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Contemporary Friendships

Tim Delaney and Anastasia Malakhova categorize and analyze the different kinds of modern-day friendships.

What is friendship? It links people who share dispositions, a sense of intimacy or feelings of affection, and have an attachment or association with one another. As such, friends are bonded by expressions of harmony, accord, understanding, and rapport. There are many characteristics of a friend,but generally a friend is someone whom you like and trust; who supports you in a time of need; who cheers you on as you attempt some goal; and yet still is someone who may ‘bust your chops’ to bring you back to reality when you get a little too full of yourself. Friends are so important that the Online Slang Dictionary lists 139 slang words for them. Here are some examples: ace, bof, boo, bro, brohan, brother from another mother, buddy, chica, chum, cousin, crew, cuz, dawg, dog, fella, flatmate, home boy, home girl, homie, kemo sabe, pal, partner, pimpette, pookie, posse, potna, rock, sista, sister from another mister, sweetie, thug, and wingman.

We form friendships for a whole variety of reasons, including the historic purposes of safety and basic survival, but friendships also serve other important purposes, such as providing social inclusion and a sense of identity. The Austrian-American sociologist Peter Blau (1918-2002) described how people choose between alternative possible friendships by ranking the expected experiences of each potential association, then selecting the best. In particular, Blau believed that the main force that draws people together is social attraction, defined in terms of the potential rewards (whether internal or external) to be gained by for participating in the exchange among potential friends. Thus integrative bonds, such as expectations of rewards, social approval, shared opinions and outlooks on life, love, and the pleasure of social attraction, provide a pivotal role in forming friendships.

Aristotle provides us with a good starting point for any discussion on friendship. He categorized three primary types of friendships: friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of the good. Some friendships are likely to stay in one category indefinitely if this fits the needs of the friends involved. For example, many of us have ‘work friends’ (this corresponds to Aristotle’s concept of ‘friends of utility’), and we are quite content with keeping it that way as we have no desire to spend time with them outside of work. Other friendships are forged because we enjoy each other’s company, what Aristotle referred to as ‘friends of pleasure’. Some friendships grow from the casual to the very close, what Aristotle called ‘friends of the good’. But there are also friendships involving people who started out as good or close friends but over time begin to drift apart. In other words, friendships are fluid and subject to change, for any number of reasons. The type of friendship one has with others depends on the people involved, their expectation level, their needs, and how much time and effort they are willing to spend on nurturing and devoting to the friendship. [See Tim Madigan and Daria Gorlova’s article in this issue for more details on Aristotle’s ideas of friendship, Ed.]

The nature of contemporary friendship seems more complex than the trifold categorization employed by Aristotle, and can be sorted into many subcategories, including folks who are attached to one another by feelings of affection or personal regard; those who provide assistance and support to one another; those who are on good terms with one another because they share certain attributes, such as religious and cultural affiliations; those who share a common interest such as music or favorite sports team; or, by those who participate in certain social activities, such as travelling or hiking.

With these considerations in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most significant categories of friendships found in the contemporary era.

Contemporary Relationships
Contemporary Relationships (with apologies to Matisse), by Bofy © Bofy 2018 worldofbofy.com

Casual Friends

All (face-to-face) friendships share the assumption that you’ve actually spent time together and bonded to some degree, or as Aristotle would put it, that you’ve ‘shared salt’ with one another. A ‘casual friend’ would be someone with whom you spend some time with where your encounters with one another are friendly but not very intimate. Casual friends will come and go, while closer friends may remain in your circle of acquaintances for years, perhaps even for a lifetime. Casual friendships may slowly fade away, or may end spectacularly. Research shows that the quickest way to end a friendship is betrayal. Here the trust necessary for a continuing relationship is shattered.

Close Friends

A step above the ‘casual friend’ is the ‘close friend’. Close friends may also be known as ‘good friends’. This category falls in-between casual friend and best friends. A close friend is someone you would consider part of your inner circle. Cherie Burbach, a self-proclaimed ‘Friendship Expert’, describes close friends as those “people who know the most about your life, and have likely been through a few ups and downs with you. You may have several friends and one or two people you would consider ‘good friends’. Good friends are generally those you see and talk to the most often” (see ‘Stages of Friendship Development’, 2017, at liveabout.com). We agree with Burbach that we’re more intimate with close friends than casual friends, and that we are likely to have shared some ups and downs with close friends. However, we disagree with her conclusion that we are likely to have just one or two people we would consider close friends. Such a quantitative limitation is reserved for the ‘best friend’ category.

Best Friends (BF)

Casual friends and close friends are important, but only the select few can claim the title and sentiment expressed by the term ‘best friend’. The best friend is the gold standard of friendships. Best friends possess all the qualities of close friends, and much more. They are the friends with whom we are very close; they are our confidants, and the people we can count on at all times including the good and bad, sad and happy, excited and bored, or when we just want to hang out with someone who will understand us. Best friends are those we value above all our other friends. Your best friend is the person whom you first think of when you want to share good news, or when you need comforting during bad times.

