69. Ebbing Friendships

I am most perturbed by seeing what is happening to friendship all around me.

Not only is the meaning of friendship being lost, but hardly anyone seems to be seeking what friendship really is or what it can be. My ‘best friend’ and I enjoy walks and talks and simply being in each other’s company. We respect and appreciate our lapses into silence. We also appreciate each other’s talents and eccentricities. However, we both recognize that our kind of friendship is becoming an ever rarer experience.

How many genuinely close friends (in whom we can confide) do we have these days! According to recent American polls, two is the average number of such friends in whom people trust, down from 4 only two decades ago! Studies show that a quarter of Americans admit to having no close confidants at all. The falling numbers are not that different in the UK. It was not always thus in the days before television and the internet. The current ebb in friendship in the ‘western world’ has been accelerated by the triumph of individualism and competition in a speed-driven market economy: “Me First” has never been regarded as a boost for friendship.

Closeness in past eras was dependent on the availability of free time and the immediacy of contacts. The great economist, Adam Smith, recognized in the 18th century that the new urban conditions of the growing commercial society could have a negative impact on both the individual and friendships. “As soon as a man comes to a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore likely to neglect it himself.”1 Smith advocated that dislocated workers join associations and church groups for the openings to friendship these might provide.

Today’s adults can find it difficult to maintain meaningful friendships in factories, offices, or other workplaces. The emphasis on competition and efficiency crackles everywhere and even contacts can pose a transactional feel. It is hard these days to establish where networking ends and genuine friendship begins… with the clock ticking, the mobile buzzing and the computer flashing. Both jobs and financial security tend to be valued above friendship.

In a culture dominated by consumption, speed and utilitarianism, it is difficult to consider friendship in terms of moral commitment. Capitalism and the internet have both been drivers in the changing meanings of friendship. Our notion of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, an intimate friend or a “best friend” is rapidly evolving. As Henry David Thoreau wrote nearly two centuries ago: “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”

Online users of Facebook and Twitter can display hundreds of “friends,” but seeing the multiplicity of faces on these sites does not reveal their significance. Such social exhibitionism may mask deep loneliness. Internet acquaintances and real friendships are likely to be miles apart. As Aristotle, who spent years considering the nature of friendship wrote: “A friend to all is a friend to none.” Facebook Beware! Friendship has traditionally been based on close (geographic) contacts. There is precious little opportunity for this on the new popular sites. We are experiencing a steady decrease in the time devoted to personal communication in everyday life and this makes genuine emotional attachment more difficult to find or to maintain.

The new world we are entering is a domain which is not basically supportive of friendship. Studies have shown that many Americans, in part because of their mobility, eventually lose touch with their early friends. Although there is a global recognition that human beings have benefited enormously from friendship in past times, no effort is being made by nation states to encourage, much less to actively support, such much needed relationships. The way public services such as libraries and the mail are fast disappearing is a significant indication of where we are headed.

A true friend acknowledges the value of friendship and treasures it, but maintaining it in today’s digital world can be difficult: one’s privacy is so easily violated. As Jon Ronson, a Welsh journalist, filmmaker, radio presenter and nonfiction author found out to his surprise, his identity was recently stolen by some academic “friends” who swooped uninvited into his online existence. Their “spokesmorph,” replying to Ronson’s protest to this act wrote: “The infomorph isn’t taking your identity, it is re-purposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic.” There would appear to be little room for friendship in such newly morphed relationships!2

“Friendship is undoubtedly central to our lives, in part because our friends can help shape whom we are as persons.” The ancients spent much more time in philosophical reflection on this topic.3 Aristotle, in particular, regarded the way friends identified with each other as an exhibition of a “singleness of mind.” An openness in friendship was an enlargement of the self. He wrote with profound insight that “the virtuous person is related to his friend in the same way that he is related to himself — for a friend is another self. “Friends share a conception of values not only because there is an important overlap between their perspectives but also because of the impact that friends exert on each other. The values they share are jointly formed by mutual deliberation. This has wider implications for society because extending each other’s moral experience also affects those around them.”4

Our first friendships develop in stages and are driven by feelings and grounded in pleasure. My earliest childhood friendships, it seems in retrospect, were based on playing with their toys as well as mine. These relationships were maintained through increasing familiarity and playtime sharing. Only slowly did I become aware of the reactions of my playmates and was often troubled by the behavior of others who were aggressive or tried to dominate. I was also embarrassed by adults asking who was “my best friend?” I didn’t have any. Today some child experts see this term as risky because it can disturb the young and can arouse feelings of unsuitability and exclusion.

In psychological studies, three stages in the development of friendship are now accepted: Sharing fun and openness are highlighted at first, then loyalty and commitment are observed in the second stage, and ultimately children increasingly seek similar values, interests and attitudes. As teenagers we become aware that friendship directly contributes to our self-confidence, self-esteem, and social satisfaction. Contemporary books and films tend to highlight the heart-warming commitment and delight of young teenage girls immersed in friendship. However, little attention is paid to what happens to friendship upon graduation from school or university.***

In our times, mutual self-disclosure is often a basic element in creating a “bond of trust” in friendships. Exchanging intimate details of our lives can help us to deal with our problems and, when it exposes our vulnerabilities and secrets, can serve to bring us closer. Trust is essential in friendship because it reinforces the reliability of a relationship which depends on mutually shared interests, passions, views and enthusiasms which all strengthen the sense of the bond which is so basic to friendship. The sharp decline of trust at every level of society has made bonding increasingly problematic in recent years.

However one looks at it, friendship throughout the ages has been an enormous support to us as human beings. Sociologists maintain that friendship makes us “feel more alive” and is “life enhancing.” I believe its virtues are a key to living a more fulfilled life. It is up to all of us in a time when friendships are statistically on the wane to counter this trend by singing its wondrous song. As the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

1Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (1776)

2Jon Ronson, The Guardian Weekend, February 21, 2015, p.18

3Bennett Helm, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (2013)

4J. Annas, “Plato and Aristotle on Friendship and Altruism,” Mind, 86:532 (1977)

***I have always been intrigued by how psychologists and philosophers deal with the complex nature of intimacy in friendships. The suggestion that friendship always entertains an element of erotic desire goes back to Plato. Ever since Freud our relationships, however little expressed they may be, are affected by our sexuality. The Austrian philosopher, Otto Weininger claimed there could be no friendship between men unless there was some attraction to draw them together. Much of the affinity and affection between them consequently can be attributed to the element of unsuspected subconscious sexual attraction. This can produce levels of anxiety in developing intimacy between male friends as well as between female. The Danish sociologist Henning Bech wrote that the more men had to assure themselves that their relationship with another man was not homosexual, the more concerned they could become that it might be. The negative impact on such friendship in homophobic societies has been considerable.


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