Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to find a group of people who enjoy gathering for a focused discussion on a topic. Last week some of us, most of whom I had never met, convened at a mutual friend’s home to have a meal and discuss friendship. I love events like this in part because the type of people it attracts: people who want to deeply explore a fundamental aspect of life with no pretense of expertise, but simply an openness to share and learn. The day after, I wrote down thoughts stimulated at-or-after the discussion, and I used these notes to write this article. While friendship is something I have always valued highly in my life, I can’t think of a time where I examined it with any depth. As I write to you now, a week after the event took place, I can tell you that I learned a lot about the topic through this exercise.
Here is the question presented by my friend and organizer, Tim Chang, at the beginning of the evening:
How do you conceptualize and prioritize friendship (or your most intimate community / tribe) in your life, and how has this evolved for you over the years?
We didn’t cover all aspects of this question, but using it as a starting place helped us launch into an interesting discussion. Soon after we got started, someone said, “A true friend is….” This got me thinking, where does a friendship begin, and does the term “friend” imply something discrete? It turns out, friendship is a hard idea to pin down. It is used broadly to describe very different types of relationships in our lives. And while a ‘true friend’ should mean anyone who meets the minimum requirements, its use signifies an aspect about friendship we all understand: not all friends are alike. Friendships vary in depth of closeness, by style, by motivations, etc. Some of these factors are explored here.
Boundaries of the Friendship Idea
The term “friend” is often used casually to simply imply knowing another person. The attribution of friendship by one person towards another has a lot to do with the individual, their openness and interest in other people, the impurity of the term “friend,” and a lack of a generally recognized alternative term for someone with whom you share a positive association. For the purposes of this article, and for understanding the parameters of real friendship, it’s useful to draw distinctions.
In order to understand what friendship is, it is good to know what it’s not. Does one-directional caring for someone constitute friendship? For example, let’s say you hear a person’s story and feel empathy for them, but they do not know who you are. Can this dynamic constitute friendship? To me, it feels inadequate and leads to the idea that two willing participants are necessary for friendship to occur.
Does a two-way motivation to interact imply friendship? While necessary, I don’t think it is sufficient. This condition can simply be transactional, even if the nature of the interaction is ‘friendly’ and repeated. This relationship is ‘an association,’ but could easily turn into a friendship over time.
While two willing participants are necessary, what is it that uniquely distinguishes friendship beyond friendly interaction with associates? I think actual friendship requires a mutual interest in the wellbeing of the other beyond what each individual feels towards associates and strangers, respectively. This implies that friendship is a bar relative to you and the ease with which you can allocate internal resources to care for someone beyond the way you do for associates; in other words, your openness, readiness, and availability to form bonds with individuals.
If you are at a stable place in your life with lots of friends and little time, it may take unusual circumstances for a new person to break into your friend circle. Indeed, there are conditions where a zero-sum game is at play: the allotment of time towards one friends means the subtraction of time for another. In other conditions, however, you may find yourself thrust into an unfamiliar circumstance (after a move for your job, travel, or a shake up of your friend structure due to something like a break up, etc) and now the threshold to become friends with new people may be lowered.
Friendship can be further assessed along a continuum of closeness or commitment. The difference between a ‘friend’ and a ‘close friend’ is determined by an individual’s estimation of the depth of that friendship beyond its minimum criteria. It’s interesting to think about whether friendships move back and forth along this depth spectrum with equal fluidity, or if it requires more energy to lessen a friendship once it’s reached a certain depth.
Now that we have a general idea of what friendship is and isn’t, and some thinking on depth variance, let’s discuss some conditions that lead to its development.
Friendship Conditions and Facilitators
We know each other for a period of time and we have a history together. Maybe we have seen each other change and grow, and have had adequate time to see each other interact in different situations.
Proximity and circumstance
We have shared the same physical environment and have shared experiences.
Perhaps this person was in your grad school class or is the spouse of your friend, etc. Over time, you’ve gotten to know each other and would consider this person your friend. What does this type of relationship reveal about friendship? This is the type of friendship that may not have occurred if the circumstances didn’t bring you together regularly. There may not be significant overlap in personality resonance or interests (see harmony types below), but the action of sharing a space for a period of time can foster enough shared experience to become friends.
We have something in common that we care about, and talking about it together helps us bond and feel a kinship.
The idea of harmony across intellectual interests, personality, passions, hobbies, or causes is one that fosters closeness that goes beyond circumstance, and leads to a heightened motivation to interact. Many people with who you do share circumstances will meet the criteria for this quality of friendship, but not all of them. A shared passion for something can make it easier for people to relate to one another and to converse enthusiastically. Once the pattern of enthusiastic interaction occurs, it may bleed over to other conversation topics outside of the shared passion. Or, it may not.