Friends With Benefits (FWB)

When we were kids, ‘friends with benefits’ might have meant someone with a swimming pool or big backyard. But nowadays ‘friends with benefits’, as we all (presumably) know, means ‘sex buddies’: people who have a sexual relationship without being involved with other aspects typical of an intimate relationship, such as monogamy or explaining their whereabouts or daily activities to one another. Having friends with benefits may at first seem a great way to achieve happiness; but of course, as most people understand, whenever sex is involved in a relationship, things tend to become complicated.

Friends of Friends, or Secondhand Friends

‘Friends of friends’ or ‘secondhand friends’ are an interesting category of friends, in that you may find them to be just as cool as your original friend, or you may find you cannot tolerate them and despise sharing time with them. When a friend introduces you to one of their other friends, they may do so because they think everyone will get along, and to increase the amount of time spent with both (albeit at the cost of one-on-one time). The friend who introduces you to someone annoying, however, may be employing a clever strategy to ditch you both.

You may find that you have more in common with a friend of a friend than with the original friend. When one begins to spend time with the secondhand friend without the original, they are likely to discuss the mutual friend as a means of easing the unfamiliar new friendship; but, eventually it may morph into a true friendship, maintained even when you both move on from the original friend. If this happens, the original friend becomes an ex-friend.


Unsurprisingly, an ex-friend is someone you were once friends with, but are no longer. This is often due to some kind of argument and/or a betrayal. The reason for friends breaking up dictates the level of disdain ex-friends have for one another. A best friend who metaphorically stabs his friend in the back by stealing his girlfriend away via lies and other manipulations is an example of the lowest of the low ex-friends. By contrast, friends who simply drift apart from one another because each has developed interests that are no longer mutual are likely to hold no grudges against one another. Aristotle would consider that to be a natural progression.

If ex-close friends who parted in less than pleasant circumstances cross paths with one another, a great deal of emotion is likely to be let loose. After all, we expect far more from our close and best friends than we do from others. It is best to either try to avoid talking to an acrimoniously ex-friend or, at the very least, try to be a better person. Civil ex-friends will avoid slandering one another, keep long-held secrets, and just move on. Being civil might be difficult, especially if you want to rip his/her head off; but in the long run it’s the best course of action.

Bromance Friends

The term ‘bromance’ is a blend of bro (a slang term for male close or best friends) and romance. The part ‘bro’ reveals that this type of friendship is specifically between males. For the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2016), a bromance is a close nonsexual friendship between men; while the Urban Dictionary (2010) has a variety of entries on bromance, including: a complicated love and affection shared by two straight males; a non-sexual relationship between two men that are unusually close that involves the act of wooing for the purposes of becoming closer; going to unusual lengths in an attempt to become closer with another male friend; and, a close relationship between two bros to such a point where they start to seem like a couple. A bromance then, is a highly-formed friendship between males. While such relationships have likely occurred throughout history (think of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, or Marx and Engels) the word in recent times has become in vogue partly just because historically it has generally been less socially acceptable for males to show emotional closeness than it has been for females.

Whether or not Aristotle would consider two ‘friends of the good’ to constitute a ‘bromance’ remains an open question!

Work Friends

Many people spend more awake time with work friends than they do with most close or best friends or spouses. So it is important to have work friends if for no other reason than it makes the environment more pleasant and less stressful. Employers tend to like work friendships too, as it creates a sense of camaraderie and comfort.

Work friendships develop like most other friendships – naturally and organically. It’s natural to share some of the same interests and dispositions with some of our coworkers. There are also coworkers who we would never have been friends with if we had met under different circumstances.

Among the advantages of work friends is the fact that they understand our job better than most anyone else could; they have seen us at our worse (for example, getting yelled at by the boss, or our pain from personal loss such as the breakup of a marriage or loss of a family member); they celebrate our work achievements with us, and often our personal milestones such as birthdays; and they encourage us to perform, via such methods as brainstorming. Conversely, there are some potential pitfalls with work friendships, including the potential for ‘break-up’ and corresponding ‘ex-friend’ status, which might lead to a degree of discomfort with someone you have to be around; goofing around with your work friend may lead to unprofessional behavior; having gained personal information about you, the work friend might eventually use your vulnerabilities against you; if work friends start to hang out together outside of work, it may throw off the work-personal life balance with other friends and loved ones; and, if the work friend is not in your supervisor’s favor, you may be guilty by association.

Situational Friends

What connects people as situational friends is a specific, and likely dramatic, situation. This type of friendship arises based on shared circumstances with a person with whom you probably do not have any mutual acquaintances and likely share few, if any, interests; but you share an experience.

Sharing an intense situation will often establish strong emotional ties between people. The situation in question can be pleasant, such as attending a lecture, a ballgame, or a concert. Conversely, the situation may be unpleasant, such as being in the same location during a terrorist attack. Amy Moore and Christina Zambrana became friends after surviving the October 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival attack in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and 546 injured during a mass shooting by a deranged domestic terrorist. Zambrana helped save Moore’s life, and after surviving the killing spree, they discovered that they were both from the Los Angeles area and loved their hometown baseball team, the Dodgers. The Dodgers invited these situational friends to serve as ball girls at Dodgers Stadium during the 2017 World Series, and through this they quickly cemented their friendship.

