Last week, I sat in my therapist’s office, lamenting to her about how frustrating it is being the sole communicator, or the only friend who reaches out, in many of my friendships. Although I’ve always been a planner, it was only after going abroad last year that I noticed it: Some of my friends simply aren’t putting in as much effort to make plans and stay in touch. This “communication gap” in friendships is an issue I know many other Gen Zers have experienced, too.
The fact is, this communication gap is both real and troubling in many (if not most) friendships, where one friend reaches out significantly more frequently than the other. I’m sure you can now characterize and spot this in your own friendships. The inequality just lies in the nature of friendships, but it also can present some resentments and issues (as evidenced by my venting session with my therapist).
So, no matter if you’re the communicator or not — or if you’re not sure entirely — I’m here to break it all down, with help from information I learned through other communicators, online research, and licensed psychologist David Tzall. Navigating the communication gap is no easy task, despite it being an under-discussed topic, so there are several factors to keep in mind.
If you’re the communicator, know that’s a valued and rare trait.
I had no idea how unique it was to be the proactive one in a friendship, but it’s actually pretty uncommon. You’d think pretty much all of Gen Z would be great at communicating given that we’re always on our phones, but this actually isn’t the case. Not only did my therapist tell me this, but there’s also hard evidence to support this.
Gen Z is actually considered to be the loneliest generation, with countless individuals suffering from mental health issues and relying on social media for social belonging (which, by the way, only isolates us further). That means our generation needs more people with positive communication styles to help others improve their social well-being. So if that’s you, pat yourself on the back!
And in that vein, although it may not feel like it, your friends likely appreciate your efforts. I didn’t believe it either at first, but the day after my therapist told me this, one of my close friends coincidentally let me know she’s grateful for the fact that I reach out when we’re not in the same city. And by the way, this is also scientifically proven — people do value friends that reach out! Learning this information gave me a major reality check: I shouldn’t be anxious that my friends are bothered by my occasional checking in, a worry that frequently crosses my mind.
“Being an active and non-judgemental listener and communicator is so necessary in any relationship,” Tzall confirms. “People want to be heard and validated, and we do that through active, empathetic communicating.” So if you’re a communicator, you’re practicing an essential skill in establishing a healthy friendship.
But it’s probably not malicious that your friend lets you take the lead. When a laissez-faire individual sees their friend making plans, they’ll often ease back their effort in this way and let you take charge. There might be an assumption that you enjoy this role, or they may just want to make other efforts in the relationship — which brings me to my next point.
Recognize your friends for the ways they do put in the effort.
The biggest question I had when navigating this “communication gap” dilemma was: How do I recognize if my friends actually like me and want to spend time with me? What if they’re just complying with my communication style, answering messages due to social niceties? (My anxious attachment style definitely made this worse.)
Well, contrary to my former beliefs, just because someone isn’t great at reaching out or making plans, that doesn’t mean they don’t value your friendship. They just have other ways of displaying their appreciation. So if you’re anxious, notice the little signs — you should know your friend well, so this depends on their own style. Some examples I noted from my own friendships are:
- Without me even saying anything about it, my friend noticed I was going through a stressful time, so she bought me a pack of Mini Eggs, one of my favorite chocolates.
- My other friend flew all the way to London to visit me during my semester abroad, staying with me in my tiny shoebox flat.
- A third friend consistently lets me know how much my friendship means to her and how much I’ve helped her through a tough time this past year.
The list goes on and on — they may be subtle, but friends have a way of telling you they love you, sometimes without words at all. (You’ll notice each of those examples above represents a different love language.) If you need to make a physical list, don’t be afraid to do so; the goal is to prove to yourself that your true friends make an effort in their own manner.
If you’re not the communicator, it might be time to step it up.
If none of these sentiments resonate with you so far — or if you’re already aware that you might not be the best communicator — you might need a little wake-up call. On behalf of your quietly frustrated communicative friends, I’ll say this quickly: as much as it’s nice for you to show us love in other ways, please do try to reach out more often. I know it can be annoying and tedious, but once a month won’t hurt. Besides, it is a bit unfair to leave the task to one friend, right? Keeping up a friendship should be a dual effort.
The bottom line is, by communicating more, you’re saving the friendship from unhealthy behavior. “Relationships of all kinds need to be reciprocal,” Tzall explains. “Relying on just one end to keep it up is a doomed relationship. There needs to be an equal level of participation on each side.”
It’s not just us anxious girlies that tend to take your lack of communication as a sign that you don’t care — in a lot of ways, that’s what your actions are displaying. Your habits convey that you wouldn’t really care if the friendship fell out, because you’re not making solid efforts to sustain it. So unless you truly don’t value the friendship, put in more effort toward just checking in, organizing plans, and simply saying hi. Believe me: We’ll love you more for it!
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.