This weekend I am at Stellarcon science fiction convention in High Point. I will try to have a convetion report this next week once The Guide posts on neuromuscular diseases are completed. In the interim, here is a recent musing on friendship:
Some years back I was in conversation with my wife and referred to a conversation I had with a friend. My wife interrupted me and said "You call everyone a 'friend' but you barely know this person – is he really a 'friend,' or just an acquaintance?" While stung by the comment, I realized that what she was saying was true, and I tended to call all acquaintances 'friends' no matter the degree of relationship. The proliferation of Facebook 'Friends' falls in this same category, although Facebook does allow a distinction between simple 'Friends,' 'Close Friends,' 'Acquaintances,' and 'Friends of Friends.' This intriguing notion of cataloging and classifying degrees of friendship – as well as some recent personal developments in which my circle of contacts has expanded in interesting directions – has prompted a re-evaluation of who I call 'friend' and how I mentally tag and classify my acquaintances.
So, what qualifies 'friendship?' We have family friends, work friends, school friends, neighborhood friends, childhood friends, and correspondence friends (formerly 'pen pals' but now typically internet friends). We start out in life with two circles – family, and the friends of other family members. We often tag such family friends as being as close as family – particularly in the case of friends of our parents whom we call 'Aunt Mary' or 'Uncle Bill' despite no blood relationship. Frankly, as we learn later in life, blood relationship does not guarantee friendship, nor does the lack mean a person doesn't feel as close to you as family. As we enter school and expand our circles to include classmates and the kids we play with in the neighborhood, we develop 'Best Friends' and playmates. The common question of childhood – "Will you be my friend?" – shows that what we want most from a friend is companionship and recognition that we are worth playing with. Childhood friends are among the closest relationships we feel at any age, even though we intellectually know (as adults) that there are many closer (and more distant) degrees of friendship. If we are lucky, we retain some of our childhood friends into adulthood, we certainly carry their memory with us for the rest of our lives. I still think fondly of Louie and Steve, even though I have not seen either of them in more than 40 years.
Into high-school and college years, we further expand our circles to include those with whom we took courses, studied, shared a dorm room, or partied with. In this stage we also carve out a special niche for boyfriends/girlfriends, but essentially, 'school mates' are folks with whom we shared formative experiences, common intellectual – or less than intellectual – pursuits. Our school friends begin to form the new circle that we will call 'peers' and again, if we are lucky, we will form friendships that last many years. Often we lose touch with 'school mates' after several years; but rekindling a friendship, as I have done with someone from my college years and had not seen in 30 years, can result in that rarest of friendships, the true 'close friend' with whom we can share our life experiences.
As we leave college and enter the workforce, we enter a circle of ambiguous levels of friendship. As a pure employee, we may form friendships with co-workers and even bosses, but the boss-employee friendship is rarely a true friendship unless it is reinforced by other connections outside of the workplace. As one moves up to management levels, the boss-employee relationship reverses. I myself am in a position with only a couple layers of management above me, but several layers of employees below. While I am on friendly terms with my technicians, only one and two are 'friends' and those primarily due to long-standing relationships (over 25 years in one case) that preceded the boss-employee relationship. Likewise, I am on friendly terms with my boss and his boss, but calling it a close friendship is questionable, despite the 30 years we have worked together.
More likely at this point, we have 'colleagues' and 'peers.' Like family, we don't have to like them, but we are stuck with them. A number of my colleagues are in fact old college friends, and we spend time together, having a beer or coffee whenever we are in the same town. Some may even approach the realm of 'close friend,' but most remain in that circle of colleagues with whom we interact daily, but do not share the details of daily life.
By this point in life, with growing families, renewed familial ties and an expanding circle of connections due to neighborhood and mutual activities, we develop an extensive network of acquaintances. Here is where the distinctions start to blur: I am on good terms with my sister – is she a 'friend?' A 'close friend?' or still simply family? I have been a Boy Scout adult leader – are those fellow adults 'friends' or 'acquaintances?' Certainly I enjoy their company and we have many shared experiences – but would they be willing to come babysit me when I've had major surgery and am not allowed to be alone? This, I believe is the key to friendship – 'friends' are those with whom we share life experiences – we have common ground, we are interested in their life, and they are interested in ours. A close friend is willing to put that all on the line to help dig fence post holes in the rain, to keep you company in the hospital, to be there when you are worried, or sick, or grieving. It is in adulthood that we realize who our friends are, and who is merely an acquaintance.
But what of the internet? Facebook? Online communities? I have many 'online friends' some of whom are willing to listen as I pour out my feelings and to whom I listen in return. Are they any less 'friends' for the fact that I do not spend time with them in person? Such a long-distance correspondence relationship used to be known as a 'pen pal' and many such correspondences led to long-lasting friendships, enabled long-distance romances and kept families in touch through war and troubled financial times. This is no less true today, even though the medium has become faster and even allows face-to-face as well as written and spoken communication. Thus within our online communities we can apply the same categorization from 'close friends,' to 'acquaintances.'
I find this particularly fascinating these days as my circle of 'friends' expands through contacts I have made via Facebook, Baen's Bar, and simply emailing a person with whom I wish to converse. One connection has evolved from acquaintance to almost-family with the result that a person I met online only four years ago, now has multiple avenues of interaction with me, my parents, my sister, etc. Those interactions are no longer confined online, but occur by phone, in person, and at each others' homes. In another example, I have reconnected with a classmate from college that I knew as the friend of a friend, but we now connect online almost daily and speak on the phone several times per week.
With new friends comes new acquaintances as they and I become 'friends of friends' and work on developing yet another circle of connections. Thanks to some of my friends, I now count several authors and journalists among both my friends and my acquaintances. The more I interact, the more these people progress through the multitude of circles with which we surround ourselves. The old joke about "six degrees of separation" is true. Even a passing, distant acquaintance becomes our connection to another. From any friend, I can count an acquaintance who has another acquaintance who has a friend...
...until we come full circle.