When you run into a friend whom you haven't seen in a while, sometimes the only question you can manage to spit out is, "What are you up to these days?" Then, you both rattle off some flashier version of your LinkedIn profiles to make it seem like you have your lives together, and cap off the conversation with a halfhearted, "We should hang out!"
Sometimes there's a mutual understanding that you're never actually going to make plans, and it's just the thought that counts. But other times, these run-ins remind you that you don't hang out with this person anymore — and you actually want to.
Interactions can get testy if it's been a while since you've talked to a friend, says Bill Rawlins, PhD, a professor of interpersonal communication at Ohio University, who studies friendships. "The thing that's so distinct about friendship in comparison to other relationships is that the concept is voluntary," Dr. Rawlins says. Friendships are a choice — unlike all those relationships with people you're related to — so unless you make an effort to keep in touch, you're bound to drift apart in some capacity. And if a lot of time has passed, it's natural to wonder if you're still friends at all, he says.
He adds that friendships are also extra-susceptible to circumstances, meaning that if you're in a romantic relationship, dating a lot, hustling at your job, or trying to start a family, then those things can take precedence over your friendships. "What you've been doing has become so important to you, that when you run into a friend, you run the risk of being more interested in talking about yourself than asking your friend how they're doing," he says.
If this old friend is also going through the same sort of life changes as you are, then they might be more understanding about why you're not able to keep in touch. But often, we feel guilty that we haven't stayed in touch, so instead, we make promises to hang out in attempt to rekindle a friendship with someone. "The thing about friendship is we never know for sure if this long period of time that lapses before we contact each other means maybe we aren't the friends we thought we were," Dr. Rawlins says.
So, what should you say during these run-ins? Ask the other person questions, and really listen. You don't have to make plans unless you want to, but just make an effort to inquire about what they're up to, and try not to get defensive or feel like you have to humblebrag about your life, because it's not a competition. In other words, lower your guard, and take the pressure off of the situation: "Somehow work out an interaction where you're both asking questions of each other," Dr. Rawlins says. "It can be an exciting reconnection."
The most important advice for dealing with these stilted or awkward conversations is not to beat yourself up if you have fallen out of touch with someone. "It's perfectly understandable why people lose touch," Dr. Rawlins says. And if your first instinct is to make half-baked plans with the person just to avoid the awkward silence or to be polite, remember that there are other ways to maintain friendships besides actually hanging out. Sometimes all it takes is a call or text every now and then.
Even though friendships can be very rewarding, they take work. "The kind of energy and time that is required to sustain a close friendship becomes more and more precious and more and more called upon the farther you get into life," Dr. Rawlins says. In other words, make new friends, but keep the old — and only hang out with them if you really want to.