Are We Acquaintances or Are We Friends?

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To my daughter, everyone in her preschool class is a friend. Childhood is so blissfully simple.

Unfortunately, such social ease doesn’t last forever. We grow up and get more nuanced about our relationships. We collect emotional baggage and we get constrained by expectations of others. Today, the word “friend” has taken on new meaning thanks in most part to Facebook. They’ve essentially hijacked the word and debased it.

But periodically when we take a glance at our friend count we may reflect on if that number could stand up in real life. Who really are our friends? Perhaps the list needs refinement and categorization to more accurately reflect their roles in our life.

When we think about our real-life social circle we unconsciously categorize people into various degrees of intimacy: an acquaintance, a casual friend, a close friend, a best friend. With the growing worldwide loneliness epidemic, it seems evident that many of us have a good representation of those in the former but less in the latter.

But for the sake of convenience, we may bucket them all collectively as friends. The real question is: do all of these individuals stand up to your criteria of being a real friend (to any degree)?

Maybe it’s time to just call it like it is.

How Long Does it Take to Become Friends?

Jeffrey Hall, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, has been studying friendship for over a decade. He set out to better understand how long it takes for people to cross over the threshold of acquaintance to casual friend and then proceeding further down the path to becoming close friends.

In the published results of the study, Hall reported that:

  • It takes about 40-60 hours of time spent together in the first few weeks after meeting for people to form a casual friendship.

  • To transition from a casual friend to a solid friend takes about 80-100 hours of together time.

  • For friends to become close friends, it takes about 200 or more hours spent together.

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It seems evident that the most natural way for friendships to evolve and deepen is through spending time together. One thing the study did clarify was that while hours spent together helped evolve a friendship, the circumstances of the togetherness played a key role.

In environments and situations where people spend a considerable amount of time together but not by their choice or initiative, friendships did not necessarily materialize. Think of school or work. In these environments, casual connections just morph into situational friendships.

Situational Friendships Don’t Run Long Nor Deep

All of us have had the experience of meeting new people in a setting like school or work where you spend a considerable amount of time together. The nature of the repeated and consistent interaction allows for people to get know one another at some level.

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You learn about their family, their prior experiences, and perhaps the details of their favorite hobby. You may also have ample opportunity to confide in one another regarding circumstances that pertain to your environment. Think of the mutual gripe session about your overly demanding boss or lamenting the workload of the semester.

These interactions give a false sense of relationship connectedness. You know you’re more than acquaintances but because you don’t really have another word to describe these people, you call these colleagues/contacts friends.

But if you examine the relationship closely and apply criteria for what you would consider a friend, these people may not measure up. Questions that range from “Do we have a lot in common?” to “Are they there for me when I need them?” may be emphasizing the wrong things. This is especially true when examining the relationship for factors such as closeness and longevity, two hallmarks of abiding friendship.

Building a Good Friendship Takes Time

I remember visiting Germany many years ago to visit a work friend who was from there (and yes, we’re no longer in contact). On New Year’s Day, we went over to meet her middle-aged parents. When we arrived, her parents were joined by some other friends. They were all delightful people and seemed to get along really well. When I asked my friend how long they had known each other, she said since grade school. I was shocked.

Part of the reason I was shocked is because in American culture there doesn’t seem to be much priority in sustaining a friendship over the long term. Life circumstances take over and crowd out the time we spend nurturing and enjoying our friends. I, for one, don’t know anyone I went to grade school with. Sad to say, not even high school. My oldest legacy friend is my roommate from college.

When I mentioned to my German friend how wonderful it was that her parents maintained such long-term friendships, she remarked that it was quite common for Germans and perhaps other Europeans to be slow and deliberate about forming friendships. She said that Germans were more cautious because they know what kind of investment it is. They weigh whether they want this other person in their life for the long term.

Be slow to fall into friendship; but when thou art in, continue firm & constant.
— Socrates
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I found this consideration logical and refreshing. But when I reflect on how most friendships are formed in America, it seems understandable that most don’t have this kind of sustainability. A friendly colleague may invite you to happy hour or coffee a few times. You happily join. In time you bond over your commonalities while confiding in one another or sharing some history. After such hurdles, you feel inclined to count this person as a friend.

