Building and Bending Frames with Friends

We see the world through frames. A frame is how we view and react to the world formed by our values, identity, and perception. Through a frame, we understand and perceive new information, react to situations, and make decisions. It is formed subconsciously but impacts everything you perceive and think.

Frames play a large role in our social interactions. They are how we understand and interact with people. For strangers, we build frames of them to get to know them. We try to figure out their way of viewing and reacting to the world is compatible with ours. For our close friends, we try to push their frames to the limit and bend them. This is what makes social interactions entertaining: the building and bending of frames.

Building Frames

When we are getting to know someone, we are trying to build a frame for them. We are asking them questions to go from knowing nothing to something about them. We are building a model of their life and how they perceive the world. This happens subconsciously. We don’t know we are building a frame of the other person, we just think “we are getting to know them better.” They are doing the same to us. They are trying to understand our frame, in the context of their frame. Together, we want to figure out if our frames are compatible.

Frame compatibility is asking ourselves “based on our frame, is their frame going to be useful for us in some way, or at the very least, not going to be bad for us.” We are “status-seeking monkeys,” and frames help us see if other people will help us on our quest to get more of it.

This reveals part of the problem with building someone else’s frame, our frame gets in the way. When we remove it from blocking us, we are better able to focus on building other people’s frames. This is partially why alcohol is so popular in social situations, it helps remove your frame as a blockage to building someone else’s. Alcohol is only one of many tools for helping us get out of our own way and build other people’s frames.

Although they are dreaded by many, icebreakers are about rapidly building frames with the reduced context of your frame. This is also why people make friends rapidly when isolated in a new environment such as Universities. When you have no choice but to build frames and everyone is on board, it turns out we do it better than we expect. It is useful to get out of our own way.

When meeting someone new, try to find out what formative experience occurred in their lives before they were seventeen. It is my belief that some important event in everyone’s youth has an influence on everything that occurs afterwards.

Byron Wien

For most new people, we want to reach an 80/20 point of their frame. There are diminishing returns to our compatibility comparison beyond that point. It requires more effort to build new parts of the frame requires a lot of effort. Once you know someone well, you have to go to the edges of their frame. It is pushing to the edge and trying to bend their frame where you’ll learn something new about them.

Bending Frames

Entertaining moments with friends we know well come from when we explore new areas with them. This happens when we go to a new place, interact with new people, get out of our comfort zone, and test our limits. What we are doing here is bending the limits of our frames, and this reveals new insights.

When we are around people we know and are comfortable with, we can rarely build a better frame for them. We know nearly all the “useful” information about them and know they are compatible. We are well beyond the 80/20 point of our friend’s frame. When we do things we’ve already done, we don’t learn anything new about their frames. We don’t bend them at all. It is less entertaining than it could be.

The most entertaining moments with people you have built frames for is bending their frames. This is trying to find the limits of our and their frames such as how we act in strange situations. Our frame will cause us to do weird and entertaining things because it is rigid. We may even expand our frame when it is bent at the limit.

Again, a common way people do this is with alcohol, because it gives your frame (and others) more flexibility. There are other ways though. Anything that gives frames more flexibility will help them bend more. Playing games, travelling, doing extreme activities, introducing new people all create environments for flexibility. Think about how people act differently at Halloween and Christmas parties or with their family than they do at other times.

How To Do It Well

When you think about social interactions as the building or bending of frames, many opportunities are unlocked. If the goal of social interaction is to be as entertaining as possible for as many people as possible, it should aim to build and bend as many frames as possible. More structure to social interactions may be as beneficial as common ways to build or bend frames like alcohol.

Building and bending frames rapidly is uncomfortable, but it is less uncomfortable when you have no choice or everyone is in the same boat. New environments and new people provide no choice but to build frames. Putting lots of people who don’t know each other and providing them structure to know each other also helps.

Another way to get better is getting out of your own way. It is a lot easier to build and bend frames when you aren’t thinking about your own. Let go of holding so tight to your frame that you can’t be compatible with others. When you aren’t thinking about your frame, it becomes more flexible. Remember the advice to “go with the flow.”

When you are with people you know well, find new experiences that bend their frames. Dress up in costume, act like someone else, go somewhere new, spend time with people different than you. When you are with people you don’t know, find ways to build their frame quickly, ask weird questions, experiment.

Thinking in frames makes social interactions more entertaining. They allow us to discover areas to connect more with other people and have fun. More importantly, they allow us to get a better understanding of ourselves and the people closest to us. By building the frames of others and then bending their frames, you gain a better understanding of what you hold close.


Thanks to Anna Grigoryan, Juraj Pal, and Rick Benger from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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