Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What is a friend and how do you build a friendship?

By Philip Copitch, Ph.D.

Friendship is a common concern for most people. Are we a good friend? Do our friends treat us correctly? Do we have enough or the right type of friends? Today I’m going to cover these issues, and hopefully demystify them for you.


By definition, the word friend means simply, someone you know and share a mutual affection with. It is that basic. You know them, and they know you. You like them, and they like you. 

However, even with this basic definition we run into a problem. It is the 'and'. You 'and' they have to agree to friend each other. You both have to know and like each other. But, we know that friends can get angry with each other…and still be friends, right? 

The Urban Dictionary adds to the definition by adding the modifier, “real”

A real friend is someone who: 

a) it's okay to fart in front of. 

b) you don't mind talking to on the bus for at least 20 minutes. 

c) can borrow $5 and never has to pay it back 

d) you'll actually call up to do stuff.

The Urban dictionary definition seems to shorten my list of friends.

How many friends should I have?

This is a very tricky question. Based on the first dictionary definition above, most people have lots of friends, people they know. But if you think of a friend as someone you can count on, and who can count on you, this number thing gets much more confusing.

I once read a research study that asked people to open their address books and rank how many people, listed in their address book, they had talked to in the last week. The number was low, very low. When asked to rank how many people in their address books they'd had no contact with in over a year, the number was high. In fact, the study found that most people had little contact with a handful of people in their address book. (Replace the word 'address book' with 'contact list', and the math will still be the same.)

I find that having a “real close friend” is a lot of work. You have to be there for them and they have to be there for you. Wow! Lots of responsibility is involved in being a “real close friend.” Thus, if at any time I have 1 or 2 close friends, I feel blessed. I know lots of people, but not lots of people I can comfortably pass gas in front of.

Why do we modify the word friend?

By adding words like “best” “real” “school” “work” or “church” we start to pass judgment on our friendships. We label them to categorize them so that we can get a handle on how valuable to us the relationship really is. 

A best friend is more important to us than a school friend, for example, but that doesn’t diminish our relationship with our school friend. It just helps us to understand our own feelings about our friends. 

Friend is a verb

A verb is an action word like run or catch. Friend is an action word also. You build a friendship by doing things with like minded people. By saying 'like minded', I’m not talking about thinking exactly alike, I’m referring to common interests. When these common interests are actions that you and your friend can do together or talk about, then you have the building blocks of a healthy friendship.

How do you build a friendship?

The simple answer is activity. Mark came into my office a few years ago. He was 26 years old and feeling really lonely. He felt like he lost all of his friends since he left the Army, which was pretty much the truth. Facebook and emails were not the same as being there. Mark had worked at a large Army hospital where he had lots of people he knew. He liked the sense of purpose that his work gave him and he enjoyed the social activities that working at such a vibrant hospital afforded him. (Note: all the activities he used to have with like minded people that stopped because of his move. He now had a lot less verbs in his life.)

Mark liked his new job, the reason he chose his new community, but his coworkers were all older and had families. They were nice, but they were very busy people. They didn’t have time to go out at night after work. His new hospital was much smaller and there weren't the pickup soccer games or the impromptu lunch and dinner invitations.

I talked with Mark about how friendship was built on activity and that by finding an activity he was interested in, he was more likely to find like minded people that he would have something in common with. He decided to go to the local college to see what it offered. 

Mark ended up taking a ceramics class, something he always wanted to try, but never had the time for. During the third week, he and a few classmates decided to go out for dinner after class. A few weeks later, one of the classmates introduced Mark to his sister. By the end of the pottery class Mark and his new girlfriend were planning to take an art class together. Mark also started playing Frisbee Golf with one of the guys from class. This helped him meet more like mined people that liked exercise, fellowship, and Frisbee Golf.

Tips for making friends

  • Reach out. Look for like minded people.
  • Join a group. School, church, political, sports… Join a group that is doing something you are interested in. Go with your interests so that you will have the energy to keep attending the activities.
  • Ask people questions. By learning about others, you increase the likelihood that the other person will ask you to participate in stuff that they are doing. My mom always encouraged me to “listen more, talk less.” It was great advice.
  • Smile. It makes sense that if you smile people are more likely to want to be around you. I’m not kidding here, if you are down or look sad, people will avoid you. Pick your feelings up by smiling.
  • Don’t be too quick to say no thank you. Don’t wait for the perfect invitation before you say yes. Often fear of new things can get in the way of making new friends. I encourage you to be a little uncomfortable so that you can grow as a person. Challenge yourself at least a little.
  • Volunteering to help a local charity is a wonderful way to meet nice people.

It is very easy to stay home and plug into the internet. Please be careful with this. Make sure that by plugging into the internet you aren’t really unplugging yourself from living your life in the real world.

Books by Dr. Copitch:

I'd love to hear your thoughts about friendship. Any helpful hints you can share are most welcome. Please leave a comment or a question.

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