But what happens to this friendship when conditions change? Will you still be friends when your life changes — you quit the job, get married, have babies, move away? Have you truly vetted out the compatibility of your relationship for substance and longevity?

Misreading a Friendship

Forming friendships is a nuanced process. Social relationships with others can be complicated. I myself have gotten tripped up in misidentifying someone I thought was a friend.

When my daughter was under a year old I became friendly with another mom who lived in my building who also had a daughter very close in age. We spent a considerable amount of time together swapping stories of the challenges and triumphs of new motherhood. In that time we got to know one another well. They invited us to parties, we had them over for brunch.

When the time came for my husband and me to draw up our will, we considered my mom-friend as a backup guardian to our chosen primary guardian in the event of our deaths. The reason we chose her was because we did not have family nearby and we wanted our daughter to stay in our city where she was born and being raised.

Well after I approached her about this, things got really weird really fast. She graciously declined as she reasoned it wouldn’t be a good fit for her family. She was pregnant with her second child and it wasn’t something she and her husband felt like they could take on. I totally respected her decision and was just as gracious in return. She mentioned that she didn’t want things to get awkward between us: “I don’t want this to affect our friendship.”

I reassured her, “No problem, seriously.” I meant it.

In a short amount of time, the distance between us grew. The frequency of get-togethers spaced out. She eventually moved out of the building and into a new house. We never visited. In the beginning, I sent a couple of “check-in” texts to see how she was doing. All was well but there wasn’t any suggestion to get together. I got the hint and I stopped reaching out.

So that was the end of that situational friendship.

How Good of Friends Are We?

Now I would be lying if I said I’m not a bit gun shy about calling acquaintances friends without time invested and my own (better) evaluation of our chemistry. I have found it takes more than commonality or mutual interest to create a friendship, it also takes some intangible spark that makes everyone feel motivated to invest more.

Aside from my mom-friend misfire, I am grateful that I do have some good close friends. These are people who I feel most at ease with and I know I can count on. We know each other's idiosyncrasies and love each other for them. We laugh heartily and our empathy for our respective troubles is genuine. I have no fear of being ghosted by these loved ones.

Who’s in Your Social Circle?

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and take stock of all those that are within our social circle. Not everyone’s going to be a BFF nor should they be. As it is, I believe best friends who are almost like soulmates are incredibly rare, especially these days.

In my observation, people often seem hesitant to invest in friendships either because they don’t have the time or they don’t want the commitment. Friendship is a two-way street and not always easy. Some people would prefer the good times without the messiness of the bad times. They may feel more at ease keeping things on the surface even though it’s far less fulfilling.

Your social circle will be a mixed bag — acquaintances, casual friends, and hopefully a close friend or two. Each has their place and each contributes to the totality of your social life. You get and give differently from each category. Cherish them all but manage expectations accordingly of what you can get from each relationship.

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Here are seven criteria to determine if they’re a friend, an acquaintance, or somewhere in between:

1 - You have memories together

“Remember the time when we...”

Remarks like these which are usually accompanied by jovial laughter are the evidence of time well spent together as friends. This is the exhibition of the data that suggests friendships grow with time. And with such time, there are bound to be memorable experiences that further cement the relationship.

This is one reason why it’s rather difficult to make friends as an adult. In our youth, we have these special experiences that create meaningful memories with the ones we’re with. A lot of times they are the instances of firsts which can be uniquely special and steeped in nostalgia. The people we’re with at these times help capture the memory and therefore become as cherished as the experiences themselves.

2 - You have liberties in how you communicate

This is more than just “I can tell her anything”. This is more about feeling welcomed to speak up anytime and in any manner. With acquaintances or very casual friends, I don’t feel comfortable contacting them on the weekends for instance. It almost feels like an intrusion. I never call. I only text or email. And I keep the message brief and on topic.