Neighbor Friendships

This category of friends is also the result of circumstances, but is generally far less intense than a situational friendship.

We rarely choose our neighbors. But while many people ignore their neighbors, some build a friendship. Often, such neighbors serve a utility purpose (for instance, they keep an eye on your home while you’re away, or they’ll sign for a package that’s delivered when you’re out), but other times they bring us pleasure, and may become good friends. The scenario of neighbors as close friends is used by many TV series, including such iconic shows as Friends, Seinfeld, Neighbours, and The Good Life. A neighbor-friend is someone you can call to verify that you turned off your stove, or to double-check your front door is locked. As a sign of the contemporary times, a valuable aspect of a neighbor as a friend is the access they let you have to their wi-fi.

Electronic/Cyber Friendships

© istock.com/ieremy

Until fairly recently, our friendships were primarily restricted to those in close proximity to us, since a minimal requirement of friendship is social interaction. However, people are now able to continue old friendships or establish new friendships with little or no face-to-face interaction via the electronic world of intercomputer communication.

There is some debate over whether or not a strictly electronic relationship can qualify as a real friendship. We believe that while face-to-face relationships are almost always preferable to strictly electronic ones, there is validity in electronic friendships. After all, electronic friendships involve real people who choose to share feelings of affection or personal regard; who support one another emotionally; who share similar interests, and so on. Electronic friendships, then, are as real as the friends make them. The keys to electronic friendships, like to face-to-face friendships, are: voluntary participation, mutuality, sharing personal details about one another, and displaying some degree of affection.


A frenemy (sometimes called a ‘frienemy’), a blending of the words ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’, has a dual meaning, as either an enemy who pretends to be your friend, or as someone who is a real friend and yet is also a rival, such as teammates on a sports team who are friends but competing for the same starting position. Or perhaps a frenemy is a person with whom we outwardly show characteristics of friendship because of certain benefits that come with the façade, but in reality we harbor feelings of resentment or rivalry, and perhaps even do not like them. The Free Dictionary defines a frenemy as a person who is ostensibly friendly or collegial with someone, but who is actually antagonistic or competitive with them; a supposed friend who behaves in a treacherous manner; and, as a person who is considered as both a friend and a rival. The Urban Dictionary also provides a variety of interpretations, including: fake friends you have for selfish purposes (this reminds us that while we may see others as potential frenemies, we too can be the frenemy in order to gain something – a type of fake friend of utility); people you know and are cordial with, but who you don’t really like and who don’t really like you either; and friends you make that were once enemies, because you’re planning to stab them in the back. While people have dealt with frenemies throughout history, like ‘bromance’, the term itself has only been introduced in the past decade or so.

The Quest for Friendship

Clearly, the modern era has many forms of friendship. The voluntary nature of friendship makes such relationships subject to life’s whims in a manner that familial relationships are not. From childhood to high school, to college or the military, to starting a family and starting a career, to retirement, and any other major life event in between, we are constantly going through changes, and it stands to reason that friendships will have to adjust to these life changes as well. When priorities and responsibilities change, so too do most friendships. So cherish the treasured forms of friendships – close and best friends – and move on from the toxic ones – ex-friends and frenemies. Life is a journey made more pleasurable by good quality friendships.

© Tim Delaney and Anastasia Malakhova 2018

Tim Delaney is a professor and department chair of sociology at the State University of New York at Oswego and is the author of numerous books and articles. Please visit BooksByTimDelaney.com.

Anastasia Malakhova is an International Relations graduate student at St Petersburg State University in Russia, and has conducted research on friendship and happiness.

A Chinese Philosopher on Friendship

Zhuangzi (4th Century BCE) was one of the founders of Daoism and the main author of the classic philosophical text known by his name. Zhuangzi’s book includes his often witty disputes with his intellectual sparring partner Huizi, an inventor of paradoxes and adherent of a different philosophical school known as the School of Names, or Logicians. It also records this lament:

Zhuangzi was accompanying a funeral when he passed by the grave of Huizi. Turning to his attendants, he said, “There was once a plasterer who, if he got a speck of mud on the tip of his nose no thicker than a fly’s wing, would get his friend Carpenter Shih to slice it off for him. Carpenter Shih, whirling his hatchet with a noise like the wind, would accept the assignment and proceed to slice, removing every bit of mud without injury to the nose, while the plasterer just stood there completely unperturbed. Lord Yuan of Sung, hearing of this feat, summoned Carpenter Shih and said, ‘Could you try performing it for me?’ But Carpenter Shih replied, ‘It's true that I was once able to slice like that but the material I worked on has been dead these many years.’ Since you died, Master Hui, I have had no material to work on. There’s no one I can talk to any more.”

Zhuangzi, Chapter 24

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