Do we make too much of friendship?

The idea of friendship is very appealing. Everyone says friendship is important. But does it have the kind of importance we attribute to it?   (It would be helpful to first read "What is friendship anyway?")

How important is friendship?

How important is friendship? Um ... compared to what? Compared to family, fellow students, work colleagues, internet contacts, people who work in shops, people in formal positions such as teachers, police, or ambulance personnel, your parents' friends, the children of people you know, strangers, and so on. In other words, where do friends fit into the whole social landscape? How important a role do they play? What kind of role do they play?

Why even ask such a question? Because of the possibility that we could load onto the idea of 'friendship' unrealistic expectations. Because we could try to make friendship the only real 'structuring principle' of our social selves. Because if we did it would be too limited and fragile a basis for our lives.

The cultural ascendancy of 'friendship'

Our culture places a very high value on the idea of friendship, and this is closely related to the ideas of equality and informality. But how real is this valuation? Is it about the substance of friendship or is it about projecting an impression of friendship so as to seem more authentic, so as to have more influence on someone?

No one wants to seem formal these days, or to expect respect based on social role. Politicians spend a lot of time mingling with the 'ordinary' people and trying to demonstrate that they are 'one of us'. A new type of business entrepreneur wants to appear 'cool', and wants to be called 'Mike', even as he still holds just as much power over his employees as any old style boss. Parents want to be 'friends' with their children. People who have some merely nominal connection can be Facebook 'friends'.

The idea and the word 'friends' has high cultural value. It seems as though 'friendship' has supplanted most other kinds of social relations. Why is this the case?

The loss of community

At the root of this phenomenon is the loss of community. This has affected family life as well as the larger social sphere. Family breakdown has led children and young people to doubt the strength and reality of formal commitments. Continued over several generations this has now affected the adult community as well. Rapid social change has made life more precarious in many ways, which has led people to lose trust in institutions.

At the same time, large scale solutions related to social welfare have de-personalised a lot of social relations, and people have fallen out of the habit of cooperation as neighbours and local communities. The social services we need are delivered by organisations of one kind or another rather than by people with whom we have personal connections.

As the web of personalised connections diminishes the role of friends stands out more strongly by contrast. Since I no longer have much or any personal connection to the people I depend on for the daily round of practical living, the only ones for whom I have any fellow feeling are my friends. As institutions become bigger and more remote I feel less connection to them, and so more inclined to lose trust.

Vested interests as 'friends'

So institutions feel they have to reach out and establish some kind of 'personalised' connection, but these are not real. They are simulations of friendship that seek to achieve their aim through marketing campaigns.

We now find ourselves swamped in a deluge of mass media and social media efforts to convince us that everyone is our friend. From politicians to pressure groups, from businesses to charities, everyone wants to appear to be just the kind of people we can trust, and that we would feel that we do actually know them. Those who can most successfully project the appearance and feeling of friendship become the most influential.

In the past institutions used solidity and tradition as the 'currency of trust'. They asked people to trust them based on the fact that they were a well known establishment, trusted by people for a long time and with a well known track record. This built up 'trust capital' in institutions so that people didn't need to feel they knew any of the people involved personally as friends. They were satisfied that they knew the character of the people behind it.

Personality as a substitute for character

Now that people have lost trust in institutions these institutions try to create a 'personality' as a substitute for character. They try to project an institutional personality of friendliness. This replaces trust based on reason with trust based on feeling.

It is how you try to win the trust of a child who doesn't know you. If you are visiting friends, one of their young children might hide from you, and be very wary, not knowing you yet. You need to convey a very pleasant and friendly demeanour to show you are a nice, safe, friendly person. You couldn't convey this to a child using reasons. This would only come with time, as the child saw that you were consistent and trustworthy. But when you are only able to communicate appearances you have to focus on those things that affect the feelings.

It is for reasons such as this that 'friendship' has become the privileged form of social relations. On the surface it might seem that the cultural emphasis on friendship was a sign of progress. It seems to be personal rather than impersonal. It is not bad in itself, but it is ambiguous. Who would you prefer to look after your money, a person of proven integrity with a formal, impersonal style, or a person of unknown integrity with a very affable manner?

Of course there's no contradiction between being informal and friendly in manner and having integrity. But what do we emphasise? And what influences us more?

Friendship and Informality

What does all this have to do with the world of youth and dating? We generally associate the idea of friendship with informality. With a friend you feel you can just 'be yourself'. You can let your guard down, not worry about appearances, be less careful of how you speak. And so on. You feel safe, and that you will be accepted for who you are without having to put on a mask.

That is a good thing. And youth is a time when people are generally more trusting. Part of this is simply the naivety of lack of experience. And part of it is an admirable openness to new experience and new people. Young people want the world to be a better place, and want friendship to prevail everywhere.

But there are dangers in simply extending such trust indiscriminately. At the serious end of the scale there are things like 'date rape', which happen because people have been lulled into a false sense of security based on the assumption of shared values, which turned out not to be true. However, here I want to speak mainly about a more general, low level danger of a kind that could be called 'relationship laziness'.

Relationship Laziness

Relationship laziness essentially means wanting the prerogatives of friendship without putting in the effort that genuine friendship requires.

Human nature being what it is our high ideals often falter due to a certain laziness at doing what it takes to be our best selves. When it comes to single young men and women this inclination to laziness often takes the form of wanting the benefits of relationship prior to having put in the effort that would be required to enjoy the fruits of friendship. Although this is easy enough to illustrate with examples of overly intimate 'hooking up', this usually flows from a more general context of 'friendship presumption'. How does this happen?

Informality substitutes for friendship.

We have the feeling that if relations among everyone are informal that this implies friendship. Our culture generally has lost some of the wisdom about formality.

Rediscovering Formality

We cannot use informality and friendship as our only strategy. It needs to be balanced by formality and reserve. In order to foster a positive and healthy environment in which young men and women can get to know each other, we need to have intentional strategies that accentuate the demarcations that are needed between the sexes.

Appropriate formality and reserve provide the context in which friendships between the sexes can develop honestly.

Instead of an easy presumption of friendship, we need means by which people encounter each other in a more formal way.

The interesting thing is that this leads to better and quicker growth in friendship. It heightens the dynamic between closeness and distance, and this creates more interest in relationships, not less. If we rely only on a strategy that tries to maximise informality as a way to encourage friendship we may more quickly create a superficially friendly atmosphere but end up delaying the growth of real friendships.

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You might like to check out two other articles related to the topic of formality: "The School of Life" and "Informality Is Not Enough".