Is friends at first sight a real thing?

Forget love at first sight, an instantaneous platonic connection can feel even more magical

Two women standing next to each other by a locker
Two women standing next to each other by a locker

Forget love at first sight, an instantaneous platonic connection can feel even more magical

By Chanté Joseph23 Feb 2024
5 mins read time
5 mins read time

Last week, when we were inundated with sickly sweet Valentine’s Day content, I listened to an episode of This American Life, titled Math or Magic? The episode had four parts, each discussing whether the process of finding love is a pragmatic calculation of finding a suitable partner, or if there is a nebulous force that brings the right people together.

Act two explored the phenomenon of love at first sight and, much like host Aviva DeKornfeld, I am sceptical of the theory. When I shared my disbelief of love at first sight on Instagram, I was inundated with stories suggesting otherwise. They were cute, I guess – but they didn’t convince me. And why is it only with romantic love that this spark of connection can take place? I often feel like it’s a way to continue to demarcate romantic love as something infinitely more special and meaningful than any other type of love. It makes other forms of love seem rigid and sparkless, creating a hierarchy as if everyone else is not divinely blessed.

So how come this supernatural experience doesn’t apply elsewhere – like friendship? Thinking back to how I met some of my closest friends, those instances felt magical. When I first met Charlotte, it was the summer before starting secondary school. We attended a summer programme to prepare us for the scary world of Year 7. On the first day, we bumped into each other in the bathroom, and that was it – she’s been a part of my life ever since. We can sometimes have long stretches of not talking, but I’m reminded of the solidness of our friendship every time we speak. I knew from the moment I met her that she’d be a permanent fixture in my life.

That speed at which we decide to befriend someone makes sense, when you look at the science. Princeton psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis conducted research into first impressions, and according to their findings, it takes a “tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face”. As soon as we meet someone, we make numerous judgments about them to decide what sort of relationship we want to have with them. The information we collect after that fraction of a second doesn’t alter our first impression, but acts as confirmation of our beliefs.

The first impression cannot shape the whole picture. People can be in bad form and it is way too much pressure to be in your best form at every moment.
Charlotte Fox Weber

I wanted to know if this was a universal experience and if we can form bonds for life the moment we meet someone. I posed this question on X (formerly known as Twitter), asking whether anyone had experienced friendship at first sight. I was flooded with messages, emails and DMs of people sharing their stories. “I have a friend I met about seven years ago on a PR development course,” Bayley Kite, 32, tells me over email. “We hit it off straight away. After the training, we went for a drink together before she had to go to the airport – she lived in Sydney. We’ve been best friends ever since, and I even flew to Melbourne to surprise her on her wedding day.”

These stories show how random and instantaneous these connections can be. “I was sitting having a coffee in Mexico City,” Leah MacSween, 32, writes. “I saw a woman wearing a great co-ord; I needed to know where it was from. So I asked, and she replied, ‘& Other Stories’. I realised she was from the UK, too. We spent the next six hours speaking non-stop and then spent the next six weeks hanging out. I speak with her daily, and we see each other when we’re both in London. We even went to Barcelona together last July.”

Natalie Elizabeth, 37, another person who shared their story with me, felt sure that she’d already made all the friends she needed. Most of her friendships were over a decade deep. “I was firmly team ‘no new friends’,” she tells me over DM. However, things changed in 2022 when she decided to homeschool her son. "At the first local home education group outing, this woman walked towards me with the most radiant face and smile. She introduced herself and her three daughters and I knew that she’d be my forever friend,” Elizabeth says. “You could almost feel the click. It was like we’d known each other before. Our children adore each other. We’re like a big family, and we’re business partners, too.”

There’s a scientific term for this feeling: ‘friendship chemistry’. It’s defined in a Social Science Journal study as “an instant emotional and psychological connection between two individuals”. The research looked into what creates this ‘click’, and who experiences it. Hearing so many stories from women doesn’t come as a surprise – the study found that the critical requirements of friendship chemistry are “self-disclosure and communication”, which it describes as something that emerges primarily among women. It’s clear to see how you can feel instantly connected to someone in the moment. But whether love – or friendship – is a ‘first sight’ reaction truly a marker of a lifelong connection?

I put the idea of friendship at first sight to Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist and author who specialises in relationships. “It's hit and miss,” she says over Zoom. “For every story of ‘we connected instantly and became best friends’, there is another story of ‘we connected, and then it turned out that she was completely deranged.”

But why is it that these first connections can sometimes feel so affirming? “We’re obsessed with first impressions,” Weber says. “Part of it is this ego we have attached to thinking that when we know something, it is always correct. There is a certain pride in saying, ‘from the moment I met this person, something wasn't right!’ We call it hindsight bias,” Weber explains. But there’s also a danger in making a snap judgement about someone, she adds. “The first impression cannot shape the whole picture. People can be in bad form and it is way too much pressure to be in your best form at every moment.”

Friendship at first sight feels – to me, at least – like more of a believable occurrence. Let’s face it, we have more friendships in life than we do romantic connections. However, this makes me wonder how many friendships we pass up because we don’t feel that instant, unexplainable spark. When things don’t feel so natural, there could be a fear in making the effort for little to no pay-off. Weber puts this down to a fear of rejection. “It’s the embarrassment of admitting that you care,” she says. “Even if it's just: ‘Do you want to go for coffee sometime?’ It's a little embarrassing, and that is part of the risk of forming any friendship. We have to keep on taking that chance, and be open minded.” So there you go – friends at first sight can be a thing, but sometimes it pays off to put in the work when you don’t feel that immediate connection.