As a second point, with good friends, you have more latitude in what you can say. You feel more at liberty to say what you truly think, what you want, what you need, and sometimes what needs to be said. To call BS even if it’s sometimes uncomfortable. But with acquaintances, you may smile and nod and seek out commonality to make the interaction feel more comfortable. “...Yeah, I hate it when that happens!” Even if this isn’t your genuine point of view. You play along.

3 - Your conversations have range

When talking with a good friend, time seems to fly by because the conversation is so easy. The topics discussed are usually diverse and there’s an ease and comfort to sharing so many aspects of your life. From confidently sharing your philosophies, your experiences, or your aspirations you feel safe to disclose what rounds you out as a complete person.

With acquaintances and casual friends, on the other hand, the discussion topics are usually narrow and specific. They center around the circumstances of how you know one another. By not broadening the range, it curtails the potential for the relationship to grow. As Dr. Hall explained when citing the results of his study, “Small talk seemed to be the enemy of friendship — people who talked about mundane topics become less close over time.”

4 - You have similar values

Like attracts like. This is especially true when values are considered. The introvert doesn’t probably want to buddy up with the extrovert for happy hour. It would be exhausting for one and boring for the other. People become closer over time when they share similar values because it signals familiarity and therefore comfort.

Acquaintances are people in your life who you may not have a ton in common with outside your situational circumstances. When you dive a little deeper you may find it jarring that you and your new acquaintance are so far apart on issues that mean a lot to you. For example, you may find your softball league buddy proudly cheats on his taxes and you’re not down with that. This puts the screeching brakes on getting closer as friends.

5 - You can anticipate their preferences

When you really get to know someone it feels like second nature. You can predict which movie they want to see, which scarf they’d prefer, and which drink they’d order. Much like growing over time with a spouse or partner, a deepening friendship takes on an unspecified knowing of the other person. It becomes fun and comfortable when you can complete their sentences and you know exactly what they mean when they can’t get the words out.

Friendship at this level is very rare. But even with good friends, you can enjoy predictability in who they are. You can anticipate their likes and dislikes based on their reputation that you've come to know well over time. You may not be able to read their minds but you can confidently get them a gift without needing a gift receipt.

6 - Your connection transcends time

After about the age of 25, you start to lose touch with friends. The demands of career and then often family start to crowd out the daily schedule. But inevitably at certain points in your life, you feel inspired to reach back out to old friends — class reunions, marriages/divorces, death. In some of these most poignant or trying life episodes, old dear friends prove their worth in gold. The familiarity, comfort, and ease of interacting feels as if no time has passed. The feeling is immediate and mutual.

With casual friends, this magic is never part of your dynamic. People come and go in your life and you accept this. Your paths will eventually diverge and this in no way pains you. In fact, many of their details will likely fade from your memory. You don’t even hold on to their name. This ends up being a little awkward if you run into them unexpectedly at some point in the future. Whoops!

7 - You feel really comfortable together

Being the mother of a small child, I have been on my fair share of play dates. Having a kid thrusts you into required, if not entirely desired, social situations with people you normally would not interact. Much like the situational circumstances of work and school, my kid’s friends’ parents are not always the types I would befriend. I think I can gauge our compatibility pretty quickly and when there is none, for my kid’s sake, I make the most of it. But when I’m with these adults, I’m pleasant and cordial but not entirely comfortable.

Conversely, when I am with dear old friends, I feel like I can let my hair down. I don’t have to censor my words or even look my best. I feel indescribable ease and comfort even if I haven’t seen them or talked with them in a while. Regardless of time or distance when we talk it feels like time has stood still. We pick right back up. The conversation is effortless and it can go on forever with immeasurable enjoyment. It feels like home.

And this is what great friendship is all about.

Take Action!

If you feel inspired, inventory your social circle. Which category does each person fall into? Do you feel like you have the right kind of balance in each to feel fulfilled? If you feel there is an opportunity to grow a casual friendship into something more, create a plan to reach out. Test the waters and see what happens. Conversely, if there are acquaintances on your list who offer no value to you and you don’t feel the compatibility, it’s okay to move on.

What other criteria would you use to define a person as a friend or an acquaintance? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.