A Look At American Friendship

Photo © Bobi Bobi Illustrations, via Wikimedia Commons

With more and more people referring to their boss, roommate, classmate, wife, husband, and dog-walker all as “Friends,” it may get harder and harder to tell who’s who.

“But what? Don’t be silly—Of course my dog-walker is not my friend!” you say.

But perhaps you “Friended” him on Facebook.

And this is the kind of indiscriminate “Friending” I’m talking about that could be the thorn in our sides years down the lonely road. It is casual, water-under-the-bridge friendship like this that could end up watering down the real friendships we already have—even more than they already have been.

What is friendship in America? Is it a close bond, or is it a passive, easily-dissolvable “Scotch-Tape” that ties us to people we like (for now)? Over my life, I have known friends, but many of them haven’t stayed around. What I’ve found instead—people can be somewhat detached. And detachment is one of my worst pet peeves!

Has anybody read about the decline of friendship in America, and its consequences? It’s an interesting study, if you ever want to look at it. A particular study suggests the following (Bolded text is my doing—this excerpt I have shortened up a little…you can read the whole article here):

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today’s American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.

“You usually don’t see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades,” says study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Also, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illness.

The study finds fewer contacts are from clubs and neighbors; people are relying more on family, a phenomenon documented in the 2000 book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy professor.

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found.

Pause. This idea of relying on family is not such a bad one. I am pro-family—I love my family—and whether or not this statistic implies social health or not I am undecided on. It is simply an interesting correlation, and one that I may expound further on in a later post. Continue:

The chief suspects: More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work, Putnam says, leaving less time to socialize or join groups.

Also, people have more entertainment tools such as TV, iPods and computers, so they can stay home and tune out. But some new trends, such as online social networking, may help counter the effect, he says.

Here at the end, I have to disagree. I don’t believe that sites such as Facebook strengthen friendships, and I’m even unsure of less creepy venues of “Cheap” communication, such as IM’ing and text-messages. To be honest, I appreciate a good text message, but I would far rather spend face-to-face time.

“Sure,” you say, “This is all good and well…After all, I appreciate ‘Real’ friendships more than online friendships.” Second guess yourself…go through this checklist and think about it.

  • Am I spending more time socializing with friends (or “Friends”) on Facebook etc., or in real-life? This may be a bad sign.
  • Am I subconsciously (or consciously) distancing myself from those who could be close friends by keeping them at arm’s length…holding them in my hand via text message, IM, brief emails, or those “Christmas Brag” letters?
  • Am I calling people “Friends” too soon?
  • Is my Facebook Friend list too long to mean anything?
  • Am I undervaluing those people who stick by me?
  • How many people would “Do anything for me,” as it were?

Forgive me if I don’t sound like my regular jocular self today—this is an issues straight from the heart. 🙂

What has your experience been with American Friendships? If you are foreign and have visited America, what have you found? If you are foreign and would like to share your culture’s view on friendships, please do. 🙂

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9 thoughts on “A Look At American Friendship

  1. A really interesting post. I’m from Scotland so I’m not really able to comment or give a view on American friendships but here are some of the things your post brought to mind.

    It sounds easier to say someone (like a work colleague) is a friend rather than an acquaintance but when it comes to friends you know who they are because the live in your heart. Other ‘friends’ are nice to bump into a chat to.

    I agree, I don’t think friendships are build on Facebook but I guess it depends on whether you accept that friend request because it makes you feel good to add to your ever growing list or because you feel it’s a nice way to keep in touch with that person.

    Great post – thank you.

    Jacqueline

    • Thanks for visiting, Jacqueline. I completely understand what you are saying about the friend vs. “friend” mutual understanding. Some of my friends are closer than others, but I still call them friends. That is the thing about having such a broad language as ours—one second we may “Love” our family, and then “Love” a cheeseburger. We could also “Love” a brother, and at the same time “Love” a fiancé, but definitely not the same way!

      The heart of the matter is important—but at the same time, we should probably be careful of feeding things that don’t give back. Glad you stopped in. 🙂

  2. I think you make too much of the Facebook “Friend” trend. “Friend” is just a term used by Facebook… but it doesn’t mean the same thing as “friend” means in regular parlance, and nobody I know uses it that way. We can differentiate between what a word means in one context versus what it means in another.

    So yeah, I have a 200+ list of “friends” on Facebook. In fact, most of them aren’t “friends” in the traditional sense but are actually “acquaintances”. And that’s fine by me. I want to keep in touch with some of my old acquaintances. Facebook lets me do that. And in fact, I’m able to spend real, actual face-time with old friends and acquaintances that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t able to keep up with them on Facebook. So net-net, Facebook is a positive for my actual friendships.

    That said, I think I’m coming to prefer – although I haven’t used it much – Google+’s ability to easily differentiate my collection of online acquaintances into “circles”. That way I can have a circle of actual, close friends and other circles of distant acquaintances, or circles for family. That actually maps to how I view my interactions with others. So, for example, I’ve now got a circle for my fellow, peer blogger-writer group. Not many people in it yet… but I suspect it’ll grow.

    Now, I will say that I’m in that group that doesn’t have a lot of close confidants. I have my wife. That’s about it. I wish I had other close friends that I could turn to… but the reality is I don’t make friends especially easily, so that’s tough. And for the most part my friendships are compartmentalized – a “friend” can fall in multiple compartments, so to speak, but I only interact with them in the context of the compartments into which they fit. Overall, I really don’t spend much time with anyone besides my Dear Wife and son and dog.

    • Hey Stephen—

      I will admit, perhaps I’m a little zealous about the whole Facebook thing. I am a non-Facebook’er, so I do not have too much first-hand experience on the subject. While I am sort of biased, I think what I’m saying could have weight—Simply that, from using the word “Friend,” for everybody, we may as a culture water down the word and forget its meaning. The word could loose its precious value. For instance, words that once held great weight are now being thrown around left and right; specifically, I am speaking of swear words whose meanings are shocking, but since people use them so much (i.e. every other adjective) we now just flinch a little.

      More to the point: Friend is not a shocking swear word (Thank God!), but little changes in definition—or frequency—could cause an erosion.

      Take my “Love” example from my above comment to Jacqueline.

      Can you imagine hanging up the phone after talking to one of your male friends, and saying, “Okay, I love you, bye.” I don’t know how it is in Atlanta, but in a place like New York, that would be kinda weird! But if we instead had a word for “love” in the sense of camaraderie…let’s call it “Flove,”…then we’d probably have less of a problem with telling somebody that we “Flove” them, no romantic or awkward connotations attached.

      An argument in semantics? Perhaps…perhaps not. We’re both linguists—I’m an experimental linguist. I like to toy with language. But what are your thoughts on it? Do you think that “Friend” will adapt into a contextual word, will we come up with new words for different friendships, or will the concept of friendship simply…erode?

  3. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter and I don’t IM or text either, so I can’t really say what impact they have on friendships. I do have a blog, and I think of my regular commenters as ‘blog friends’ which isn’t the same as a ‘friend friend’.

    I’ve got a few close friends I keep in touch with in real life. It’s amazing because I’m terrible at keeping up contact because time gets away from me.

    • I guess just the fact that keeping up contact—something you don’t usually do—is just a show of how much you care about those close friends.

      You’re right, “Blog friends” are fun but just not the same.

  4. hey… hotshot bald cop wrote the same thing about my post!

    but no really, nice writing, and yay for the antifacebookers : )

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