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Has ‘friend’ become meaningless?

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“Blah blah fishpaste,” a friend said to me the other day. It’s the sort of thing I write in this blog all the time, but it’s starting to worry me. Who gets to be a friend these days? Does saying that you are “friends” with somebody have any meaning now that you can have 5 000 friends on Facebook? (More than that and they have to become your fans, a more accurate description of the relationship.)

I want to talk about the word and why I think we need to tighten up definitions again. Writing as much as I do about my personal experiences means that I have to describe the people I encounter from day to day, and that means finding words for them. If I’m going to use words that describe my relationship to them, then I haul out words like “colleague”, “co-worker”, “acquaintance”, “family member”, “the woman in the queue” and, of course, “friend”. I use “friend” a lot because it’s practical and it encompasses a wide range of social settings, but that’s part of the problem. When everyone’s a friend, nobody is.

The trouble with the word is that it’s so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Look at the definition listed on

1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.
3. A person with whom one is allied in a struggle or cause; a comrade.
4. One who supports, sympathizes with, or patronizes a group, cause, or movement: friends of the clean air movement.
5. Friend A member of the Society of Friends; a Quaker.

It’s the second meaning that’s especially problematic. I know more people than ever thanks to social media, but are they my friends? I’m always at pains to define somebody I know through Facebook as a “Facebook friend” — to describe them as a “friend” would be inaccurate, unless of course they’d actually become a friend in the proper sense of the word. And the proper sense of the word matters to me, because friendship means a lot in my book.

I’ve tried various methods of creating a taxonomy of friendship. The most obvious starting point is a sliding scale from the most intense, rewarding and emotionally involving relationships, down to the ones that involve the shallowest connections. So, on the one end is the BFF soulmates sort of relationship, where you tell each other everything and you wouldn’t hesitate to donate a kidney.

Lower down the scale are the people you talk to or socialise with. Choosing to spend your leisure time interacting with somebody is usually an indication of friendship. If you confide in someone — if you care about what happens to them, and they care about what’s going on in your life too — that’s also a good sign. Reciprocity is an essential feature of genuine friendship.

I’ve written in the past about duty friends, people you’re friends with out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment. For whatever reason, you’ve found yourself having to spend time and energy on people who drain you. The fabled energy vampires so often the subject of women’s magazines would also slot in around here. These are toxic, draining relationships, but the level of emotional engagement is relatively high, even if it is negative. At the other end of the scale, there’s the acquaintance, somebody you sort of know, people you’re friendly with but don’t socialise with and don’t know terribly much about beyond what you see in your Twitter timeline.

But beyond this, there’s a vast greyish landscape that’s difficult to define. Does somebody you talk to or chat to qualify as a friend, even if you never actually socialise with them? What about people you hang out with because of their usefulness as contacts? Or people who share your smoke break skinner sessions at the office? And where do you slot in people who hang around at the same braai, but are friends of friends, rather than friends of yours?

It’s all very confusing. In an attempt to simplify things, I’ve come up with what I think are the most important criteria for genuine friendship:
• You like and get on with the person. Having a conversation with them is not a chore.
• You spend time with them in a social rather than a work setting (since many of us make friends at work, this is an important distinction). These are people who are willing to give of their time for you.
• You confide in them and regard them as an ally.

They don’t have to tick all of the boxes. Two out of three is fine. But anything less than this and you need to rethink your definitions. There are apparently estimated to be over 250 000 words in the English language: we could do with a few more for our friends.