The Many Sides of Friendship

Each quarter Chris Yeh and I convene about 20 of our friends on the peninsula and 20 of our friends in San Francisco for a conversation over lunch. Each lunch, called the Junto, has a theme. So far we've discussed and debated happiness, love, belief systems, humor, storytelling, death, Americanism, and this quarter: friendship.

My friendships are important to me and an area of my life to which I devote a lot of energy. My thinking about the topic generates questions that I felt grateful to be able to discuss at the Junto: What are the types of friendship? Should all friendships be bi-directional / fully reciprocal? Can you be close friends with people you hire or fire? How do you develop emotional intimacy with professional friends and intellectual energy with childhood emotional friends? Can you have a composite best friend instead of a single best friend?

Below are some of the key nuggets from our conversations. Full notes are here. (I missed some notes due to my laughter control issues in the very amusing San Francisco conversation.)

  • The measure of depth is trust. Trust is engendered by the things you share, since that makes their actions predictable. The more shared experiences you have, the more predictable they become.
  • The more settings in which you see a friend, the more you can trust that person. The person you only see in one setting can't be relied upon in other settings. That's how fraternity initiations work. That's why off-sites work.
  • Emotional connection is what switches someone from an acquaintance to a friend.
  • How can you add an emotional dimension to professional/intellectual relationships? How can you add an intellectual dimension to childhood relationships?
  • A lot of CEOs believe that they can't have a friendship with a subordinate or co-worker. But they also know that they need to be able to motivate people. So they share stories to establish an emotional connection.
  • A regular friend helps you move; a true friend helps you move a body. Use this to determine how many close friends you have – for how many people would you help move a body?
  • How do you break up with a friend? We don't have a script for doing this like we have for romantic breakups.
  • Friendships can by asymmetrical. Sometimes the "value" that flows back and forth takes different forms. Socialists worry about asymmetry. Capitalists only care if the two parties enter into a willing exchange. Is it wrong to think about "providing value" to a friend?
  • The best friendships are reciprocal but you don't keep score.
  • Do you have a best friend or a composite best friend? It's hard to find a single friend who fulfills all the different friendship needs you might have. Plus, a composite best friend eliminates the single point of failure ("The Voltron model of friendship.") Is the concept of "best friend" an antiquated notion?
  • In a good friendship, the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
  • U.S. is more transactional than other countries. Other countries see friends more immediately as "family."
  • Is it harder now to form deep friendships than it was in the past? If we're more mobile, perhaps yes. Simple math: You can know more people these days, which dramatically divides your attention across more relationships.
  • You want your friends to be able to criticize you but not judge you.
  • The quality of your relationship with others depends on your relationship with yourself. Do you love yourself?
  • It's impossible for someone to be your friend if you're not having fun with him. Having fun with the person is a universal value of friendship, despite in general it being a very personal and individual thing.
  • In California, after one meeting you're friends with the person, after two meetings you're good friends, after three meetings you're best friends.
  • Technology has expanded our capacity to maintain connections in the outer circles but doesn't affect how many relationships we can maintain in our inner circles.

Here's David Brooks' definition of friendship. Here are my favorite lines from Montaigne's book on the topic.

8 comments on “The Many Sides of Friendship
  • What a great idea! I’ve often wondered how to grow my tea and dinner parties so that I can bring more people together for conversation. Our kitchen table seats about eight people or squeezes in about 10, which is the most I’ve had over. How do you physically arrange space to encourage the large conversations you probably have? =)

  • hmm..Ben, great blog! I don’t agree with the last comment on technology. I think our access and ability to keep in touch with many more people now takes away time and energy from closer friends…there is a “substitution effect”…for better or for worse.

    I also think that lack of communal ties (with exception of religious communities) is making us more narcissistic in nature…which also makes it difficult to maintain friendships where reciprocity (at all times) is not expected.

  • Oh to be a fly on the wall in these lunches! πŸ™‚ (Not be a fly on the lunches, mind you; it would be distinctly unhygienc but wait this comment probably belongs on the ‘humour’ post. Uh, never mind).

    “A lot of CEOs believe that they can’t have a friendship with a subordinate or co-worker.”

    I have often discussed this with CEOs or seriously senior corporate people. There is no consensus so yes, you are right. In other words, people’s management styles vary. Also depends on whether people see you as “boss” or as “consiglieri”, the latter being more consensual, more Theory Y if you will, manner of managing relationships with people and getting the best out of them.

    “U.S. is more transactional than other countries. Other countries see friends more immediately as “family.”

    You have a point there but there are additional aspects to it. e.g. I think the immigrant experience changes how we view friends. I speak with and see more of my friends in London than I do my relatives and family in India. I am also closer to cousins I have had opportunity to see outside India, due to their travels. The friends here are of various ethnicities and are natives or migrants. Since they see me in more + and – situations right away, they do become very close. It doesn’t remain transactional. Yes, they are like family including because their kids see me as the preferred other adult to go to etc.. This is also the experience of my friends who emigrated to the US.

    “You want your friends to be able to criticize you but not judge you.”

    Unless someone is evaluating carefully, they cannot criticise or critique. And if they are evaluating carefully and have a moral compass of any kind of their own – I’d like to believe I am not friends with robots – they will judge. In fact my trust falls directly in proportion with how many times someone says “Oh you know me, I don’t judge!”. This is BS I am afraid. All humans judge and they do that all the time. Conditioning prevents us from articulating that judgement. When, for instance, I say this post is great – I could mean I am judging the theme, the content, the presentation and how it appealed to various sides of me. Granted I am not your friend in the pre-social-networking sense, but in the social networking sense, hey, we are friends on FB. So what gives? πŸ™‚ I believe friends _should_ be able to tell you, without fear of reprisal, they are judging you. If the friendship cannot survive serious disagreements, then it is not really ‘friendship’.

    As for technology, it has opened many channels to my close friends and enabled greater conversation with not-so-close ones. The label may be the same but the ‘ranking’ may be fluid. Depending on what binds us with someone.

    Oh, great post (there, a judgement!). πŸ™‚

  • Moon said to me, if ur friend is not messaging u why dont you leave ur friend.I looked at moon and said does ur sky ever leave u when u dont shin

  • To live a life i need heartbeat, 2 have heartbeat i need a heart, 2 have heart i need happiness, to have happiness i need a friend, and 4 a friend

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