The depth of friendship may be further stimulated when thought coherence on a subject matter reflects a broader similarity in how two people view and interpret the world. I can imagine in this scenario two people having very different backgrounds and interests but still find harmony discussing topics and a preferred manner of interaction. I can also think of examples in my own life when there may be shared interests but conversations feel laborious. Conversely, it’s exhilarating to meet someone with different interests yet the conversation flows and is energetic. Therefore, a shared interest may signal an increased likelihood of interpersonal harmony, but it’s no guarantee. You still need some degree of interpersonal ‘chemistry’ beyond declared interests.
Recently, I have befriended two individuals with whom I share a high degree of personality harmony. With both people, there was an immediate improvisational, humorous nature to the interaction. In both cases, without knowing much about the other, we snapped into a conversation pattern more commonly experienced only with closest and oldest friends. Not everyone with whom I relate in this way became a lifelong friend, but these conditions advance friendship because there is flow, or a state of interaction that is easy, mutually uplifting, and energizing. These types of friendships are rewarding, partially because they can bring out my favorite version of me.
Version of You
Consider the aspect of friendship where other people bring out different versions of you: the comedian, thinker, mentor, student, celebrator, conservative, liberal, etc. We seek different people in our life, in part, so that we can be all versions of our self. While a certain relationship may facilitate one version of you most prominently, relationships are dynamic, and with each individual, you get to play multiple roles to varying degrees.
Consider this mentor-student version switching example. A dance instructor mentors a student on the dance floor, but when class is over, they go to coffee, the mentorship roles reverse, and the dance student offers business advice to the dance instructor. Also, person-version dynamics can change over time as we gain new experiences both as individuals and together.
Person-version dynamics can be the cause of frustration when you’re seen as an older, outdated version of yourself. An extended friend group of mine experienced friction due to this. This group of men all met as freshmen in college. Their roles amongst the group firmed up over the first year of meeting. Years later when these individuals were qualitatively different people, when this group got together, there were expectations to by the others for each other to perform in their original roles. Meeting the group at a later time than when they all met, I noticed individuals lamenting that their personal identity in the group had not adapted with their own personal growth. Identity-perception stagnation can interfere with the continuation of friendships. It’s a good idea to try to see your friends for who they are now instead of just as the person you met originally.
A ‘good friend’ is commonly someone who recognizes that when things ‘get real,’ and despite distance or even existing differences, their care for you shines through and they show up. People, however, show varying capacities for care-taking of others. Some people may be very willing to show up even when the existing degree of friendship is not especially deep. Conversely, some people may be uncomfortable playing a caregiver role and be unable to show up in a time of need even when they care for you deeply.
A more banal version of showing up, however, can be just as important as those who are there for you during a crisis. This version of showing up relates to a person’s enthusiasm to participate in your life. Who you call to relax with on Sundays is partly based on who you think will say ‘yes’ when invited. One friend of mine has never said yes to one of my invitations and it’s made me question the friendship. This friend, however, continues to invite me to hang out and so I believe there is a genuine interest by them to spend time together. I’ve come to understand that it’s just the nature of this relationship. I accept and enjoy it for what it is and what it’s not. Not all friendships need to fit the same mold, and so it can be useful to accept certain dynamics for what they are, even if they are imperfect or unusual.
Vulnerability can accelerate friendship, and this can be facilitated by a mediator or can be self-generated. Imagine you’re at a dinner party and the host asks the table a question: tell us about the first time you had sex? Each person responds and after some laughter and blushing, the people know each other more deeply; even if that information was coerced by the social setting.
Self-generated vulnerability likely reflects a different degree of friendship readiness. Seeking out a friend to discuss private matters signifies a willingness to explore a deeper relationship. Either way, being vulnerable can accelerate the depth of friendship especially when it’s met with kindness and reciprocal openness. Indeed, navigating this in my mind helped me connect to the fact that a part of friendship requires a co-leveling up of the investment in one another. You offer a bit about yourself, a little is offered back in return, and that process continues to a natural stability point for the relationship.
Vulnerability can also help reveal the person behind their personal brand, which is a more idealized representation of a person (think LinkedIn photo vs. you sitting on the couch alone watching a movie). Personal brands attempt to signal to the world your distinguishing characteristics, a part of which is to differentiate you from others. Vulnerabilities, however, can help people connect to shared commonalities, and commonalities help us relate, not differentiate.
