In a study published this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found, through a series of experiments involving more than 5,900 participants, that people categorically underestimate how much an “out of the blue” or “just because” reach-out to a friend is appreciated.
In one experiment, when half the participants were asked to recall a time when they reached out to a friend, and the other half were encouraged to remember a time when they were reached out to, the first group’s ranking of how much they assumed their gesture was appreciated was significantly lower than the second group’s ranking of how much they actually appreciated being contacted.
When the researchers played out this relationship directly in a separate experiment, in which folks sent a note or small gift to a friend and then rated how grateful they expected the recipient would be, the recipients’ self-reported levels of gratefulness for the message or gift were significantly higher than what the initiators predicted.
Basically, people love it when they hear from a friend unexpectedly—but when we’re the friend considering making that outreach, we underestimate how much the person will appreciate it.
Why do we tend to underestimate how much a friend will appreciate us randomly reaching out?
To figure out the reason for this discrepancy between how people think a friend will respond to a “just because” reach-out and how they actually do, the researchers looked at what each group of people was considering while making their assessments.
“We found that the recipients [of a random reach-out] really focused on how surprised they felt, in a positive way, upon receiving the contact, which boosted how appreciative they felt,” says Peggy Liu, PhD, lead author on the study and associate professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. “By contrast, people doing the reaching out weren’t considering how the recipient might positively respond to the surprise of it.” And as a result, they underestimated the benefit of their contact.
Though the study didn’t explore why the initiators were so likely to ignore the positive surprise component of their random notes or gifts, Dr. Liu speculates that it’s because they were too busy worrying about other things—“like whether the recipient would think it was strange that they were randomly reaching out,” she says.
In that realm, it’s also possible that would-be initiators may be worried about burdening or inconveniencing a friend with their message, says friendship coach Danielle Bayard Jackson (who was not involved in the study).
“In most cases, the only person telling you that reaching out to say hello to a friend would be annoying or a burden is you.” —Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach
“A lot of times, people convince themselves that they’re doing something gracious by withholding contact,” says Jackson. “They don’t want to bother or interrupt a friend who’s busy, so they assume the nobler choice is just to not reach out.” But from the above study, we know it’s unlikely that a friend would actually be bothered by a “just thinking of you” text—and in fact, would likely very much appreciate it. “In most cases, the only person telling you that reaching out to say hello to a friend would be annoying or a burden is you,” says Jackson.
The same thing applies when you look at research on how compliments are actually perceived versus how people expect them to be received. Though researchers find that people generally appreciate getting compliments, those who are asked to give compliments tend to underestimate how much a person might like getting one, and instead, focus on how awkward they may be at delivering it and even how uncomfortable the would-be recipient may feel upon receiving it. “What we learn in both cases is that other people really appreciate being thought of in a positive way, but there are all these mind games we play that keep us from acting on that,” says Jackson.
How to get over any awkwardness around randomly reaching out to a friend, and just do it
Simply knowing that people generally do appreciate random reach-outs from friends might make you feel more comfortable doing it yourself. But if that still feels awkward to you, or if you’re worried about your note or intentions being misconstrued, read on for tips about reframing a random reach-out in a more positive light.
Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes
Perhaps the clearest way to see your out-of-the-blue text for the nice gesture that it is would be to mentally swap roles with the recipient. “I usually remind myself that I would appreciate it a lot if a friend reached out to me, so there’s no reason to think a friend would not appreciating me reaching out to them just the same,” says Dr. Liu.
You can think of it as something like offering them a surprise gift, says Jackson. “You wouldn’t decide not to give someone a birthday gift because it might not be the exact gift they want or because you’re worried that they won’t like how you wrapped or packaged it,” she says. The same thing goes in the case of a “just because” text: It’s the thought that counts, and the surprise element is only likely to make them appreciate it all the more.
And that’s particularly the case in the tough times we’re currently living through, Jackson says, when someone might be struggling to remember that they are loved and matter to others. “If you can connect a direct line between this small gesture of reaching out and any person’s general need to be seen and appreciated, that might help you find the courage to text a friend, and let them know they’re on your mind,” says Jackson.
Consider that you’re already “just thinking of them” in your head
Chances are, you think about your friends often—like, because of little things that remind you of them throughout the day. All it takes to randomly reach out to someone is just to pause when they cross your mind and translate the thought into a message on a phone, says Jackson. You’re already mentally reaching out to your friends, so why not just see the task through?
Remember that you don’t need to ask anything of them
You might associate hearing from a friend with a request for advice or to hang out—and that could lead you to think your outreach might be interpreted as a burden or an ask. But you don’t need to make any particular request, says Jackson. Something like, “I saw this mug at Target, and it made me think of you. I hope you’re doing okay,” can go a long way, she says. “It’s important to remember that saying something like this is sufficient.”
It’s also helpful to end your note with a period rather than a question mark, so that your friend doesn’t feel as if a response is required. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, how are you?’, simply stating that you’re thinking of someone—with a period at the end of that thought—can let them know that your message is just a delivery, and you’re not necessarily trying to engage them in anything,” says Jackson.
Think about the potential benefit to your overall friendship
If connection is something you value with a particular person, that’s enough reason to reach out to them randomly. Maintaining a friendship requires investment from both parties, and a “Hey, I’m thinking of you” text is certainly one way to uphold your part of the friendship bargain, says Jackson. If you do that every so often, you’ll not only leave a person feeling appreciated but may also help boost your sense of connection with them. And that’s all the more reason they might start reaching out randomly more often to you, too.