Friendship valuation in Western culture?
May 25, 2017 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Is there any kind of hard evidence that Americans (and possibly Europeans, though I'm less sure) value friendship less than in decades past? Family has always been cited as the most important value for Americans, but it seems increasingly common for people in committed relationships, and moreso those with children, to talk about friendships as a small "extra" rather than relationships that remain dynamic and a source of support.

Of course, not everyone feels this way, but it does seem to be a trend. The narrative of single folks seems to differ a lot from the above description, with those people citing friends as active parts of their lives.

So - is it true that people with nuclear families and single people view friendships differently? And have people with children changed their attitudes over the decades to value friendships less than before? Not saying this would be a good or bad thing, just interested in discussing...
posted by Tess to Human Relations (14 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in the book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
posted by peacheater at 10:19 AM on May 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

This lecture by Wes Cecil discusses the topic:
Uses of Philosophy for Living: Friendship
posted by Polychrome at 10:27 AM on May 25, 2017

This is not hard evidence but I actually suspect that what's pinching friendship is not values, it's _time_ and the extension of the workday via technology and general expectation into the 24/7 realm, increased commuting time due to property values and lack of adequate public transportation, plus new expectations for parenting (being at all the 234343 activities, not just throwing the kids in the rec room while parents have champagne brunches, etc.) In other words, a time crunch.

I wonder first of all if there are class/job classification differences around attitudes towards friendship. Second, I wonder if friendship via social media is somehow counted in your calculations -- I'm in touch with sometimes it feels like almost every friend I ever made (not true but) via Facebook, but I do find it harder to get out to brunch with people. I also find that at the end of the day some of the time I used to spend calling (GASP) a friend is spent checking work email, dealing with a few questions from timeshifting colleagues, etc. On the other hand I can text my friends from my train ride.

If you look at studies around leisure time I wonder if "time with friends" would be on them somewhere.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:38 AM on May 25, 2017 [18 favorites]

Kids change friendships a lot, because kids change lifestyles a lot.

IME a married couple without kids has more in common with single people / a dating couple.

Married or unmarried, people with kids are living a very different lifestyle to people without kids.
posted by stockpuppet at 10:52 AM on May 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dean Spade has a lovely essay about how monogamy (and nonmonogamy) relate to the way we conceptualize friendship. I suspect a lot of it is fairly specific to queer communities, but it's one I've thought about a lot, and might give you some food for thought. He also is very explicit about situating this in the period of capitalism in which we find ourselves.

This passage has been especially important to me:
"One of my goals in thinking about redefining the way we view relationships is to try to treat the people I date more like I treat my friends—try to be respectful and thoughtful and hav boundaries and reasonable expectations—and to try to treat my friends more like my dates—to give them special attention, honor my commitments to them, be consistent, and invest deeply in our futures together. In the queer communities I’m in valuing friendship is a really big deal, often coming out of the fact that lots of us don’t have family support, and build deep supportive structures with other queers. We are interested in resisting the heteronormative family structure in which people are expected to form a dyad, marry, have kids, and get all their needs met within that family structure. A lot of us see that as unhealthy, as a new technology of post-industrial late capitalism that is connected to alienating people from community and training them to think in terms of individuality, to value the smaller unit of the nuclear family rather than the extended family. Thus, questioning how the status and accompanying behavior norms are different for how we treat our friends versus our dates, and trying to bring those into balance, starts to support our work of creating chosen families and resisting the annihilation of community that capitalism seeks."
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:14 AM on May 25, 2017 [33 favorites]

I think the economy is definitely a factor. I've had a kid for the last fifteen years, but when I was doing better financially I never had problems with the time/money to hang out with friends.
posted by corb at 11:16 AM on May 25, 2017

In the old days, friendship was something for schoolkids, while as adults had family and community. 'Community' doesn't mean a group of people you like and who provide mutual support, it means people you are stuck with because of geography. Obviously you like some more than others, but that was luck more than anything else. In general, it's the sense of community that has faded (Bowling Alone).
posted by betweenthebars at 11:31 AM on May 25, 2017 [11 favorites]

One could argue that friendship has become akin to fast food. You eat it, you dispose of the wrapper, you move on. It tasted great and ten seconds later you've forgotten all about it.

