What is friendship anyway?

We throw the word 'friends' around very easily, but what is a friend really?

Friend or Acquaintance?

The notion of friendship usually implies some closeness, and if we say someone is a 'good friend' we usually mean that we know the person fairly well. If we don't we probably say 'acquaintance'. But some acquaintances we would consider 'friendly acquaintances' and others 'mere' acquaintances. Friendly acquaintances are people we are happy to see if we run into them, we can chat easily enough, but we don't expect anything more. We might invite them to a party, or go with them on some outing, but there is no implication of any commitment over and above that. A mere acquaintance is someone we might actually prefer not to run into, or could be someone we are happy enough to meet in passing but don't have enough in common to pursue any further.

Good Friend or True Friend?

A 'good friend' is probably someone whose company we enjoy well enough and is part of our regular social circle. Yet the interests that draw us together might only go so far, so you wouldn't necessarily feel you could call on them for any serious help. But a 'true friend' is someone you could turn to if you needed some more serious help, perhaps of a practical kind and perhaps of an emotional kind. A true friend is someone you would probably feel comfortable dropping in to see unannounced, and whom you feel you could turn to in a more serious way. In short, a true friend is one you feel you can depend on to help you, and who wouldn't feel put out that you asked.

Friend or Family?

One way to clarify what friendship is would be to compare friendship and family. Families - when they function reasonably well - have an implicit commitment to help each other simply from the fact of being family. This is independent of whether the particular members would consider themselves 'friends' in the way they would consider one of their own self-chosen friends to be. One member asks for help and the others simply respond as a matter of course. They don't consider a request for help an impertinence - they simply consider it part of what family means.

When we say someone outside the family is a 'true friend' we mean something like 'one of the family'. That is, we feel free to ask for their help, not worried that they would feel we were 'crossing a line'. But with other kinds of friends, including many we might call 'good friends', we would feel that such requests would be crossing some kind of line. In other words, we would feel awkward asking for any serious help, and if we did it would signal a significant change in the nature of the relationship.

Two Kinds of True Friends

But there is a further distinction that is often quite relevant. There can be two kinds of 'true friends', those we only turn to for practical help, and those we only turn to for emotional help. There are plenty of cases where these two kinds of friendship are mutually exclusive. There are people who might do anything for you of a practical kind; lend you money, help you move house, whatever you need, but to whom you would never turn for emotional sharing. Then there are others to whom you turn for emotional support, even sharing quite deeply, but who you would never ask for any serious practical help.

Who are my friends?

*Note: All of the following is about people you actually know in a face-to-face sense. It does not include people you only know online.

So with those different kinds of friendship in mind, let's now look at the scene you are facing as a single young person hoping to have good relationships with the opposite sex. What kind of expectations are realistic? Can I suggest you think of each of the people (of both sexes) in your social circle and ask what kind of relationship you have with that person:

  • Family member?
  • Family member who is also a 'good friend' in the relevant sense?
  • Mere acquaintance?
  • Friendly acquaintance?
  • Good friend?
  • True friend (practical only)?
  • True friend (emotional only)?
  • True friend?

What might you learn?

What is the point of doing this exercise? Firstly it is to help you identify and name the different 'sense' you have of those you think of as your friends. Doing this might help you clarify some things you hadn't thought of before, and may throw up some surprises. Secondly it will help you clarify where your friends of the opposite sex are 'situated' in your life. Let's go through these and consider what you might learn.

My friends in general

  • How many are there in each category?
  • Which ones do you have difficulty in 'classifying'? Why?
  • Have you felt some reluctance to 'categorise' people?
  • Has anything surprised you?

My friends of the other sex

  • Were there any you would class as 'true friends' in the sense defined above?
  • How many are there (if any) that you would consider 'good friends'?
  • How do you feel after having done this exercise?

A Group Discussion?

The above exercise is intended essentially as a private one. However, if you decided to talk about this in a group, can I suggest you only talk about it in general terms and not say how you would 'classify' any particular individual. Such a discussion could be informally with a friend, or in a more organised setting such as a church youth group meeting.  You would need to be sensitive to the fact that someone you consider a 'good friend' might only think of you as a 'friendly acquaintance', or vice versa. You might judge that it would be better to keep those things to yourself in a particular setting. A certain 'blurriness' can be an advantage, and besides, you might not even be sure yourself how you feel about someone.

For a group discussion or private use you might like to use the PDF Printout available here.

Some Observations

This exercise has not been a test to find out how popular you are. It is about clarifying the situation you face and identifying both challenges and supports. In fact it would not be unusual for many people to have only a few 'good friends' and perhaps no 'true friends' at this stage of life. Indeed it might be unusual to have anyone that would be a 'true friend' of the opposite sex when you are young. It could even be of some concern, if you had invested so much in another person without the assurance of a committed relationship.

It is reasonably likely that among male friends there would be some 'true-practical' friendships, albeit limited in extent due to the practical limitations that affect people at this time of life. It is less likely that there would be 'true-emotional' friendships of a type that would involve verbal sharing of deep feelings.

It is reasonably likely that among female friends there would be some 'true-emotional' friendships, albeit subject to a certain volatility that can affect friendships among girls. Yet some of the friendships formed at this time of life can go on to be lifelong.

The general lesson I would take from this survey of friendship would be the desirability of having (1) a good circle of 'friendly acquaintances' of both sexes, (2) at least a few 'good friends' of the same sex, and (3) over time the development of some good friends of the other sex. This mixture should provide a healthy social circle in which to learn about others, and about oneself, and to begin the process of learning about the other sex.

It's also worth bearing in mind that it's possible to overdo the whole 'friends' thing. Family connections need to remain strong so as to provide stability and balance. Connections with the adult world are also important so as not to become narrowly preoccupied with the emotional ups and downs of peer relationships.