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The Informed Life


Apr 25, 2021

Kat Vellos on Friendship

Kat Vellos uses her background in experience design to empower people to learn, grow, and thrive. She’s written two books on adult friendship, We Should Get Together and Connected from Afar. In this conversation, we discuss the importance and challenges of making friends, especially during this time of ‘social distancing.’

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Jorge: Kat, welcome to the show.

Kat: Hi, Jorge! Thanks for having me on the show.

Jorge: I'm very excited to have you here with us. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself?

About Kat

Kat: Yes. So, hello everyone! I'm Kat. In my current day-to-day life nowadays, I am an experience designer, author and speaker, as well as a facilitator, but my background involves two paths that have blended quite seamlessly into one. The first path is my path as a designer: I got my degree in graphic design and worked in a variety of design roles, ranging from editorial, news journalism, all the way up to tech and digital devices and UX design and product design.

And then the other path was the part of my career that involved working directly in communities as a facilitator, community builder, and program director of empowerment programs, particularly for marginalized youth and marginalized communities. Both of those paths blended together in a way when I found user experience design. This was back in about 2014 or so, and I've been doing a variety of experience design projects and roles at different companies. And now I work for myself and the focus of my work right now is really blending those two paths and sets of skills together around helping people cultivate more meaningful connection in their lives.

Why friendship?

Jorge: You've written two books, We Should Get Together and Connected from Afar, which are about friendship. And I'm wondering what brought you to the subject?

Kat: Yeah, so for starters, a little bit about me is I am an introvert. I also moved quite a bit as a kid. So, I had the experience of sometimes belonging, but most of the time not quite belonging wherever I was, because I was always from someplace else. And I think that really imprinted me with a real understanding of what it feels like to not have the connection that you want. And then later on, when I found it in high school and college and got my friend groups and got that sense of belonging, I was just like, "Oh, this is beautiful. I never want to let this go." And throughout my adult life I never really had a hard time making friends. I loved being in a community.

But when I moved to the Bay area, it was the first time in my life — despite multiple states, a couple different cities moving — I had a hard time forming ongoing, lasting friendships. And just dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people I met said that they had the same problem. And I got really curious about that as a user experience designer. I know there may be some UX designers listening right now; I don't know about you, but when I see that a lot of people are having a certain problem, like completing a certain task, or getting success at something, I get really curious about why that is, and I can't help but think about how we can improve a process to make it easier and more enjoyable for people. And so, just quite naturally, I got fascinated with the subject of connection in adulthood. Particularly around forming and maintaining friendships as life goes on. And I did a variety of... I can go further into depth, but I did a whole variety of experiments and explorations into that and ultimately ended up writing this book about it. I did not know at the beginning, when I started investigating the topic, that I was going to write a book. But it became quite clear that a book was urging to get out of me.

Jorge: People have been making friends for a long time. And I'm wondering, why now? Why do we need a book on this subject? It's almost like an instruction manual, right? Why do we need one for friend-making now?

Kat: Right. So, it's not that people, like, aren't making friends right now, or that they haven't been doing that for a long time. But one of the things that has also been happening concurrently in our society is that there is a loneliness epidemic. The first instance of that phrase that I could find in U.S. journalism at least, was around the 1980s. And since that time, it has slowly been getting worse. Or not even slowly, but kind of quickly! Around the time of my original research into this, around 2018, approximately half of people in the United States were reporting that they felt lonely on a somewhat to regular basis. And by 2020, when my book came out, that number had already climbed to around 61%. So, it's not that people don't want friends or that they don't want to make friends or that there's nobody making friends, but it's that loneliness is climbing. And my hypothesis is that the cure for that is healthy friendships and healthy communities. And for some reason there is a need for more support and more resources that will help people do that within the demands of our modern world.

Types of friendships

Jorge: You mentioned healthy friendships and the book offers what I think of as a taxonomy of different types of friendships. You speak of meaningful friendships as one type. And I'm just wondering if you could tell us a bit about different types of friendships.

Kat: Yeah. So, part of the qualitative research that I did in researching the book was spending a lot of time interviewing people about their experiences of connection in both friendship and community, which are a bit different. And also doing a survey and asking people to define in their own words, you know, what is friendship to you? And out of that, a few different categories of friendship emerged. And so, I'll give you a few examples, and this is directly from interviewee quotes and survey respondents that I think really, really hit the nail on the head here.

So, the first is our category of acquaintances. And acquaintances might be someone that you know some basic details about, you can have small talk with them, you maybe have met them in person a couple of times, but you wouldn't go out of your way to reach out to them. And there's no real deep, emotional connection. And then next would be like, a friend category, like a casual friend. And this is someone that you feel happy around. You don't have to try too hard to have a conversation with them. You probably know a bit about each other's life circumstances, but maybe you don't see each other as often as you'd like, or it just doesn't go super deep when you connect. It's just casual and friendly and li ght, but not on the deep, deep heart level.