This idea, brought up by my friend Gabe Luna-Ostaseski, is one about how to shake people into a state of better receptivity for new friendships to occur, or for existing friendships to deepen. Putting someone into a situation that is unexpected, or one that lowers inhibitions (like costumes at Halloween), can create openness by jostling someone out of patterned thinking and responding and can help someone move from the ‘differentiate mind frame’ to the ‘relate mind frame’. Offsite work outings leverage pattern disruption to facilitate greater closeness between people, some of whom may only relate through work. Novel environments reveal new sides of you to others, and different sides of others to you, and if you’re working towards a shared goal, you may feel an enhanced kinship by getting to know more about a person. The lesson here is that seeking new contexts, new environments, or working at something together can put you into a more receptive state for friendship to occur.
Keeping Old Friends, Making New Ones, and Ending Others
Over a lifetime, the friendship tree continues to evolve. This evolution happens organically and sometimes actively. To me, the value of maintaining close friendships is self-evident. We are social beings and having people in your life that know you well, and whom you know well, can help you relate better to everyone, and understand yourself better. But old friendships can also settle into comfortable patterns of interaction that don’t challenge you to grow. The risk for that to take place doesn’t mean it will. Some relationships may be based on intellectual challenge and stimulation and encourage self-exploration and growth within a comfortable space. It’s wise to assess your friend network and make sure you have enough representation of different friendship types in your ‘inner circle.’
There is value to being open to new friends. Making new friends as a busy adult may feel burdensome but remember that different people allow for different versions of you to express themselves. Additionally, making new friends allows for your newest self to interact without antiquated person-version bias that occurs with friends formed at a different time in your life; even last year. Interacting with new people helps you better understand the newest version of yourself. Is this version one your like or is it farther from your idealized state? Seeing the ‘you’ who interacts with the world today can be illuminating where you are in your own personal evolution.
While it’s useful to make new friends and to keep old ones, we shouldn’t feel obligated to keep all of them. Some friendships will organically disintegrate for myriad reasons. The more challenging problem is the decision to actively prune certain friendships.
Recently, I have pruned a few friendships and the nature of those prunings was different. One pruning happened because I recognized that I no longer enjoy this individual’s company. I don’t have the desire to let this person know how I feel, but I will not be making an effort to maintain the friendship any longer and I’m clear on that.
The other pruning required that I address the issue directly. I had to say, ‘I no longer consider you a friend and I do not want you to contact me again.’ I haven’t had to do this many times in my life. It felt shitty and liberating at the same time. I found myself on the receiving end of their misplaced frustration one too many times. The relationship dynamic was not serving either of us and so I decided to move on. This was hard but necessary, and by pruning some relationships you have more time for others. I’m not recommending giving up on friends at the first sign of inconvenience. It is, however, good to recognize the reality of your relationships. Sometimes this means making consolations for idiosyncrasies, and far more often than not, it means helping friends get through challenging situations, even if you end up on the receiving end of misplaced emotion. Sometimes, however, very consciously moving on is the right choice. It’s been a rare occurrence to break up with a friend, but I’m glad I’ve had the courage to do this when it was the right choice.
There are many more ideas to explore that highlight the diversity of drivers and types of friendship relationships. Maybe I’ll write more in another post on the same subject in the future as I have time to think and reflect on what I have and haven’t written here, especially after community input. I’m sure there are a lot of ideas that I am not thinking of, nor was this an attempt to be comprehensive, but it was fascinating for me to explore this topic that has affected my entire life with deep thought and an intention to understand better.
In the end, the exercise of thinking about friendship was helpful. And to go back and respond to parts of the original question for the dinner party – How do you conceptualize and prioritize friendship (or your most intimate community / tribe) in your life, and how has this evolved for you over the years? – I would say that I conceptualize friendship as two people with motivation to interact and who share an advanced state of caring for the other. The motivational aspects of friendship are of both an external and internal nature. Self-focused motivations depend on where you are in life, who you are as a person, you’re own conscious or subconscious craving to be able to express all versions of who you are. Person-focused motivations depend on things like the interests of an individual, how they express their thoughts, the way they treat others and themselves, the degree to which you admire aspects of them, or feel you can play a care-taking or mentorship role, your perception of how they view you, and your estimation of how energized they are to interact with you. These and other factors come together to distinguish friends from other people you know.
One immediate benefit of writing out my thoughts is the recognition that we can sometimes place too much expectation on individual friends to fulfill all of our friendship needs. A close friend may show a high degree of overlap of personality, interests, worldview, etc, but you don’t need one person to be everything. In fact, realizing that you get different value from different people may help accept good friendships for what they are, lessening internal needs for these relationships to be different, which may in fact help them deepen to their optimal place, and that idea is liberating.