consuming to fill up. Fill your box with:
- Little notes about great memories you’ve shared, inspiring quotes, drawings, explanations about the items included in the package, and/or whatever’s on your mind. These can be on torn pieces of colored paper, but can be on cute stationery or cards if you have it. Spend no more than 5 minutes – just stream of consciousness is fine. It’s a little bit more quantity than quality here. You don’t have to write your feelings and flowery words out.
- Their favorite candy or snacks from Trader Joe’s (spicy dried mango slices and dark chocolate peanut butter cups are addictive)
- Cute small and light items from the dollar store.
- Items from your house that they might like. Cute little books, office supplies, cards for them to write to you, jewelry you don’t like, stamps for them to write to you, small gifts that people gave you that you didn’t like, small stuffed animals, unopened or even opened small food items. Caveat: don’t include anything that might spill and do not include anything that the other person will NOT like. I know it sounds cheap, but most of us have nice things in our homes that we don’t use or like, but our friends might. It doesn’t have to be perfect-perfect to make it into the care package. And yet, do not make the care package a burden. Receiving random but nice things is fun and meaningful.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually delightful. The vast majority of people will be delighted to get anything at all, even or especially if it’s weird (but not like dirty or smelly).
16. Realize Your Friends Choose You.
My friend Katie and I have this running joke where she’ll say something obnoxious and then she’ll say, “Too late – we’re already friends! No take backs!” (When I’m being obnoxious, I don’t say anything this funny). But it’s funny because, of course, as friends I can leave whenever I want to. There’s no contract.
I’ve often heard that one of the problems with marriage is that sometimes people think their spouse is stuck – they can now treat them however they want. Of course, your spouse still has the option of divorce. And that’s such a terrible way to treat your spouse.
As friends, you can easily cut people out. If we remember that friendships can be lost, we start seeing them as precious. We stop taking them for granted. And also you feel special because you realize that of all the people they could choose to befriend, they choose you.
17. Don’t Treat Your Friends Like a Landfill.
In light of the previous tip, one way to value your friendships is not bringing all your trash to your friends all the time. Your friends are not a landfill – there’s a limit on how much trash they can take. (And even landfills have limits).
Ever since watching it, I’ve been referencing this clip from What We Do In the Shadows about Emotional Vampires. I think we all know people like this – hopefully not your friends and hopefully not you. Always being negative and needy wears on people. Of course you should go to your friends when you need some support, but split it up between friends and between visits.
If you’re feeling down, some of the times, sit by yourself and get yourself straight. Try to give your friends a break. Refrain from being all-negative all-the-time to your friends. If you’re in a foul mood, it’s ok to cancel on your friend rather than subjecting them to it.
18. Be Silent Sometimes.
Can I just say – in this age of social media and blogs – it’s fine not to say anything. It’s fine not to have an opinion. It’s fine to have time to think about something to say before saying it (and more people should do it).
I caught a stomach bug from my mom a few months ago. It wasn’t COVID – it was just some 4-hour vomiting bug. And I was staying at my parents’ house in my childhood bed just vomiting for 4 hours. My mom sat at my little desk and watched Youtube videos. She didn’t even look up when I was throwing up, but she did bring me water and change the trash. And yet, I felt totally loved just to have her presence. I didn’t need her to tell me that I would get better or what she thought of my illness.
I just needed to feel like there was someone else there with me. And she was.
19. Don’t Pretend You’re Too Busy to Respond.
Everyone is addicted to their phones these days. And I don’t know if you’ve had this experience as well, but the people who are the MOST addicted to their phones are usually the people who leave my texts hanging for hours or days.
Look, I understand people get busy and you can’t always respond to a text immediately especially if it’s not urgent. But your friends will start to notice when they see you’ve posted on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter and still haven’t responded to their text or email. They’ll notice if you’re constantly checking your phone when you’re with them in person and you don’t respond to their texts. Sure you can take some time before responding if you need time but if you see you friend’s text, try to respond as soon as you can. Don’t leave them hanging.