And then there's that close friend level or best friend level. And this would be someone whose wellbeing I care deeply about and who I feel confident I can depend on. Someone else said, "someone who accepts me completely for who I am, and I can tell my problems to, without feeling ashamed." It can also be someone who, let's see... someone said, "someone who knows my secrets, fears, and who tells me what I need to hear, even if I don't like it." And then last is my favorite, which is someone who is integrated into my life. That's really when they start to get into the... almost the category of chosen family, at that point.

Hydroponic friendships

Jorge: There's a metaphor in the book, a gardening metaphor. You speak of cultivating friendship. And I was drawn to the phrase, "hydroponic friendships." What's that about?

Kat: Right. So, I am a plant person. I have been studying plants for a while. I really love spending time in the garden, and anytime I'm in nature is where I'm also sourcing a lot of metaphors about life. And as I looked at what were the challenges people were having with friendship, as well as what were the opportunities and how could we create more closeness, I was drawn to the metaphor of hydroponics and gardening because — for those who may be unfamiliar with it, although I think maybe a lot of people have heard of it — it's where you grow plants in highly nutritious water instead of soil. And at the time when, you know, the grandfather of hydroponics proposed this idea, he was laughed at by his community. They were like, "you're crazy. You can't grow plants without soil. This will never work!" But he did prove that by adding the nutrients plants need to grow to the water, they could thrive. And in fact, sometimes do better than they do in the soil.

And this metaphor came to mind because one of the trends I was hearing a lot in the challenges people were having with friendship is that they felt like they didn't have enough time. They were like, "Oh, I'm so busy. Everybody's so busy." And busy-ness is one of the four main blockers or barriers to close friendship that I talk about it in the book. And as a facilitator, one thing that I've seen over and over again when I've hosted camps and retreats and workshops, and all kinds of events is that when people have the opportunity to come together in a shared intention and a space that is designed to allow them to develop closeness and to share vulnerably and to build trust, they can bond much, much more quickly than they can just out in the wild world. And so hydroponic friendship is my hypothesis that in the absence of abundant time, your friendships can grow much more quickly if they are immersed in quality connection that involves vulnerability, self-disclosure, empathetic listening, and you experience these things in some kind of concentrated form. So that is the theory of hydroponic friendship.

Jorge: So, if I might reflect that back to you, it sounds like it has to do with creating the — I'm going to use the word environmental — the environmental conditions to allow friendships to blossom. Is that fair?

Kat: Yes. That's a really beautiful paraphrase, reframing of it. Yeah! I like that too.

Jorge: I'm wondering, as someone who... I don't think of myself as someone who has trouble making new friends, but I can relate to the framing you spoke of earlier of the challenge of moving, for example, to a new city where you don't know anyone, and everyone is so busy. I'm assuming that hydroponic friendship starts... by necessity, must start in the kind of lower rungs of the taxonomy we were talking about earlier. My expectation is that you would first start as acquaintances, and then move to... you ascend to a higher level, right?

Kat: Yes, generally. Although there are some cases where people meet and there's like an instant friendship attraction. It's almost like friendship at first sight! Or like, love at first sight, but for platonic friendship. Where two people really can be quite magnetized to each other very quickly. And in that case, it's almost like they've leaped from acquaintances straight into like, "Oh my gosh, I want to be friends with you!" and then the other person's like, "I really want to be friends with you too!" And it's like right there, they've got a great spark to like really initiate a friendship that may grow into a deeper close connection as time goes, because they've got this like huge burst of momentum and mutual enthusiasm right at the get-go.

Or, as you mentioned, this may also grow at a little bit of a slower pace from someone who just starts as acquaintances that you feel fond about, but maybe not quite at that friendship-at-first-sight feeling.

Making friends online

Jorge: When you say friendship at first sight, I can think of friendships in my life where that has happened, where I've met the other person and I thought, "this is somebody who, I feel some kind of simpatico with, and would like to get to know better." And whenever that's happened, it's been in a physical environment where I am with that person. We might be sharing a meal with other people or we might be in a social situation, or it might be a work situation, for example. But it's always been in physical environments. And I'm wondering, given that we've just celebrated a year of lockdown here due to the pandemic, the degree to which our socially distant way of being affects our ability to spark at these potential friendships as we would in physical spaces.

