What exactly do we mean by “friend”?

One day in the middle of last week, I OD’ed on chocolate while at work. As a result, I felt ashamed and later depressed, but more relevant to this post, I was so buzzed on the natural stimulants chocolate contains that I could not sleep for hours after going to bed. As can happen when you’re depressed but hyperstimulated, my mind kept going in circles, and somehow I got to thinking about who the people were who would show up at my funeral, should some random catastrophe befall me — like those unfortunate souls who have been run over by semi-trucks while cycling on the streets of Boston (something I’ve been doing a bit of lately). Discounting family, I could only come up with four people. Later, in the light of day, and clearer thinking, I realized that this was grossly underestimating: several thousand people would be notified by email or would hear about it some other way, and of those there are at least a hundred who would show up (out of duty if nothing else). But it did get me thinking about who I thought of as my friends, what I understand “friend” to entail, and maybe a bit about why my understanding seems so different from other people’s, particularly the shallow social-media version of “friend” as promoted by Facebook.

I’m not going to quote dictionary definitions here, because I don’t think they are particularly helpful; to use the language of high-school English class, I’m talking connotation here, not denotation. Nor do I have much use for the timeworn cliché “Friends are the family you choose” — which seems to me at best question-begging if not totally meaningless. (At a minimum it assumes some sort of understanding of “family” that doesn’t connect for an only child like me, whose parents live halfway across the country and who never built strong personal relationships with any of his extended family.)

My first attempt was closely related to my depressed early-morning maundering: suppose I were to disappear — alien abduction, anyone? — but nobody ever said anything about it to anyone else (alien mind-control beams or summat). Who would notice, and how long would it take before they realized that someone they knew was no longer among them? But ultimately this is pretty unsatisfactory: like most people who are gainfully employed, there are lots of people who would notice my absence very quickly, simply because they are used to seeing me at work every day, or they have some other sort of professional interaction with me. Some of these people may be friends, or may become friends, but many are just work acquaintances (or “colleagues” as we say in the academic world) — it’s really hard to tell so long as there’s this professional relationship that brings us together in a way that’s not entirely voluntary.

The voluntarity of it is crucial, to my way of thinking. (Did I just make up that word? The OED says no, but I should have said “voluntariness”.) So that led me in a different direction: a friend is someone who voluntarily seeks out one’s company, for reasons outside of one’s professional capacity or family role. This definition allows for the possibility that I may have overlapping roles in my relationships with other people: someone can be a friend and a colleague, although it may be difficult to disentangle the two roles during the time they overlap — which can lead to confusion, unhappiness, or worse. I figured by this definition that I had about half a dozen friends, give or take a couple — at least, that’s about the number of non–family-members who I could remember ever having sought my company outside the context of work. (Some of whom I haven’t been very good friends back to in return: I can think of a few people whose weddings I attended who I have barely seen for five minutes in the past decade.) There are maybe a hundred more who I would count as acquaintances: people who I would greet should we pass on the street but would be surprised if they wished me a happy birthday.

(And there’s another marker right there: a friend probably knows your age if not your exact birthday, and might be the one to organize a surprise party for you even when you make it clear you don’t want a fuss made. A friend probably knows where you live and may well have visited your home, although that’s not necessarily a given — as someone who is both very private and ashamed of his poor housekeeping, I’m not one to be hosting dinner parties or offering a spare bed or sofa, not even for the people who are closest to me.)

A consequence of this definition is that it allows for asymmetry: I may be a friend to people who don’t feel the same way about me, or vice versa. I think this is a good thing — indeed, one of the things I detest most about Facebook is its implicit assumption of symmetry in relationships (others include its essential shallowness, data mining, forced intermediation, and high level of advertising pollution). But that asymmetry can also be troubling, when you realize that the person you’re trying to be friendly with either doesn’t understand friendship in the same way, or isn’t actually interested. (This can lead to real heartbreak — and has. Nothing can be more discomforting than trying to connect with a person who seems friendly at a distance but disinterested when you get closer! I suppose it must be the same on the other side, although I’ve never been on that end.)

