I have received several readers’ comments to the general effect: “I want to fit into a community, but I’m intimidated meeting new people and making friends”. Relationships connect us, and the desire for friends is fairly strong. Realistic or not, there are expectations within family relationships, but friendships make us feel acceptance and approval is more freely and willingly given, by choice.

Make distinctions between being alone and being lonely. Most people need some time alone, to reconnect with oneself, yet there are those who need be surrounded by others all the time. Some prefer to be alone rather than in casual relationships. Avoid both social isolation and overload; how much time alone and/or with people do you require?

It’s easier to connect with some people than others. Even as adults some still remember the childhood hurt of being left out of certain playgroups. Yet, we still encounter people we don’t feel an urge to get-to- know, so, sometimes we’re still “left out”: situations with unfamiliar interpersonal dynamics; places where we must prove ourselves before admission into “the group”. There are various layers to acquaintances, and since relationships are usually based on the combo of character and chemistry, it’s important to choose levels of interaction wisely.

If you decide casual friendships are an acceptable compromise, consider any risks. Some acquaintances are diplomatic and polite, yet may not want to socialize. Others possibly are “fine for now” but not forever, with whom we may selectively share bits of personal info, but develop no deep bonds. Sometimes there are those few we trust to have our best interest – and that of our relationship – at heart. Close healthy friendships, whether for a season or a lifetime, feel natural and comfortable for each person; they share respect, trust and caring through life’s events; they are faithful and trustworthy, having earned confidence and proven that information shared will not pop up as gossip; they speak truth to one another in supportive ways that are acceptable to hear; they understand and respect mutual flaws, weaknesses and wounds.

Since we slog through formalities to find relationships that work, be reminded that experts tell us, on average, only 7 percent of our communication consists of the words we actually say; the rest is tone of voice, body language, appearance, image, self-esteem and confidence we project. But the truest value of any friendship lies in its authenticity. There is no checklist of do’s and don’ts to determine when we click, so how does one approach people?

It likely depends the vibe you get from the person. As children, most of us were taught, “don’t talk to strangers”: as adults that is simply not realistic advice.

Yet what still stops many from chatting up new people is fear of initiating a conversation and/or saying the wrong thing. Remember, conversations involve two or more people and, within reason and appropriate self-editing, it’s not so much what you say as how you say it. Be genuine and interested in others; in the words of (USA children’s TV host) Mr. Rogers: “there’s so much more to everyone you will ever meet than will ever meet your eye.”

Give thought to your personal hygiene and appearance and to light conversational topics. Watch the news; read current magazines; note pop culture, music, sports, movies or other things of interest to you. Relax; be yourself. Then think “we”, not “me”: “what can we talk about; what common interest might we have” rather than just what you might say. Chances are the more authentic you are, the more likely others will be as well. Pause; don’t barge into or interrupt a group conversation.

Listen and be interested in what others are saying. Make eye contact and smile. Ask polite questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response, and that initiate an exchange of opinions or information. Do not interrogate: comment on what others are saying. Humor can help people bond; if good-natured humor, that doesn’t hurt anyone, arises naturally from the conversation, go with it… but do not lead with jokes or sarcas- tic quips. Do not use alcohol as a social- support-system; it increases the risk of becoming a social flop. People are easily distracted, so if some drift away or are entirely closed to conversation despite your best efforts, graciously move on to someone else.

A few suggestions: Instead of what is their job, ask how they enjoy spending time, what keeps them busy, what they wish they’d done recently. You’ll learn a bit about them other than their job or employer. It opens up further conversation and perhaps points of common interest.

Most people like to give their opinion, so ask what they think about _____ (weather, traffic, art, music, reason for the gathering, soccer or other events…choose a topic). Whatever the situation of the moment is a safe place to start.

Use basic information with a twist to ask their opinion: what do you enjoy (or dislike) about _____ (being a parent, recent trip/traveling, sports/ exercise/gym, restaurant, class, being a member of the club, having a pet, job, living in Bogota/Colombia etc.) Make it relevant to what’s being said currently &/or location.

Rather than what book one is currently reading, what was their favorite book as a child? How did they meet the host or other guests? I hope this will prompt and encourage you to think of other possibilities.

Never underestimate the exchange of kindness and compassion. Healthy relationships can bring out the best in us, help us feel we belong, nourish and sustain us in good times and bad. That makes them worth developing, nurturing, cherishing, and celebrating.