Kat: It certainly does affect it, but it's not a complete impediment because humans are incredibly adaptable creatures. And we've seen this in the ways that people have... you know, after an initial moment at the beginning of lockdowns of like, "Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? The world is ending! The sky is falling!" Very quickly, we adapted. Because that's what we do! You know, with substitution for what we could do before we find ways to create some semblance of that in the current moment. And one of the things that has been really gratifying and exciting to see is that even though we are generally meeting virtually to do our meetings and our events and our get-togethers and everything right now, I have absolutely seen people have that sense of spark.

Even in some of the workshops and talks I've given where... a direct quote from the chat one time I saw that just warmed my heart. Someone wrote in the chat, "Oh my gosh. I already want to be friends with some of the people who just shared in the main room!" Like on the big group screen, where people were obviously sharing something personal about their life, and we're all talking about friendship together and how people feel and right away, as people get a sense of who this other person is, what they value, what their personality is. There can be that same sense of spark and that same sense of not just curiosity, but a desire to get to know that person and to build something in friendship with them.

Jorge: And do you know what happened? Did they follow up on that?

Kat: I don't know. I usually... at that moment, I'm like, "Hey, if there is someone you want to talk to like trade contact information, don't just let the call end and let it slip away!" A lot of people hold themselves back from creating the friendships they want, because they're scared to initiate. And so, I often say if you are open to friendship, don't be ashamed to say, like, "I really loved getting to meet you all. I would love to connect again. Here's my email!" Do that because most people don't do it. And the ones who do are likely to have greater success. Because again, they, don't just... it's not ephemeral. The call doesn't just end and then everyone's back to just being alone in their apartments. They have some way to reconnect again.

Jorge: I've been part of a few virtual cocktail hours during pandemic time. And the way they usually manifest is as Zoom meetings primarily, where you get this all-up view where you see everyone's thumbnails of everyone's video feed on the screen at the same time. And the quality of the conversation is very different than in a physical cocktail party or environment, right? Like, you're not able to as easily break off into little groups and catch up with folks. And it sounds to me from what you're describing here that the times you've seen it happen, this kind of serendipitous meeting of someone else, it's happening in an environment that has been consciously structured to enable that. Is that true?

Kat: Absolutely.

Environments for friendship

Jorge: Could you describe to us what that looks like?

Kat: It all comes down to intention. It all comes down to envisioning before you even begin, what is the outcome that you want for people to have and similar to what we talked about earlier, what are the environmental conditions that you can create that will allow that outcome to emerge most naturally and seamlessly. So, certainly everybody's getting tired of Zoom but there's other tools that are available and there's other ways to use these tools.

One of the things I've done when I've had some small groups get together over Zoom is I simply tell people like in real life, we were in a room together, if you were in my living room, you would not be on mute. You would have the freedom to speak at will, and you don't need my permission to ask to unmute. And I understand that in say an all-hands meeting at a company with a thousand people, do you need people to be on mute, because there's going to be a lot of background noise. But if you're getting like a social gathering together or something to connect with other people? Everybody go off mute! Talk when you feel like talking! It's fine if you bump into each other and someone interrupts somebody else, because guess what? That happens in real life too! It's okay. It doesn't have to be awkward because that's what natural conversation looks like in person as well sometimes. So, I challenge people to really think about the way that you use the tool and make sure that you're defining how the tool is used and the tool is not defining how you show up. And with that, as I mentioned before, bring intention to how you want people to connect.

One of the things that I do in a community that I run called Connection Club, is providing opportunities for the members to get to build more closeness with each other. And sometimes that needs to happen in a one-on-one conversation. So, I'll split people off into one-on-ones. Also, in sometimes a small group of three or four. But really keeping in mind, what does it look like when you have a set amount of time, a set prompt, or guiding conversation or guiding question and giving people the amount of space as well as the actual space in a breakout or whatnot, that will allow them to have enough time to go meaningfully into that subject and hear each other and share stories before they then rejoin the rest of the circle.

Jorge: That's interesting, finding a way of adapting the tools so that it more closely mirrors the way that we're used to interacting in these social situations. One thing that I was wondering as I was reading the book — and it has to do with this issue that we're talking about here — this idea that we can be more intentional about how we make friends. And you spoke of the loneliness epidemic that is happening, and your case in particular, when you moved to the Bay area. And when one does a move like that, especially in the stage of life when one is working a lot of the time, and one's peers are also in that situation, it becomes harder to find the time, space, et cetera, for these kinds of serendipitous encounters to happen.

A more intentional approach to friend-making

And I'm just going to try to summarize the way that I understood it from the book, is that our transactional... kind of highly transactional way of being has somehow impaired our ability to make and maintain meaningful friendships, especially in adulthood. And the thing that I was struggling with, and which I wanted to get your perspective on, is how we might regain this ability without turning friend-making into yet another thing to check off our to-do lists, you know? It's almost like we're... it might feel like we're trying to do to friendship what we're doing to these other aspects of our lives. And I'm just wondering if that's a thing or how we might do it so that it feels more integrated with who we are as people.

