Futures of Friendship
“O my friends, there is no friend (Derrida, 1993)”
Who Are Friends?
What are friends? A friend is defined in Merriam-Webster as “one attached to another by affection or esteem; one that is not hostile; one that favors or promotes something; and a favored companion” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
As a teenager, when most of us had melancholic and existential moments, I had a dramatic concept of friendship. I used to imagine a scene in which I go to prison, having been framed for some horrendous crime that I did not commit. Nobody believes in my innocence, except one friend who trusts me despite all the evidence showing my guilt. Shedding tears from this imagined scene, the adolescent me ran through the list of all my teenage friends and felt quite depressed, thinking “Jisoo? No, based on her daily changes of mood she will be the first one who would flip and take the lead in accusing me. Soonae? No, based on her constant victimhood and crying spells, she will cry, but quickly say an emotional good bye to me, who will then be executed soon while she moves on with her life.” Well, then, I cannot say I have a single soul who can be called a friend. Montaigne would understand me as another one who has a high bar for “true friendship,” lamenting how true friendship is rare in his essay (Montaigne, 1776).
I know now that this extreme bar for friendship is not practical or right, probably just egotistic, especially when I would probably not offer the reciprocal friendship that I was expecting from others. Maybe this challenging concept of friendship came from my ancestors. My mother’s generation was more dramatic than mine. When they became friends, they made small cut in their arms and rubbed their cuts with each other to blend each other’s blood, vowing enduring friendship and eternal care for one another, as evidenced by the scars from the cuts. Maybe it could be just my family’s eccentric tradition to have such a legendary concept of friendship……
Friendship in a Paradise of Friends
It is absurd to even try to establish a universal definition of friendship, because everyone must feel differently about who could be considered friends. However, there is a consensus on what we want from friendship and it is important to have a decent degree of friendship for a good life. My quest for the question, “what is friendship?,” was rekindled by observing the friendships of Argentines. I have learned about Argentine friendship through my spouse and other Argentine friends. If you have had a chance to visit the country or have met an Argentine, you would know how unique and intense their friendships are and how precious and valued friendship is in the culture. I dream of doing research fieldwork in Argentina about friendship, hopefully someday soon. For now, I bugged my Argentine spouse to explain and articulate the essence of friendship in Argentine terms. Here is the report:
“Argentine friendship is fast forming and everlasting, trusting, intense, intimate, crazy, fun, unconditional, spontaneous, casual, unfiltered, and genuine.”
This description warrants illustrations to show how it works in real life, at least from my vantage point.
You meet a person in the street for the first time, say hi to one another, which leads to a long conversation, and getting invited to this new acquaintance’s house for dinner. You still talk with that person 30 years later. When you talk with your friend, you talk about every detail of your life, including what time you took a shower and what were the ingredients of your food. You don’t take turns to talk to be polite; you talk over each other with laughter and argument at the same time. What do you mean by scheduling a gathering to meet your friend? You just go to their house when you miss them. If you gain weight, you expect to hear, “you got fatter.” Birthdays are big deals; you celebrate not only each other’s birthday, but also birthdays of your friend’s neighbor’s in-laws’ grandchildren (I receive loving happy birthday messages from my spouse’s childhood English teacher, who, of course, I have never met). You argue fiercely about politics, and then kiss each other goodbye. You show affection by hugging and kissing each other all the time. And, the gap between family and friends is almost unnoticeable since friends are part of the family. Argentines do not celebrate friendship only on Friendship Day (El Dia del Amigo) – yes, they have such days, but on every day of the year.
Friendship at Present
These brief portrayals illuminate several things that contrast with friendship in the United States. First of all, we don’t seem to care about friendship. If you search for books on friendship, most that are published are for children. I guess friendship is important when we are young, but not so much when we are older. Scholarly books and articles about friendship are equally hard to find. Only a few independent agencies have researched friendship. According to one source (Cox, 2021), Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did. Close to half of Americans report having three or fewer close friends in 2021. In 1990, 75% of Americans reported having a best friend, in contrast to only 59% in 2021. Americans talk to their friends less often, and rely less on their friends for personal support than before: 22% of Americans say it has been a t least five years since they last made a new friend. Although not representative, these numbers paint a very gloomy picture about friendship in the U.S. Given the lack of empirical research on this topic, I cautiously project that many people suffer from a lack or absence of friendship.
