What does it mean to be a friend?


In my early twenties, I hung out with a group of people whose company I greatly enjoyed. They were educated, interesting, creative, and fun. I invited them over for dinner parties, costume parties, just-get-together parties, and to spend time by the pool at the apartment complex where I lived.

Sometimes I would hear that Bob (I’m not using real names here) had had a dinner party and hadn’t invited me. Or that Mary had had a get-together, again without inviting me. Fair enough, I thought. Sometimes you only have so much room at your place, or you only want to be with certain people.

But as time passed and I heard about more and more of these occasions, I realized that it wasn’t just sometimes, it was all the time. And it wasn’t different people being left out, it was only me.

On this realization, I started thinking about what friendship means to me.

  • Does it need to be mutual? Yes. If I consider myself your friend, but you don’t want my friendship, then I’m not showing friendship by sticking around. (Though I can still be your friend from afar.)
  • Does it mean we accept each other as we are, with all the quirks and imperfections we human beings have? Yes. I know I’m different. Some people “get” me, and some don’t. My friends accept me as I am, just as I accept them.
  • Does it mean you spend time together? Yes. What’s the point of friendship if you don’t communicate with each other? If they’re far away, you can text, email, telephone, or Skype.

So I did an experiment. I stopped calling, stopped writing (this was pre-text, pre-email days), and stopped inviting anyone from that group over to my apartment. I was interested in seeing if anyone would reach out to me the same way I’d been reaching out to them.

Weeks passed, then months. After about six months, one of them sent me a card saying that she noticed I hadn’t been in contact with any of them, and asked if everything was okay. I never heard from anyone else. So, with the exception of the woman who wrote the card (she and I are still in touch decades later), I made the experiment permanent and dropped everyone else in that group from my mental list of friends.

Mind you, this was no harm, no foul. Although my feelings were hurt, I didn’t blame them. I just accepted that I didn’t have the relationship with them that I wanted, and I didn’t want the relationship they wanted with me. We weren’t friends; I was a useful and accommodating acquaintance who made no demands on them. This realization was a big step for me, the first in a long series of lessons in which I was learning that it serves no one to be convenient for others and let them take from you without reciprocity.

Over the years, I’ve continued to think about what friendship means, and what I want from a friendship, and what I have to offer in a friendship. For example, in addition to the items I listed above, I’ve come up with the following core values. Other people will have different values and priorities, so each person’s list of what they want and what they believe they have to offer will be unique.

  • Friends share similar ideas about what’s important. While lots of fun, nothing that is physical is important: not our technology, not our belongings, nor our outward appearances, material wealth, gender, ability, or anything else like that. Instead, what matters is the human inside. For me, honesty and integrity are hugely important, so I want friends who are honest and have integrity, and I feel quite strongly that friends deserve the same from me. I also value compassion and a generally positive outlook on life.
  • Friends help each other become better people. If I’m on a wrong path, I want my friends to care enough about me to say something, and I hope they’re open to the same from me. (Though if they’re not, that’s okay too. We’re all where we are.)
  • Friends share their life styles to a certain extent. For example, I love live music, and I want to share that enjoyment with my friends. I enjoy reading books and watching movies and talking about them afterward. I’m not into drugs, and although I don’t judge people for using them, there’s a whole lifestyle, way of thinking, and approach to life that goes along with using drugs, so I want friends who don’t use drugs.
  • Friends treat each other with courtesy and respect, and honor their commitments with each other. A friend of mine spent months planning an elaborate, themed party. She told all her friends well in advance, with frequent “save the date” notifications. Then, a short while before the day, one of her friends decided to host a party on the same day. Most of my friend’s friends ditched her in favor of the other person’s party. When I commented on how hurtful that must have been, and how it’s bad etiquette to not stick to a commitment, my friend’s roommate said, “Nobody does that. You just go to the party you want to go to.” (Privately, I thought, “You just don’t have hang out with the right kind of people,” but I didn’t say that out loud.)
  • Friends deserve the benefit of the doubt. If a third party tells me bad things about a friend, I don’t blindly accept it. If I have any doubt, I ask my friend about it and give them a chance to set the record straight. I’ve been on the receiving end of not being given the benefit of the doubt, and it’s hard. Though it’s revealing to find out who’s willing to believe bad things about you and who isn’t.

My concepts of friendship continue to evolve. What about you? How do you feel about friendship? What do you value in your friends?


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