What is the psychology of friendship?
May 14, 2008 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Lately, the concept of "friends" seems to have become incredibly diluted by the casual use of the term by Facebook, MySpace et al. But in "the real world" what do you consider to be important when you are making and becoming friends? Is it how long you've known someone? How frequently you meet up? What you have in common? Something more intangible? Also, I'd love recommendations of any books looking at the psychology of how people become friends.
posted by pipstar to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

There are different levels of 'friends'. I don't have a static definition. I consider someone a basic friend if I have met them, had a conversation with them, and say hi to them when I run into them around town. But I also consider the girl I've known for 18 years who I talk to four times a day and tell all my secrets to my friend. If I know you, like you, and can easily talk to you, and would invite you to a party, you're my friend. But then there are good friends, close friends, best friends. There are friends that I don't talk to for years and we pick right up where we left off.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, a friend is whatever you define as a friend.
posted by greta simone at 7:23 AM on May 14, 2008

I'd say your first stop would be to read the master: Dale Carnegie and his classic "how to win friends and influence people". While some of it is geared towards the business world, most of the advice never goes out of style and generally involves focusing more on other people, becoming genuinely interested in them, and being a reliable person in general.

While you're making new friends, it's important to maintain the friendships you have with regular visits if possible, phone calls, emails, remembering birthdays,etc.

But yeah, the computer is only a tool for keeping in touch. Real memories and friendships are made in real life.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 7:27 AM on May 14, 2008

There's a fine, but distinct line, between what I consider a friend and an acquaintance. For me, an acquaintance is someone that I have had a few brief chats with, know a few details about their life, and generally have a pleasant disposition with. I could go to a bar with a group of acquaintances, hang out with them, etc. Usually, when spending time with acquaintances, I tend to do so in groups, and rarely one on one. Someone on myspace that I have little personal connection with is not a 'friend' even though a website has defined them as such.

For me, I use the term friend to describe those that I have a more personal connection with. A friend is someone I want to spend time with, one on one, or in a group. A friend is someone I think about if I'm at a bookstore and see something that I know they'd like. A friend is someone I'd drive halfway across town for, just to spend 30 minutes having a cup of coffee with.

Of course, there are different types of friends within the circle that I lump all friends into, and so on...

This is just how I choose to define a friend. Everyone defines their own criteria for what makes a friend a friend.
posted by xotis at 7:31 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a study of the psychology of friendship and its relationship to romantic love, I suggest the novel Kokoro by Natsume Soseki.
posted by Cucurbit at 7:47 AM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

To me, a friend is someone with whom I feel friendship.

I know that's a circular definition, but I think it's more apt than anything else I could say. Friendship is a distinct feeling, and it's as difficult to define as sadness or love*. I know it involves mutual warmth, caring, excitement and some other stuff, but beyond that vague muddle, I can't define it. I can't define it, but I know it when I feel it.

Engendering feeling is the ONLY requirement for me to call someone a friend. I could make a list of things that provoke that feeling (shared experiences, sacrifice, similar sense of humor, trust, etc.), but the list is different (though not entirely different) for each friendship-relationship. In other words, actions A, B and C might cause me to feel friendship for Mike, while actions B, C and J might cause me to feel it for Sally.

* I'll practice some dubious Evolutionary Psychology and suggest that there's a brain "category" for friends. Once someone is in that category, I trust him and want to be around him. There's no reason why I trust him and want to be around him, other than the fact that he's in the category, though there were probably reasons he got into the category in the first place. I've imprinted on people in the category. The warm friendship feeling is a pleasant version of the pain I feel when I stick my hand in a flame or the pleasure I feel when I'm eating something sweet. I can think of dozens of reasons why such a system would have evolutionary advantages.
posted by grumblebee at 7:57 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's going to be different for everyone and for every friend. But one thing from personal experience is:

How frequently you meet up?

I tend to be a "keep to myself" type of person so I infrequently see friends, so that's by no means a good measure for it. What is a good measure is meeting someone for the first time in months or years (or even for the first time ever, after knowing them online) and having it feel as though it's only been a day or two since we last saw each other. It's that kind of familiarity and comfort, which requires trust, that, to me, defines friendship.
posted by mkn at 8:38 AM on May 14, 2008

This might not answer your whole question, but here's a relevant AskMe thread about the first steps.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:48 AM on May 14, 2008

I look at my friends as extended family members that I got to choose. "Friendship" isn't a measure of time spent, but of shared kinship and friendliness. A friend is a person with whom you share values and common experiences- someone you share some kind of intimacy with.

(Using a broad definition of "intimacy"- this is one of the best life-lessons I was taught in my Catholic high school's religion classes- there are a multitude of different intimacies: romantic, hang-out, hobbies, work, neighborhood, shared experiences and so on. Their point was in reference to marriage, that a marriage usually can't just be based on romantic intimacy. But it helped me to understand all kinds of relationships. For example, why sometimes school-friends aren't always going to work out as non-school friends. Or why when co-workers go out socially they can only talk about work- it's all they truly share. It gave me the wisdom to recognize different kinds of relationships and to enjoy them for what they are instead of trying to force things that just aren't going to work.)
posted by gjc at 9:01 AM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just thought of another example- you meet someone while waiting in a line for something. You hit it off in that context and decide to go out on a date or something. And then on that date you find out that you actually hate each other. All you really share is the minor intimacy of having spent time waiting for a cup of coffee.
posted by gjc at 9:04 AM on May 14, 2008

I've found that I can't really choose my friends. I can choose who is not my friend, but I can't seem to arbitrarily pick people out to be friends with. And likewise, if someone singles me out like that, it usually doesn't work.

