The Social Brain in Practice: 36 Questions for Making Friends

The Social Brain in Practice: 36 Questions for Making Friends

By: Marc Helgesen

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"36 questions that can increase people’s emotional connection. At each level, there is a deepening of the content of the questions."
Marc Helgesen
TT Author & Editor

Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist and researcher at State University of New York–Stony Brook, with colleagues, published an article about a series of 36 questions that he says can increase people’s emotional connection (Aron et al., 1997).  The questions are in three parts of twelve questions each. At each level, there is a deepening of the content of the questions. For example, at the first level, there are items like, “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” Not that the questions are superficial small talk. In set one, an item asks, “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” But by the time in interlocutors get to set three, they are talking about things like, “Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share…’” and “When did you last cry in front of another person?”  Aron and colleagues describe the deepening of topics as “escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure, and intimacy-associated behaviors” (p. 364). 

In the study, pairs of people talked about the topics in a random order. They had fifteen minutes for each set of items. Afterwards, they did surveys called “Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale” and “Subjective Closeness Index.” The study found they the participants had become closer interpersonally.

I rewrote the questions into language my students will find more comprehensible (see p. 16). I also changed the instructions. I gave them three minutes of “think time” for each section. Rather than talking  about all 36 questions, they choose those they find the most interesting. Naturally, this means they can avoid deeper questions if they are uncomfortable. Anecdotal evidence is that students often find the challenging topics more interesting. Like the original task, my revision takes about 45 minutes of class time. Note that I added a few words of Japanese to make it more comprehensible. You might want to consider adding some L1 support if you use it with students from other countries.

I’m not making any claims about tremendous results, but when I came across the information, I thought it had potential to be the basis of a good fluency activity.

More on the study itself: The researchers didn’t claim that the questions were designed to create a permanent relationship. They were only testing whether the task increased the feeling of closeness. They found it did. The popular press often exaggerates. Psychology Today (Ehrenfeld, 2013) reported on it, fairly accurately as “36 Questions to Bring You Closer Together.” The New York Times (Jones, 2015) raised the stakes a bit, calling it, “The 36 questions that Lead to Love.” Reader’s Digest, took it a step further, framing it as “The 36 Questions That Can Make You Fall in Love with Anyone” (2020).

Becoming Friends

This is a conversation activity. It is based on a scientific study on deep communication.  

Find a partner. Choose someone you don’t know very well. Choose someone you want to know better. Sit together.

 

Set I  Spend 3 minutes looking at the questions. Check (√) the ones that seem most interesting. Now talk for 10 minutes. Ask and answer questions. Take turns.

1. You can have dinner with anyone in the world. Who would you choose?

2. Would you like to be famous? For what?

3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever practice what you are going to say? Why?

4. What would be a “perfect” day for you?

5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?

6. Imagine you could live to the age of 90. You can either have the mind of a 30-year-old for the rest of your life. Or you could have the body of a 30-year-old for the rest of your life. Which would you want?

7. How do you think you will die?

8. What are three things you and your partner have in common (things that are the same)?

9. For what in your life do you feel most thankful?

10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?

11. Take three minutes. Tell your partner your life story.  Give as much information as possible.

12. If you could have one new quality or ability, what would it be?

 

Set II  These questions are a little deeper. 3 minutes to look at the questions. 10 minutes to talk. The other person goes first.

 

13. Imagine you could know anything about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else. What would you want to know?

14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

15. What is the greatest thing you’ve ever done?

16. What do you value most in a friendship?

17. What is your most special good memory?

18. What is your most terrible memory?

19. Imagine you knew you would die one year from now. Would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

20. What does friendship mean to you?

21. What roles do love and friendliness play in your life?

22. What are some positive things about your partner. Take turns. Say three things each.

23. How close and warm is your family?

24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?

Set III  These questions are even deeper. 3 minutes to look at the questions. 10 minutes to talk. The other person goes first.

  1. Together, make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…” 
  2. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share (分かち合う)…”
  3. Imagine you and your partner are becoming good friends. Tell her something important for her to know about you.
  4. Tell your partner what you like about them. Be very honest. Say things that you might not say to someone you just met.
  5. Talk about an embarrassing moment in your life.
  6. When did you cry in front of another person? By yourself?
  7. Tell your partner something that you like about them [already].
  8. What, if anything, is too serious to make a joke about?
  9. Imagine you die tonight. What would you most regret (後悔する) not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
  10. Your house catches fire. You save your loved ones and pets. You have time to save one more thing. What would it be? Why?
  11. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most difficult? Why?
  12. Talk about a personal problem. Ask your partner’s advice on what to do.

References

Marc Helgesen, Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University, Sendai, Japan is an author of many article and books including English Teaching and the Science of Happiness (ABAX) and the English Firsthand series, Pearson. His websites include  https://ELTandHappiness.com and https://helgesenhandouts.weebly.com/

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