posted 16 April 2002

I'm finding it very interesting at the moment to think about what causes friends and friendships to form, to fail, and to last, because of what some of my friends are currently going through. It seems to me that there should be limited set of reasons why people like each other, and that these factors must be fairly understandable. If that's true, we should be able to predict who will like each other, and who won't, which seems really useful. And, like all my theories, I aim to form some kind of method of varying these factors to control the situation. Control freak? Me? Nah.

Let's split this topic up:

  • What is a friendship?
  • Why friendships form
  • How friendships form
  • How to maintain a friendship
  • Why friendships stop
  • How friendships stop
  • How to keep the friends you want and lose the ones you don't, without hurting anybody's feelings. (aka: How to be a Manipulative Bastard)

1. What is a friendship?

This is important to define. What is a friend, and what is a friendship? Where does friendship start and stop -- i.e., at what stage from acquaintance to friend, and what stage goes past friendship to some other level?

Going solely on my own feelings, I'd have to say that a friend is someone you

  1. know a bit about,
  2. admire, and
  3. care for.

I can't think of anybody I would classify as a real friend who doesn't meet all three of those specifications. I would classify any others as just "acquaintances" or at some stage in between an acquaintance and a friend. The only possible exception might be someone who meets (i) and (iii) but whom you don't admire, a "no-good" friend, but I'm prepared to demote such people as just acquaintances if there's really NOTHING you admire about them. Some might be losers in most aspects, but would nevertheless have some redeeming quality. Nobody has friends whom they don't admire for something. Maybe this has some primal evolutionary reason -- we make friends with people who have a skill or a quality we lack, thus by banding together the group is stronger. That certainly makes evolutionary sense, and I have repeatedly found that a great deal of human society can still be boiled down to evolutionary terms. This precludes the idea of "love at first sight" to a major extent, unless you're willing to classify what somebody looks like as "knowing a bit about them" which would seem like an overly shallow thing to do, and would lead to people falling in love with wax dummies all the time :-) (well, okay, no, because you'd probably ascertain whether the person was real or not from looking at them). Actually, it's quite possible that the third qualification is false: perhaps once one and two are met, three happens automatically? But we'll leave it in, because these items are not really distinct anyway: in order to admire someone you have to know about them, and once you admire them you may care for them. We were splitting up what was really a single concept to make it more understandable.

However, there is one qualification I overlooked initially:

  1. the feeling must be MUTUAL.

Therefore, no matter how much your stalker loves you, you two aren't friends unless you have a thing for stalkers. I have a feeling -- nay, a certainty, since I came back and wrote this paragraph subsequently, having encountered a problem further down -- that this fourth qualification will be important later.

That decided, then, what is a friendship? It is not quite as anal-retentive to define this as it seems. In defining it, we can figure out by definition when it starts and when it ends. I would say that it begins and ends when the three qualifications I listed are met and subsequently no longer apply. That would mean that somebody who you love is still also your friend, which matches common sense. But how do you judge whether the qualifications are satisfied or not? I don't think there's any empirical way to judge whether you care for someone, and "knowing about" someone is equally fuzzy. But those definitions will do for now.

SIDE TOPIC: War & Peace

(can you believe this is a side topic?)

Incidentally to this topic, this definition of friendship is supportive of another one of my little theories in life, which is that it is impossible to hate somebody you really know. Perhaps I'm optimistic, but I think everyone must have SOME admirable quality if you just get to know them well enough. So while someone may have a large number of qualities you detest -- for instance, they might be a racist or a religious fundamentalist or something equally distasteful -- but once you understand WHY, you might not AGREE, but you will understand, and you will like them anyway because of whatever other admirable qualities they have. This is perhaps an obvious point, but not to everyone, and it's very important, because that would preclude war in the current Information Age.

Follow the logic to the conclusion, and look at past evidence: fights and wars throughout history have typically been between groups of people with different culture, a great deal of the time different languages, and even more often significant physical separation -- even civil wars tend to occur between inhabitants of a region, although there are exceptions such as those fought on a religious basis (but even then, different religions tend to ghettoize and cluster together, introducing a spatial separation. But at the heart of these reasons, the disputes are mainly fueled by a lack of UNDERSTANDING: misinformation and propaganda, for this reason, are such useful tools in war: rumours of false atrocities or disgusting practices like cannibalism or torture have been used time and again to boost morale in armies. Wars between America and the former USSR or Germany are ideal examples, as well as the Crusades: both sides in all three cases (except possibly the Germans considering the Americans) held glaringly false impressions of the others -- the Americans were considered decadent by the USSR; the USSR deemed totalitarian and soul-crushing; the Turks were infidels to the knights, and the feeling was mutual.

So with the current widespread availability of information -- and the truth is always more abundant than fiction when both sides are communicating fully -- such understandings are less likely. Spatial, linguistic and cultural differences are merely devices which inhibit this communication. Some might say that such wars in the past were based on ideology, not misunderstanding: but if you understand someone's ideology, their motivation for doing or not doing something, then you don't hate it, even if you don't approve of it.