The best friends I've had are the people who just happened to become my friends. We get to know each other through proximity, or some shared interest or activity, and it just grows. I think friendship works best for me when it's completely casual and circumstantial.

In that regard, it's nothing like a relationship. Romantic relationships are often extremely rational and deliberate. My philosophy is, love is a necessity for a good life, and you can't afford to just go with the flow. With romance, you have to be proactive in choosing a partner. Friendship, on the other hand, is entirely optional, which is why it's so rewarding when it works.
posted by Laugh_track at 9:08 AM on May 14, 2008

I agree with grumblebee, but find that I generally parse the definition into tighter categories when possible. For example, like xotis, I refer to those with whom I have a lesser emotional connection as an acquaintance; and of course, when you refer to someone as your best friend, everyone knows what you are trying to say. Friendship is similar to the word love, in terms of its broad application. The ancient Greeks had different ways to refer to degrees of love, and it strikes me as a word that we have similar difficulty defining.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:12 AM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: Heather K. Love is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has taught a seminar on friendship:
The course explored the history and philosophy of friendship with a particular emphasis on the history of same-sex intimacies and recent rethinking of the social.
She has posted a great deal of material from the course on her website that you may be interestred in perusing. You may also want to try researching friendship theory; it's something that philosophers have pondered for quite a while. This site links to several resources relating to friendship theory, from classic sociological models to those that incorporate the effects of current cultural factors and technologies. More here, and here's the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on friendship.
posted by youarenothere at 9:15 AM on May 14, 2008

I wanted to add that Aristotle had much to say on the topic as well.
posted by youarenothere at 9:17 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like and use the term "particular friend", a rather antique term, but used in Patrick O'Brian's novels. I've never liked the "best" friend term, especially its exclusivity. And I've noted over my life that I've had, but not necessarily kept close to, many particular friends, people who I've had an especially close relationship with.

Growing older, I find that I have few people I'm willing to call friend.
posted by cptnrandy at 1:00 PM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me, a friend is simply someone whom I'm happy to be with, and enjoy spending time with. There are a few acquaintances whom I've known for anywhere between a week to a year, but if we don't become good friends by then, I generally don't consider them a friend, just someone I know well. I'm very lucky to have a couple of friends that I've known for around a decade (I'm 20, so I've basically known them for one half of my life), and I care for them like I care for my small family, and would do anything for them if need be.

I don't really believe in categorising friends except for the really special ones.
posted by cyanide at 1:22 PM on May 14, 2008

If you think of it as a bullseye, with three levels, you'll pretty much have understanding of people. You have confusion when you mix up what level of friendship you have.

There are 3 levels:
Friends (center)
Acquaintances (middle ring)
People you have to be friendly with (outer ring.)

The key is knowing which group everyone is (and when you mix this up, this is when you get confused, feel that people betray you, etc - you trusted the wrong group with the wrong information.)

You have maybe a 1/2 dozen of these. They're the ones who would loan you money, or drive to mexico to bail you out of jail.

Most people fall into this category. They'll sometimes move inward (to being truly a friend)...and sometimes move outer. You're constantly evaluating if these people could/should be in your innermost circle. All the people on facebook are this. Your real friends? You call them.

People you have to be friendly with - your boss, your SO's parents.
These people you *have* to get along with.

If you ever feel betrayed, frustrated, etc, it's most likely because you didn't know where the person was (and often trusted them with the wrong or too sensitive information.)
posted by filmgeek at 3:00 PM on May 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

Friendship to me is about trust. Some of my friends I've had an "on again, off again" type of relationship with (mostly because I can be a cranky bitch), but the common denominator was always that I trusted them, absolutely.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:35 PM on May 14, 2008

xotis said: A friend is someone I want to spend time with, one on one, or in a group.

I think this is about as good an explanation of friendship as one could hope to find.
posted by jayder at 7:01 PM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: I'd say your first stop would be to read the master: Dale Carnegie and his classic "how to win friends and influence people".

an alternative would be to read the last few sections of Aristotle's Ethics, where he famously suggests that "a friend is another self", and that if a friendship is going to be really meaningful, one can probably only have one or two. He lays out three levels of friendships - one of utility, which might be the kind that dale carnegie is rooting for, one of pleasure, which might be the sort of acquaintance you go out to the bar with or whatever, and then the complete friendship, which is a higher level of intellectual connection, and quite a rare thing.

Not everyone will agree you need to search for that deeper connection, perhaps - the friendships of pleasure and utility could be what it's all about. Or maybe in the modern world we only look for deeper connections when we fall in love, and then you have to have a sexual connection as well, which honestly is asking for a lot of one person. And we don't have to go as far as Aristotle in terms of how rare a "complete" friendship is, or what would count as "complete". But I think there's still room for an idea of a more meaningful level of friendship, and being aware that we shouldn't expect that with every acquaintance, nor try to have 100 friends, since even to have one or two "true" friends is a special thing (quality over quantity, basically).
posted by mdn at 10:43 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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