Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.


What is a friend? In particular, what distinguishes a friend from an acquaintance? A recent conversation led to the following working definition:

friend. n. Someone who makes time for you.

Alternatives were discarded. For instance, can you be someone’s friend if you only spend time with them in a group? Potentially, because disallowing it could affect the definition for friends with whom it might be difficult to make individual time, such as couples or those who live farther away and close to other mutual friends.

What does it mean to make time for someone? For friends nearby, it could be as simple as spending time together. For friends farther away, it might be a periodic phone call, e-mail, or IM to see how they are.

To accept the definition is to accept the fact that friendship is directed. Who are the people for whom you make time? You are their friend. Which people make time for you? They are your friends.

I’d be curious whether someone could offer up an undirected definition of friendship. A simple one would be to apply an AND condition to the directed definition above. One might then debate whether the directed or undirected version deserves the true title of friendship, but I’d be happy to let them share the title at the expense of precision. The tragedy of language is that there are more concepts than there are words to express them, with the ones that are assigned to words perhaps depending on some entropic notion of importance. Of course, one can always supplement a language with additional words. Consider Inuit, which offers multiple ways to express the differences in types of snow.


2 responses

  1. Rich

    I think the definition of a “friend” is directed because a “friendship” involves at least two entities, where each is a “friend” of the other. In other words, each “friend” is a directional relationship; hence “X is a friend *of* (or *to*) Y”, and “friendship” involves mutual “friend”-ing.

    I don’t think that one necessarily needs to make time for another person to be a “friend”. I think this is true of “good” friends, but is not a necessary requirement for plain friendship. Perhaps it is necessary to define “acquaintance” as well on the road from “stranger” to “friend” to “good friends”. The concept of a “friend” has certainly been diluted with the advent of social networking and (especially) uni-directional friendship (aka “followers”, or “fans”, or “stalkers”).

    July 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm

  2. K

    Let’s start with acquaintance: someone with whom you interact in social situations. To highlight the difference, you might make plans to go see a movie with a friend, and they bring along an acquaintance. They’re not necessarily someone whom you would “make time for”, but someone with whom you might hang out with every now and then.

    The difference between a good friend and friend in my mind is how that time may be allocated. A friend typically has more freedom in how they allocate their time with you, but a good friend tends to have less control. Put slightly differently, here’s my definition:

    Good friend. n. Someone on whom you feel comfortable imposing.

    As for the directionality, friend can be used in a mutual sense, too:
    “They’re friends.”
    “Do you consider us to be friends?”

    Social networks are a whole other can of worms, but you reminded me of the following Ze Frank videos:
    Small World
    Social Network

    July 11, 2010 at 10:57 pm

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