This is not a popular way of understanding friendship, if I’m any judge, although I haven’t done survey research or developed more than anecdotal evidence. People I know who are members of the “Facebook generation” seem to be entirely accepting of its shallow concept of “friend”ship, even if they recognize its very shallowness. Some people would certainly say that my definition of “friend” is far too strong — and obviously I would have a lot more “friends” if I acquiesced and replaced my understanding with a much weaker one. I doubt I would be any less lonely, though: I’d still be looking for people who had a genuine interest in my company, but I would have lost the word that distinguished them from the hundreds of people who merely recognize me in the hallway.

What say you? I’ll be on a train to New York when this post is published, but I’ll be watching for comment notifications.

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3 Responses to What exactly do we mean by “friend”?

  1. Camilla says:

    The corner cases of this one are interesting. A friend of mine died unexpectedly this summer, and I traveled 500 miles to give the eulogy at her funeral (and I think I can say that I was the right person to give the eulogy). I knew her birthday, but I learned that she was about five years older than I’d previously believed, at the funeral. The friend of hers (not me) who’d been in frequent enough SMS conversation to call hospitals looking for her when she stopped responding, was not contacted by her family, because they didn’t know she existed. I conclude from this that if you are eccentric in your social networks and personal habits, and you don’t socialize in a group setting much, the metrics you cite may all be wildly incorrect as to who your friends actually are.

    I think it’s healthier to use language that acknowledges the “single context friend” or “warm acquaintance” as a subset of “friend” rather than drawing a small box around friend. By all means add qualifiers, but it’s too easy to demote someone from friend, when the reality has more about the circumstances, and what forms of caring you’ve been able to ask of each other. I think of my closest half dozen as “inner circle” – key there is that someone may stop being part of my inner circle without any loss of affection on either side, through the lapse of the circumstances that bring us into regular reliance.

    • Thanks for your story, Camilla. I’m interested that you went directly to “caring” as an important part of your understanding of friendship; I would have conceptualized that as a different axis, albeit one that certainly can and does intersect with friendship. Trust is another one like that. Both of those cases also have this question of (potential non-)reciprocity: we don’t feel hurt when someone we trust in a professional manner doesn’t respond in kind, whereas when a friend (or someone we’d like to be a friend) does not reciprocate, it creates a feeling of distance, making one wonder whether that person actually is a friend or not. As I mentioned in my original post, friendship isn’t necessarily symmetric, although on reflection I think it’s difficult if not impossible to maintain over the long term if it’s not. As we’ve been discussing, two people may have very different ideas about what it means to be a friend, and the same is true of what we might call “friendly care” and “friendly trust”: if I tell you my deepest, most shameful secret, and you respond in kind, we may not even recognize what each other has done. Likewise if I’m looking for a sympathetic ear, and you respond to my story by offering the name of an appropriate professional, that might not be the sort of response I was expecting.

      All that said, I still feel the most comfortable with my second definition, and I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to those people who are in close proximity: I just got back from a trip to New York where I met up with a friend of many years: we first met in Boston, not long after I went to work at MIT, but he hasn’t lived here in 18 years. He just out-of-the-blue told me about his trip to New York, and what he was going to be doing there, and asked if I wanted to come along. I knew I needed to get away from work for a little while, and I said “sure”. He and I will hopefully meet again in Washington in several weeks, where I made the same sort of invitation (this time because I knew I would have a free day during a conference.) And it needn’t be even that formal: “Drop me a line next time you’re in D.C./Seattle/Pittsburgh/L.A. and we’ll get together for dinner” is entirely within the range I’m talking about here, although that might not be a sufficient condition.

      • cfox0000 says:

        People have wildly different trust models, and if you make trust your metric, you probably want to consider separately the cases of “they are worthy of my trust” and “they reciprocate my trust”. I suspect that the former is necessary, but the latter fails often (for me) against people who simply have different calibration on how they express themselves. I think it is possible to sustain a friendship where trust is highly unbalanced, if each is worthy of the trust given, and each trusts the other to the extent they’re capable of trusting (capable of trusting other people in general).
        I don’t think it’s feasible to maintain sharply unbalanced caring in a friendship, though of course the extent of caring *behaviors*, can also vary a lot.

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