Friendship – what is it?
I’ve become fascinated by the difference between ‘being friendly’ and ‘making friends’. In general, I find that people are very willing to be friendly, they will chat pleasantly when they meet new people and some may make the effort to recognise major events in other’s lives which require celebration or commiseration; but tend to avoid the sort of ‘connectedness’ which is part of real friendship.
I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there is a stage in life when we are willing to make new friends and then once past, perhaps about 30, we’ve got our friendships and aren’t prepared to make new friends. If that is a ‘rule’ then I’ve certainly seen exceptions to it – shared disaster, shared situations of vulnerability and discovery of deeply shared interests can certainly over-ride but how often do these sort of circumstances produce true new friendships?
I’ve seen how people enclosed within the limiting circumstances of a psychiatric ward tend to produce an internal community to the extent that while visitors from home are wanted, once they arrive people can’t wait for them to go because they don’t inter-relate to the internal community of the ward. Within that community new friendships blossom – ‘we are all vulnerable together’ seems to be the basis. But I have also seen that once people leave the ward and go home, those friendships are forgotten as people re-embed themselves in their every-day networks.
It seems that the friendships made in this rather limiting community have something of the quality of the ‘conversation with a chance-met stranger at a bus-stop’. Such a conversation may go deep, and result in a real sharing of what we are about but can only function on the basis that we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable because it is likely we will never see the person again. The people who have made friends in the psychiatric ward find, when they have gone home, that when they meet their ward-based friend outside in the real world that they have become different people – they have a shared experience in common, but it is in the past. Usually, it seems that the relationship is found to have dropped back to acquaintance-ship.
Many (though by no means all) young people seem to make friends comparatively easily as they find themselves thrown with others into a new, and ongoing, situation. Starting a new school, going to live in University residences, and, to a lesser extent, starting a new job all seem to create situations where no-one has a set of friends to start with so new friends can be made. It doesn’t seem to work any more once we are adults. Three times, as an adult I have joined a University for a period of at least two years, on one of those occasions being residential. Each time, the people around me were very friendly but my studies didn’t result in any knew friends (though I do have a few new Facebook friends as a result). Similarly, in all my years of working in offices, I have only once been invited to share mobile phone numbers with a colleague and never been invited to a colleague’s home or had such an invitation accepted myself. Talking with other people, I’m beginning to realise that this isn’t necessarily just me, but perhaps a social phenomenon.
What seems to make a difference for the young is that they often find themselves in situations where there is an ongoing context of shared experience. That doesn’t seem to happen so easily for adults, when we find ourselves in a new job, university course or such like that experience is only a part of our ongoing commitments to lives which have already developed outside the new shared experience. Having children can make a big difference, while they are young there is the constant meeting with the same group of adults at the school gate, some of them being themselves parents of children with whom are own children have made friends – that can lead to friendships. As our children grow older, and their friends are in and out of each others houses, we get to know a variety of people as ‘Mary’s Mum’, ‘Sue’s Dad’ etc. When we then meet them in some other context where we discover even a limited mutual interest we’re in a good position to take it further, the barriers aren’t so harsh.
So what happens to those who were either unable to make friends when they were young (I could suggest a variety of reasons but it would take pages and, in a sense, be irrelevant here) or who have moved away from their previous social circle possibly even with no sense of connectedness back to it as can happen after a broken marriage. Do we simply remain as isolates with whom lots of people are friendly but without friends? How can the barriers be broken – or even better, simply melted away?
One sub-group of society that I know of doesn’t seem to have the same problems, where people engage in creative work together such as making music or art new adult friendships seem to be more easily formed. Perhaps when we actively create together we are already making public something of ourselves which in other contexts we would only share with real friends – so acquaintanceship can step forward into friendship more easily finding the barriers already fading?
My particular interest in this is in the workings of church communities but the issues apply in other areas too. It is easy to build communities of people who are frinedly to one another but it seems hard to build communities of people who hav real friendships. While I have been concerned for years about my own social isolation – I am now realising that it is not just me and I am concerned for people in general. In our more mobile society many people have moved away from the place where they grew up; many socialised only through their children and feel lost when their children have grown and moved away; many have suffered broken marriages. Where do we go from here? How do we go about making new friends? How do we learn to let our barriers go and let others in? For Christians this could be seen as a moral issue since Jesus asks us to form communities and to love our neighbour (and surely love goes beyond mere ‘friendliness’) but it applies to us all if we care that our communities not be built of isolated, individual people.
Comments are more than welcome on this – I really need to know if this is just my personal view or a shared view as I can’t seem to find any studies that look at it (and anyway, I’d want to know the views of ordinary people, not just academics!)