Whereas real friendship requires time and nurturing to grow and sustain, and time and nurturing are at a premium in our culture. It takes time to build a deep, lasting friendship. Nobody has any time anymore, and if they do, there are a hundred thousand distractions that are infinitely more fun and escapist than the work of getting to know another human being, who isn't our love interest, colleague, kid, etc. My own personal belief is that the technology that was supposedly invented to bring us closer has only driven us further apart. People spend their time in front of their computers, phones and TV's, and are lonelier than ever. I have no correlation between my theory, that technology has made it so that we don't really "see" people and actually befriend them, instead, we use that technology only to parade ourselves around in front others, -- and the rising rate of suicides among teens, --- but I would be highly surprised if no such connection existed. We have gone from interacting with one another, to interacting with devices that broadcast how we wish others to see us. That is not the same thing as friendship.
posted by Crystal Fox at 11:48 AM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would not be surprised if this had some connection to the societal changes that happened as it because more acceptable and eventually totally the norm to choose your own spouse, based on love above other factors like family connections, financial security, etc. In the past, when a couple married with practical considerations in mind, even if they actually did love one another, society still expected them to have close bonds with male and female friends, respectively. But now that your romantic partner is supposed to be your best friend, other friends will by definition become less central in your life. Even though some people have started to push back very recently on that whole "best friend" thing, as it's now considered healthier to have a wider support network and unfair to place that kind of burden on a partner alone, you'd still be considered pretty weird if you had a serious relationship partner but spent more time with a friend/group of friends than with your partner.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:19 PM on May 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

I think betweenthebars has it about the lack of community - people you're stuck with. And I'll also add closeness of extended family ties to that category.

I've noticed that a lot of my friendships seem a lot more common interest-specific than those of my parents' or grandparents' generation. Which can be great! Except when you no longer have the time/energy/money to participate in your thing, which, yes, often happens when you have kids. I don't have children but in the last couple of years I've mostly burnt out on something that was once a major hobby for me and I was pretty disappointed and yep a little bit hurt, when my friendships associated with that interest didn't really stick once my involvement went down.

So, yeah, it's not that people don't value their friends as much anymore, it's that it's, due to various reasons, a whole lot easier than it used to be to make a lot of transitory friendships that fall away as soon as life circumstances change and a lot harder to consistently run into the same people over and over again over a long period of time. I will note that many people who make a point of seeking out a community often end up doing something that's pretty interest-focused, which is maybe the opposite of what they're trying to accomplish and just adds to the frustration :(
posted by eeek at 1:49 PM on May 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is pulled out of my hat + reading nineteenth c. novels, but Freud damaged friendship. Before Freud is common chat, passionate friendships (lifelong, emotional, holding hands in public, shared beds, possibly not sexual but possibly so) are fairly common. Some subgroups (Yankees) disapprove of the uncontrolled emotion, but not the friendship per se.

After Freud, it's all sniggering and the romantic dyad.
posted by clew at 2:17 PM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

As well as Freud, and in the UK in particular, things changed very significantly for men with the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. Before that very public case, men would often and happily walk arm in arm or with arms around each other. Afterwards, they were (and still can be much of the time) very careful not to have too much physical contact with male friends in public.

But in general I would say that this was more related to the vastly increased mobility in post-war times. If you lived in a small village or town, it was likely that everyone you knew lived there too, always had and always would, and that many of your friends were distantly related or had known your many family members for their whole lives. Nowadays it is common for people to move during childhood, move significantly for work, and friendships are simply less common and less obviously permanent.
posted by tillsbury at 2:58 PM on May 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not exactly answering your question, but somewhat relevant:
Americans' circle of confidantes has shrunk to two people

"Americans have, on average, slightly more than two confidantes, down from three 25 years ago"

8 out of 10 Australians say loneliness is increasing

The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point
this book from 1970 isn't hard evidence, however it is a fascinating thesis on the social forces that are creating loneliness including a devaluing of friendship

I do remember hearing about a longitudinal Australian (I think) survey that had asked people how many friends they had who feel comfortable "just popping round" and that this number had reduced in the past decades. I can't find it unfortunately, but I suppose the typical reaction for many these days to someone "just popping round"- recoiling in horror at the concept of not planning this in advance/disregarding someone's busy schedule- speaks for itself.
posted by hotcoroner at 6:26 PM on May 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have no hard evidence for you, and personally I'd rather not know if society as a whole has decided that friends aren't important anymore. To me they are, and to a small number of people I know who feel similarly that friends are hard to come by, and hard to keep, and who are bothered by that. Personally I just try to be grateful that I have any friends at all, and the fact that some of them want to speak to me on a regular basis and return my calls is... humbling. The way I feel about my personal relationships is evidently very close to how Dean Spade feels about theirs (quoted upthread), and maybe that has something to do with how hard it is for me to think about this question in a general context. You ask me anything about western culture overall and my answer will be "Yes, it's totally fucked," friendship included.
posted by mammal at 1:20 AM on May 27, 2017

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