Kat: Yeah. I mean, the first thing I would say there is, don't treat it like a to-do list item, you know? Because if it feels like a checkbox to you, it's likely going to feel like a checkbox to the other person and nobody likes to feel like that. So, I would suggest checking in with one's intention and really clarifying for yourself, is your intention just to say like, "all right, I did my like one hour of friendship time this week, I'm done." Or is your intention to actually listen and connect and commune with another person? How do you want the other person to feel when that time is done? How can you show up as who you really are, in the open-endedness of getting together in a conversation or an activity or whatever may happen... because there is a certain open-endedness to this?

You spoke to serendipity and spontaneity, and this is actually quite beneficial for friendship. One of the interesting pieces of research I include the book came from a report in the Washington Post that found that people were happier when they didn't assign their free time activities to a specific time slot in their calendar, and instead opted to do some of them spontaneously or in a non-specific window of time. One of the things they had people do was get ice cream with a friend. And some people were assigned to an exact day and time in advance. And they had that in their calendar like a lot of busy adults do. And other people didn't. They had it in this window and it was going to just happen spontaneously within that frame. And the people who had a more spontaneous ice cream with their friend reported enjoying it more and having more fun with their friend. So, things tend to feel less fun when they're scheduled. And so, adopting rough scheduling as opposed to strict scheduling is something that can lead to greater happiness in your own life and can also lead to greater feelings of spontaneity and play and enjoyment in your friendships as well.

Jorge: I'm hearing two things and I love both of them. One is that there might be an inverse relation between the degree to which you structure these activities and the degree to which they add value to your life. And the other is that when you approach it, the intention matters, and it's not just about you somehow eradicating your own feelings of loneliness, but also providing the same for the other, right? So that you keep the other person's benefit front and center.

Kat: And the more you immerse yourself in what is actually happening in that time that you're connecting with the other person, the more likely you are to feel the benefit. You know, when you're spending time sharing stories with a friend say, focus on their story, focus on them. Get curious. Ask follow-up questions and have that be the focus of your attention, rather than halfway listening and halfway being in your own head. Like, "do I feel less lonely right now? Do I feel less awkward right now?" Get out of that mental evaluation mode and get really immersed and real curious and interested in the other person. And that's actually when somebody feels heard. That's actually when somebody feels more connected is when you're really present and holding space with each other.

Jorge: That's wonderful. Thank you for stating it like that.

Kat: And two really, really small follow-up tips I want to give on that is that it's okay to tell a friend at the beginning of a conversation, like, "Ooh, I'm feeling really scrambled right now. I've had a really frazzled day, but I'm going to try to get present with you. I just want to acknowledge them feeling off right now." And let the other person know. Because if they pick up on it, they'll probably wonder why.

And the other thing around scheduling too, is it doesn't require both people to agree to do something in a spontaneous way. I was going to have a phone call with a friend, and she was like, "what day and time should we do?" And I said, "I'm trying to schedule fewer things in my life, but here's some windows. And if you want to schedule it in your calendar, it's fine with me, but you can call me spontaneously within any of those windows. That's fine for me." So, I get to get the benefit I want, which is, "Hey, a spontaneous call from my friend!" And they get to get the benefits they want, which is like, "Oh, I have to put it at this time at this day."

Jorge: That's great, and again, that makes me think back to your work as an experience designer in that it's trying to give the other person the experience that is ideal to them while allowing you to also get the one that is ideal to you.

Kat: Yes!

Closing

Jorge: So that's great Kat, and that strikes me as a good place for us to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks follow up with you? Because I feel like there are the books, but there's more to it than that, no?

Kat: Oh, yeah, for sure. So, the books are there. We Should Get Together obviously is about creating better friendships. Connected from Afar gives you 25 weeks of activities to do with a friend from a distance. And if people want to get more from me, I have so much more to give. So, one is subscribe to my newsletter; that's at weshouldgettogether.com. Every week I send out tips and guidance around how to show up as a better friend and a better community member in your immediate area or in our larger world. And so, advice and resources are always going out about that. I also have an ongoing events list at my website weyoushouldgettogether.com where I always have something coming up. They can join Connection Club, or they can hop into an upcoming workshop or talk that I'm doing. And I also am available if people want me to come and give a talk at their conference or their company or their community organization. That's also an option as well.

Jorge: And I would advise that folks should not pass up that opportunity, because this is an important subject and one that people need to know more about, especially in these days when folks are spending so much time apart from others. Thank you so much Kat, for being with us on the show and sharing it with us.

Kat: Thank you so much for having me here, Jorge, and this was really quite lovely. It was great to share this with you.