2. Why and how friendships form

In defining the term, we also determined why a friendship forms: the qualifications are met. However, HOW a friendship forms is still to be decided. Let's look at each qualification in turn:

(i) knowing about the person

To get to know somebody, you have to find out about them. You find out from external sources -- everything from friends to the phonebook to the dating service -- but the richest source is the person themselves. You have to talk to them -- at length -- to get to know them. This is why the art of conversation is so valuable. So, if you're looking for advice on how to make friends, you have to be able to communicate.

As an aside, the method of communication need not be face-to-face conversation. Pen-pals have been getting romantically involved for decades now, forget just friends. And I know a number of people who have ten times as many friends online as offline, because they can write intelligently, just not speak that way. I've found this very interesting, and it was one of the reasons I wrote this. And of course, the information you find out doesn't need to be abstract -- physical information like the fact that the other person is a complete babe with really great skin and a killer smile, or financial information -- that their daddy owns 40% of Australia -- can be just as useful, and, provided you're evil and shallow minded (like me) then these may sway your opinion.

(ii) admiring the person

there's probably no way to CONTROL this, since what you admire is going to be a quality inherent within somebody. In a practical situation, you might steer the conversation towards things that you enjoy, or things that interest you. If they're interested in such things, and -- importantly -- are better than or close to equal to you in that field, or in a related field, then by the previously-mentioned evolutionary impetus you will probably find yourself admiring them.

(iii) caring about the person

as I mentioned, this is probably a result of the first two.

(iv) the feeling being mutual

This is very important to forming a friendship. See where that inserted paragraph came in? :-) It's all very well finding out all about somebody and finding out you like them, but if they don't know you exist then nothing's ever going to happen, and your one-sided friendship may turn to infatuation, stalking, long lonely nights developing hidden-camera negatives in your basement, and eventual institutionalisation. That's something to avoid, so you need to tell THEM stuff about YOU too. Again, the communication doesn't need to be face to face, or abstract.

And that's basically how friendships form -- can you believe some people do all that automatically? That's just weird.

3. How to maintain a friendship

Here I begin to enter I'm-bullshitting-you territory. I mean, how the hell would I know? But the purpose of these things is just to put across my untested theories, so why the hell should I care if it's accurate or not? Once we understand that, that's cool. See? Now you can't hate me :-).

I've seen lots of friendships break down recently, and analysing them I'd have to say it's because of the second qualification: when admiration in either party fades away, then the friendship breaks down. That's what makes friendships dynamic: to maintain the friendship, still using my evolutionary model, each side of the friendship must be better than the other with respect to at least one activity, or know more with about one thing, and the other party must be interested in that aspect, or the impetus fades. Since everyone is learning and improving (to a lesser or greater extent) all the time, the balance can shift and things go wrong. The same thing can happen if one of the parties is no longer interested in the aspect they used to admire -- when interests change, you may no longer care whether or not they're better or worse than you, and so the impetus again fades.

This is why a good strong friendship often has a strong competitive undercurrent which no one likes to admit to, especially if the two fields of interest are related. Sometimes, a happy compromise happens in which each party continues to improve in their field and yet be interested in the other's separate field: for instance, a singer and a songwriter, or some similarly complementary pair.

Therefore, to maintain your friendship you have to keep communicating, keep letting the other party know about the field in which they are interested, keeping them interested. And, of course, you have to be continuously improving and changing in that or another field. Everything else will take care of itself. Too often, in my view, people take relationships for granted once they're started, and so they quickly break down again. Now you know better :-) Finally, it's also important to know when to let a relationship go: if the person really no longer has an interest in your area, even though you're communicating well, then it's important to realise that and give up, to save everybody a lot of stress. The feeling has to be MUTUAL.

4. Why and how friendships stop

The previous topics having been completed, this is easy: if you don't do all these things I've been mentioning, then your friendships will break down and stop. Well. That was brief.

5. How to keep the friends you want and lose the ones you don't, without hurting anybody's feelings.

(aka: How to be a Manipulative Bastard)

So far most of what I've said has been talking about starting and keeping friends and friendships. Sometimes though, you have a friend -- old or new -- who you find you no longer have any interest in. What to do? Assuming you don't want to hurt their feelings, out of some kind of sentimental, illogical attachment, or just not wanting to be thought of as the evil manipulative bastard that you are, this can be difficult. If you DON'T care about their feelings, then it's easy, by the way -- you just stop communicating with them, and indicate that you don't want to hang around with them anymore. They'll be pissed, but you won't care.

If you do care, then, unfortunately, you have to do the same thing, but more subtley. I really can't think of an easy way. They still like you, you don't like them, but they won't go away. You can try deliberately boring them, but that's a bit on the bastard side too, and no fun for you either. So, all in all, honesty is best here, but they're still gonna be pissed.

Wasn't it disappointing to read all this to find that the most useful answer is the one I didn't get? Not half as disappointing as writing it, let me tell you.

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