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Keep your sisters close: the secrets and science behind successful female friendships

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For the last three years, Taylor Swift has been experiencing a frienaissance (friend-renaissance). 

Her friendship circle has expanded to include some of the world's most famous twenty-something-year-old women including Lena Dunham, Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez and Ellie Goulding.

In a interview with Vanity Fair out this week, Swift has said that her group is so close-knit, very little comes in-between their relationships with each other: “We even have girls in our group who have dated the same people,” Swift says. “It’s almost like the sisterhood has such a higher place on the list of priorities for us. It’s so much more important than some guy that it didn’t work out with.”

Yes, more important and enviable than the clothes she wears or the person she is dating is Swift's championing of modern sisterhood. 

“I think she’s made friendship cool,” Cindi Leive, the editor of American Glamour told The New York Times in December last year, “That’s sort of how women live now. Everyone’s getting married later, but they don’t necessarily live close to their family. Your girl pack, your posse, is much more important than it might have been five or 10 years ago. I think she’s tapped into that in a really powerful way.”

 

Little known fact: Karlie is secretly an unofficial historian/London tour guide. Kind of.

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

Professor Robin Dunbar, head of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, says that male and female friendship groups are in fact very different.  

“Women have what has become known as a best-friend-forever, who is another woman. The relationship is very intense and they are constantly on the phone to each other (especially if they move away), but it is also very fragile - when it breaks, it breaks terminally. Men typically don’t have such intense relationships, but instead a looser set of take-it-or-leave-it male friends whom they can easily replace if they move away.”

There's also science behind what Swift describes as the need to “more than ever ... be good and kind to each other and not judge each other.”

Dunbar says that studies have found friendships to be vital to our mental health and physical well being. “New research has shown that the our endorphin systems are in tune with our immune systems. The bald fact is that you have less illness if you have a well-oiled social network.”

So, in spirit of a continuing sense of sisterhood, we picked Professor Dunbar's brains to find out the five secrets behind every successful friendship.

The squad in London. @caradelevingne @kendalljenner @gigihadid @marhunt @serenawilliams @karliekloss

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

What makes a successful friendship?

1. Your friend will resemble you

“This is the effect known as homophily (liking the same). Our friends tend to resemble us on six key dimensions: language, where you are from, similar education, shared hobbies, interests and music tastes, a similar worldview (moral, political, religious views) and shared sense of humour. We have shown that the more of these dimensions you share, the stronger the friendship is, and the more altruistic you will be to the friend.”

Recent research has shown that some friends may even share the same or similar genes. “Nick Christakis at Harvard has shown that there are likely to be similarities in DNA at core sites, but exactly what this means is not clear,” adds Dunbar.

2. Respect is key

In Taylor Swift's interview with Vanity Fair she says she wasn't inclined to be friends with Kanye West after he awkwardly interrupted her 2009 VMA acceptance speech. “I feel like I wasn’t ready to be friends with [West] until I felt like he had some sort of respect for me, and he wasn’t ready to be friends with me until he had some sort of respect for me - so it was the same issue,” she says. 

There's a lot of truth in her words. “In a study we did of why friendships break down, perceived lack of caring (which included lack of respect) accounted for a quarter of all breakdowns,” says Dunbar.

3. Meet regularly, but there's a catch

There's no surprise that a good friend is one you try to meet as often as possible. But the amount you meet has real implications on the kind of relationship you have. “There are quite specific frequencies of contact that you need to maintain to keep a friend at a specific level of friendship,” says Dunbar. According to his model, he says friends meet once a year, good friends meet at least every six months, best friends meet at least once a month, intimate friends meet once a week and the high form of friendship labelled BFFs (best friend forever) see each other every two days at least.

Dunbar says, “A best friend will very quickly - within six months - drift down to become a plain friend if your contact with them drops from once a month to once a year.”

We are at our best when we cheer each other on and build each other up. Happy International Women's Day.

A photo posted by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

4. Share four key experiences

“There are also some key activities to take part in that ensure the continuation of friendship.” For example, a recent survey on friendships conducted on 2,000 adults by bakery Thomas J Fudge, found that meeting up with a friend was most enjoyable when it involved food.

Dunbar's top four tips to keeping, building and maintaining strong friendships are:

  • Share secrets and intimacies
  • Do favours for each other
  • Share emotional experiences - dancing, singing, laughing
  • Eat a meal together


5. Step away from the digital world

Two thirds of Brits in the Thomas J Fudge survey said they use online contact as a replacement for real life meet ups, but the same amount say they fear their friendships are becoming more superficial as a result of social media. 

“Digital media can help sustain a friendship when it is difficult to meet, but you still have to meet up once in a while to keep the thing going otherwise the relationship will inexorably fade,” says Dunbar. “And it is not at all clear that you can create meaningful relationships online alone, mainly because you are creating an avatar of the person in your head rather than who they are in-the-flesh, and so are at risk of being scammed or exploited because you attribute too many good qualities to them that they don’t actually have. Meeting people face-to-face allows you to ground-truth your view of them, have it based more on reality.”

Words: Sejal Kapadia

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