Compare our life with Argentines with “fast forming and everlasting, trusting, intense, intimate, crazy, fun, unconditional, spontaneous, casual, unfiltered, and genuine strong friendship.” We show a polite but guarded smile to a stranger in the street. There is no way to invite the stranger to dinner that day. We always think about “boundaries” that we read about in self-help books when we engage in conversations with friends, constantly filtering what we say or not. We try not to become entangled in arguments with friends because once arguments begin, friendships sour. We need to schedule a gathering a long time in advance, otherwise, other priorities come up. Dropping by not only a friend’s house, but also a family member’s house, is not appropriate, so it is out of question. Better not to comment on any difference on a friend in case it might offend them. Family and friends belong to different groups.
Futures of Friendship
Futures are plural since there are multiple possibilities. Futures of friendship also have many options that we can create. Life in the United States can be very lonely since independence and boundaries are central themes of social relationships, and human interactions are always guarded. The current pandemic adds more challenges to interactions. Because we don’t talk about friendship as much as needed, we do not know how much longing we have for friendship. However, the recent skyrocketing demand for mental health therapists in the United States might point to not only the need for mental health therapy, but also the need for human connections, which can and should be satisfied through friendship, but instead we seek its fulfillment through professional help.
Whether we keep losing the art of friendship will determine the future of friendship and our individual futures. I propose all of us refine and rekindle the art of making, recovering, and maintaining our friendships. We should borrow some tricks from Argentines or any other cultures where friendship is still the center of life. Or, we should remember how it used to be in the past to create a new future of friendship. Make a phone call to an old friend instead of emailing them. Try dropping by a friend’s house with some cookies that you made; if they are not at home, not a big deal. Strike up a silly conversation with neighbors instead of just a cursory hi. Tell your friend something that you really wanted to and still love them. Make a big deal out of your friend’s birthday and their in-laws’ neighbors’ birthdays. Celebrate friendship each day.
Political and structural settings will also determine the future of friendship. Aristotle (1980) described true friendship and civic or political friendship as two broad forms of friendship. Although they are distinctively different from each other, they overlap and interweave in actual human experiences. Hutter (1978) explained that civic or political friendship is important because communities where people demonstrate good will, address common concerns, and dwell in peace as political friends enable the continuing possibility of true and personal friendship. Whether we improve or revolutionize oppressive social and political situations will influence the future of personal friendship.
What would your future of friendship look like? I should end here and call my friend now.
Written by Jaehee Yi
Jaehee Yi, MSW, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Utah College of Social Work. She has been conducting research about the impact of stress and trauma on individuals and families in a cultural context. She is interested in studying about friendship as an important aspect of human life. She plans to do field study of friendship in different cultures.
Aristotle., R., W. D. 1., Urmson, J. O., & Ackrill, J. L. (1980). The Nicomachean ethics. Oxford University.
Cox, D. A. (2021). The state of American friendship: Change, challenges, and loss. Retrieved 12/28 from https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/the-state-of-american-friendship-change-challenges-and-loss/
Derrida, J. (1993). Politics of Friendship. American Imago, 50(3), 353-391. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26303875
Hutter, H. (1978). Politics as Friendship: The origins of classical notions of politics in the theory and practice of friendship. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Friend. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved December 27 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/friend
Montaigne, M. S. d. (1776). The essays of Michael Seigneur de Montaigne, translated into English, Vol. 3, 8th ed [doi:10.1037/11799-000]. J Pote, E Ballard, C Bathurst, T Davies, T Payne, J F and C Rivington, S Crowder T Longman. https://doi.org/10.1037/11799-000