Or if you’re going to leave them hanging, at least have the decency not to show up on social media while the text is unanswered.
20. Tell Your Friends If You Follow Their Advice to Success.
People love giving advice and they love it even more if they’re right. So if someone recommends a book that you and enjoyed, tell them about it. If someone recommends a restaurant that you ate at and loved, give them kudos. It compliments their judgment and taste (specific compliments), lets them know you’re listening to them (see all listening hacks above), and lets them feel like they helped you (favors).
21. Get Caught Bragging.
There’s nothing wrong with talking behind your friends’ backs as long as you’re saying wonderful things. When you write delightful things about your friends in your social media, it can feel extra special because it’s public (so all THEIR friends can see it) and unexpected. It’s like a front-handed compliment (opposite of back-handed?).
People love being talked about in a positive way by their friends. This will make you look great among your friends (what a sweet person you are!) and the particular friend will beam. Win-win. Incorporate bragging about the successful advice they gave you and you’re combining 4 tips in 1!
22. Relive their Best.
My friend went on a date with a woman who sent him pictures from 20 years ago, AFTER they had already met and he already knew what she looked like. She’s still a beautiful woman, but she clearly wanted to relive the past.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to remember our best times, what we looked like when we were our fittest, the photos of us winning the trophy. Though no one should live in nostalgia permanently, it’s nice to be reminded of good times from time to time. Send some souvenirs of bad times. Send old pictures. It’s good to remember where we came from – the dreams we used to have, the people we used to be. It lets us remember that we are capable of change and how far we’ve already come.
23. Cut Out Toxic Friends.
Can’t anyone become a good friend? Sure. But when you have toxic friends, it can make you toxic. Further, it can pollute your own ideas about your friends. You don’t have to be (and can’t be) a great friend to everyone, and in fact, you could be a much better friend if you don’t have toxic friends to weigh you down.
Your version of toxic may be different than mine. But I tend to cut out anyone who makes me despair about the state of friendships. I cut out anyone that, after interacting with them, I want to become more isolated, guarded, or scared, or makes me feel bad about myself or others. You will be a much better friend if you surround yourself with good people.
24. Don’t Be a Toxic Friend Yourself.
Two things happen when you say bad things about your friends – you feel worse about your friends, and the person listening thinks worse of you for badmouthing someone who isn’t there. And of course, it weakens your relationship with your friends if it gets back to them.
You can talk about your friends in a way that clearly shows empathy and love even if you disagree with their choices (kinda like how we talk about our family if we don’t hate them). Always strive for that.
25. It’s Never Too Late to Say Something Kind.
A couple I know had a miscarriage. I had heard about these incidents through the grapevine but I hadn’t done anything. Though I felt badly, time had passed and I didn’t want to remind them of something painful if they had gotten over it. Also I felt like reaching out might be perceived as self-absorbed, like I wanted to win brownie points even though I was so tardy.
I reached out to a mutual friend to get the temperature if I sent a card. She gave me the go-ahead without reservations. If anything, she said they would appreciate that someone was thinking about them even after the first wave of sympathy was over. And she was right.
I remember once I congratulated a pastor on the birth of his child and he berated me because his wife had given birth months earlier. That guy is a dick. Most people are not like that. Don’t let people like that prevent you from being kind, even if you can’t get the timing perfect.
Send flowers even if the funeral already happened. Send a belated card. Say congratulations whenever you can. It’s never too late to remind someone of something great or to grieve with someone after something terrible.
Conclusion – Easy Tips to Be a Better Friend Even During Lockdown
I know some of these tips sound calculating and cold – but as much as people want to believe that friendship “happens” effortlessly, it doesn’t. Even fun vacations need to be planned.
These hacks are all different ways to remind your friends that you remember them and care. It can feel like this pandemic is all lost time in our relationships – but it doesn’t have to be. Now more than ever – when we’re burned out, depressed, busy – we need our friends.
I hope these tips add a little more fun and intimacy to your relationships. And give me a social media shoutout if you used this advice to great success!
For more reading on friendship, try Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness