Years ago, this Turkish guy met a Japanese woman — they quickly became friends and, in spite of the long distance between the two, continued to connect.
At some point, they decided to make a go of it in terms of dating — the guy was still living in Turkey at the time, but he knew that in order to really make the relationship work, he’d have to move to Japan.
He eventually did, and as their relationship continued to grow, they soon fell in love.
One day, they decided that they wanted to get married — after all, they’d been dating for a few years and the long-distance and travel between the two was becoming increasingly frustrating and difficult to deal with.
In Turkey, family is critically important — when they’d committed to marriage, the man had made it a point to ask the woman’s father for her hand in marriage.
The father declined the man’s invitation several times — the first time he was busy, the next time he had a last-minute business meeting, and so on.
Eventually, the man, growing increasingly frustrated by his father-in-law to-be’s seeming ignorance, announced to his wife: “If he declines another dinner invitation with us, I’m going to go to their house and wait for him outside until he agrees to meet with me.”
The fourth time, he had agreed to meet for dinner — they invited him and his soon-to-be wife over for a home-cooked meal.
When the Turkish guy got to his home, he expected that the father would effectively ignore him.
Instead, here’s what happened, as the storyteller recalls: the woman’s father, instead of ignoring him, asked him, “Nasilsin?” which means, “How are you?” in Turkish.
The father, in typical Japanese fashion, was too shy to ask whether or not his soon-to-be son-in-law spoke any Japanese, so he’d simply spent the last few months learning Turkish.
They spent the rest of the night communicating in Turkish.
This was easily the most heart-warming story that I’d ever heard in my entire time living in Japan, and if it seems purely coincidental that I’d eventually end up in Istanbul, it’s not. .
But the reason why this story resonated with me wasn’t purely because it connected a place that I was living in with and place that I would eventually live in, but because it reveals the true nature of relationships: 99.99% of people won’t give a shit.
I found this feeling oddly freeing, in Japan — I rarely ever felt obligated to make small-talk with strangers in Japan as I might have in the US.
People don’t do small-talk, there, and they almost never care about you if you’re a foreigner.
I don’t miss that aspect of living in the US — most of that small-talk felt stressful and generally useless.
But — as in the case of the Turkish guy — when you do experience moments in which someone is genuinely making an effort to connect with you in Japan (or really anywhere in the world), they really make an effort.
I have had people go completely out of their way to give me elaborate gifts; to show me unique parts of their favorite cities; and to communicate something to me in Japanese that I simply couldn’t understand not because it was important but because they wanted to connect.
This is a critically important point to understand for this guide — in order for us to create and build meaningful relationships with people, we have to accept that most relationships won’t be all that meaningful.
And that we only have a limited capacity in building relationships — Dunbar’s number suggests that that number is at little as 150, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the names of 150 close friends that I have in my network.
I haven’t spent any meaningful time on any social networking sites in the last few months — I don’t actively post to or spend time on Instagram or Facebook; I don’t update my Twitter; and beyond my email newsletter, I really don’t have any means of updating people on my life.
And yet, my relationships have only improved over the last few months — I’ve been spending a lot of time calling friends, organizing dinners with new people who I want to connect with, and generally being as present as humanly possible with the people who I do spend time with.
(Some weeks I’m great at this, other weeks I’m a total shit-show.)
In this guide, I am going to show you how to make real, genuine investments in a smaller number of meaningful relationships, and how to grow them in a way that feel authentic to you and helps you get away from frivolous and often meaningless social networking way of building relationships.
First, rewiring how you view social connections.
Social media has built an incredibly powerful tool that allows us to build connections at scale — but does that mean it’s empowered us to build better connections?
Most research has identified that the answer to this is, in fact, No.
That it often increases levels of narcissism, reduces self-esteem, and can — ironically — increase loneliness.
So, what’s the solution?
My first suggestion — something that I’ll borrow from Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism — is to simply scrap social media apps and quit social media for 30-days.
(And if you need more compelling logic behind this, refer to his various blog posts on the matter here and here.)
In order for us to actually start retraining how we view relationships, we must first reset how we build connections and grow relationships in a way that genuinely supports that.
As much as you might think that constantly updating your friends through social media might be valuable in helping you increase relationships and build connections with them — and, you might have the likes to prove it — all you are essentially doing is feeding into the business model that makes those companies work.
If you eliminate social media from all of this — you don’t have to extend this to messaging apps like iMessage or WhatsApp but I would encourage you to NOT use any of their expanded features like ‘Live’ or ‘Watch’ or anything anything else — you’ll soon be forced to figure out, OK, well if I can’t update everyone on my life, who SHOULD I update?
And the answers will probably surprise you — you’ll find that, maybe that friend who you’ve occasionally been chatting with every 3 to 6 months on Facebook or Instagram isn’t all that meaningful of a connection and not somebody who you want to expand your relationship with.
But — maybe that friend who you consider a great, close friend who you don’t chat with all that much online is somebody who you should instead call.
That’s the first piece in our ever-expanding adventure towards creating real connections with people.
Next, identifying the close connections that really matter to you.
The next step is to start thinking about close connections and people in your network who actually matter to you — for me, I have a ‘Friend CRM’ that I keep close track of that looks a little something like this:
(And here’s a link to duplicate that if you’re using Notion.)
I go through that once a month (about) to manually keep track of people who I’ve been connecting with and chatting with and seeing if there’s someone who I haven’t connected with in a meaningful way in a long time.
This is the same process that I apply towards writing postcards, keeping in touch with old connections, and otherwise building new relationships with great people.
Over the last few months and years, I’ve started to list out friendships and relationships that are really, deeply meaningful to me.
You realize, more and more, that many of the relationships that you often keep up with on a day-to-day basis aren’t — and I’m not referring to the people who you confide in through long, deep conversations, but rather the people who you shoot the shit with every now and again.
And that’s okay — every relationship has a time and place.
But the ones that you really want to grow — that you want to build, over an extended period of time — those take work.
This part of the puzzle will help you identify those things.
Learn how to communicate with them in meaningful ways.
A number of friends give me shit for being difficult to communicate with via text — that’s fair enough, but honestly it’s not true.
I am very easy to coordinate with via text.
If we’re chatting about something logistical, I will respond and if we’ve scheduled something, I will show up.
I am very reliable on that end.
But I’m not a big texter — a few years ago, I met a girl who absolutely loved texting, but hated talking on the phone.
I quickly realized that we probably wouldn’t be a good match, because texting for me feels like a waste of time and a massive distraction (both of which are generally true).
That said, I love using other forms of asynchronous messaging to communicate — audio messages were a staple of mine for years, and more recently I’ve been turning towards video and, in many cases, postcards.
It’s a great way to communicate updates with people in a manner that feels personalized.
Text is a great way to communicate details, but you miss so many things in terms of vocal tonality, body language, and the nuances of language as a whole that messages can often be destroyed in translation.
Ditto for handwritten messages — there’s a lot of nuance in physically writing things down that can’t be covered via short text messages, and so on.
A simple way to get started in learning how to communicate with friends in this manner is to simply start sending them voice messages — when a friend asks a question like, “How are you?” instead of responding with a long-winded text update, try an audio message.
If that doesn’t feel especially difficult, then step it up a notch to a video message.
Give them a tour of your house or a sample of a recipe you’re testing out or show them something you’ve been working on via a screen share — give them a brief glimpse into your life.
To me, this feels far more meaningful than any text message, and research suggests that our continued obsessions with texting is actually depriving our relationships of intimacy.
The Art of Gifting.
One of my favorite things ever is to give people meaningful gifts, randomly.
Because gift-giving not only makes other people feel good, but the act of giving gifts (without expectation) makes you feel great, too. Science supports this.
So, a few times a year, I try to always give people something truly meaningful, totally randomly — for example, a few months ago, in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic when New York had become the hotspot, I sent my sister a care package full of some of my favorite Japanese snacks and random Japanese gifts, with a link to a video that I’d created going to all of the different stores and collecting those items.
The video that I sent her looked like this:
And she dug it!
She said it was cool, and super sweet.
I trust her.
Another time, after a trip back from Japan, I mailed some of my friends a gift box with a package of our favorite chocolates that we discovered while traveling there together, some random trinkets, and a notecard.
Here’s how to approach gifting in a more thoughtful, meaningful way:
A. Give them gifts whenever it inspires you. Birthdays are nice, but everyone gets gifts on birthdays — same thing with holidays, and so on. Instead of waiting to gift people on their birthday, what I’d instead recommend is gifting people when it feels right.
After you’ve returned from a trip, when you visit a store or a location and you see something that reminds you of them, or simply because you haven’t spoken in a while and you want to remind them that you’re thinking of them.
B. Create a shared experience. Another cool idea that I haven’t done extensively but that I’ve recently started doing with a handful of close friends is to create a shared experience. What I mean by that is that you should select a handful of close friends, and create some sort of shared, meaningful experience among them that will not only expand your relationships with them, but them with each other.
For example, I recently sent a number of my friends a postcard that ultimately leads to a landing page on my website — on that landing page, is a form that they have to fill out if they want to be part of a challenge. And in order to incentivize them, I’ve added a bonus gift that I’ll be gifting one person who participates in that challenge.
It’s a great way to get people excited about doing something that you believe will, in and of itself, be rewarding, but with a little added cherry on top.
C. Surprise them with a reward for doing something good. A few months ago, a friend of mine shared a story about how she’d basically done the impossible in order to help another friend get a life-saving medical procedure. It was a truly heart-warming story and, in moments of need, I could only wish that my friends would be that generous with me. Instead of simply telling her that she’s awesome, recognizing the exhaustive work that she’d gone through, I instead got her a massage appointment with my favorite massage therapist in Denver.
It was a small thing for me, but really meaningful to her — not only was I recognizing her significant effort, but I was rewarding her for making positive change in the world.
Rarely do people ever get something more than a pat on the back for a job well done, even if it felt like they went through total hell to get that done.
Instead of a simple pat on the back, I decided that I wanted to show her that that level of effort is rare, and wanted to encourage her to continue to do that, in the smallest way I could.
Letting some relationships go.
Let’s assume that, in any given week, you only have enough time and energy to build a handful of serious, meaningful connections with people.
Say ten, max — that means that, in any given quarter, you can likely really only maintain about 120 relationships in a meaningful way, at any given time.
That’s not a lot — in a given year, depending on how social you are, you could easily meet 100s of people.
So, only a fraction of the people who you meet through your lifetime will become real, lasting connections.
With that in mind, you need to be willing to let some relationships fall by the wayside — maybe they’re people who make you feel bad; maybe they’re friends who don’t make any effort to actually connect with you and bring you into their social circle; maybe you guys have just grown apart.
Over the years, I’ve let a number of relationships with people who I thought I might continue to be friends with forever go — maybe we grew apart because of distance; maybe one or both of us moved; maybe they got into a serious relationship or I got into a serious relationship and we simply didn’t have time to connect anymore.
So many things happen in life — sometimes you realize that your close friend-circle is completely incompatible with your goals or your fundamental views of the world, and you need to let them go.
Whatever the reason, perhaps one of the kindest things you can remind yourself is that, to one degree or another, all relationships are ephemeral — either one of you dies, or one of you moves on.
Once you’re able to accept that, and once you start approaching life by learning that relationships are abundant but that they almost always end at some point, then you’ll be able to more readily let things go.
Often, the harder you try to hold onto relationships, the more you push people away.
Just let things go, and understand that if they’re truly meaningful and that if you two truly respect one another — that no amount of distance, or lack of communication will ever really come in the way of that relationship growing.
I have friendships that I’ve built over the last decade or so in which we’ll often go a half-year, or a year without seeing each other, and then I’ll invite them to spend a weekend together with a handful of other friends when I come back to New York and it’ll be like we never lost touch with one another.
The jokes still land; the memories are still as vivid; and we still have just as much love and admiration for each other as we did all those years ago.
Here’s how you can start implementing these things today.
Just as a recap, here’s what I’d recommend you try over the next 30 days:
Step 1. Delete your social media apps for 30 days. I’m not asking you to delete social media from your life, but I want you to seriously reduce the day-to-day impulse. You’ll find that just by eliminating the apps from your smartphone devices, you’ll significantly reduce the amount of time spent on your phones. I’d argue that just by deleting these apps from your phone, you’ll cut your usage by as little as 50%, and as much as 80%.
Step 2. Create a system for tracking your relationships and identifying meaningful ones. You can use this Notion template, if you prefer something digital. An app like Fabriq works wonderfully in this way, as well, and taps into the contacts already on your smartphone.
Step 3. In the next 30 days, call 5 friends who you haven’t spoken to in a while. And, if you’re feeling extra-ambitious, write another 5 friends a handwritten note. Need their address? Just ask them. It’s not that weird.
As you’ll see, none of these different aspects ask you to post something on social media, ever.
Increasingly, social media is feeding into our ever-growing narcissism and actually creating a void between ourselves and our close relationships.
Those who seem the happiest, are often the most miserable.
If you’re happy, you probably don’t need to advertise it and you certainly don’t need to tell people about all of the amazing successes you’ve had recently.
Social media is a powerful tool in providing people the means of connecting with one another, but in actually building relationships I think its utility quickly falls by the wayside.
No amount of ‘liking’ anything will replace a deep, meaningful conversation without phones.
I wish you luck in growing your connections over the next few months and years.