Recently T-Wizzle and I were talking about the word “friend” and how it’s changed so much in the age of social media. On Facebook, once you connect with someone on their personal profile, they become your friend. In reality they may be a former coworker, your stepdad, your third cousin twice removed. You can put all your Facebook friends into lists based on your true relationship to them. You can signify who is a family member, who is a colleague, who you sat with in the cafeteria at your high school. You can even separate out Acquaintances. Regardless of how you choose to categorize them, everyone you are connected to on Facebook is still your friend.
This bothers me a bit.
I understand why Facebook uses this term – it’s simply a convenient label or shorthand to signify that two people are connected. Twitter has followers, Google+ has circles. But I feel the use of “friend” on Facebook is symptomatic of a larger issue, a shift in how society views interpersonal relationships.
I remember when “best friend” was the phrase du jour, the one that would indicate a level of intimacy reserved for the people we spent the most time with. Hearing that the person you thought of as your best friend considered you one of several best friends, or didn’t think of you as being part of their inner circle, was grounds for tear-stained journal entries and sleepless nights. Now it’s as if we want to call everyone our friend so that no one gets their feelings hurt, when really they are just an acquaintance.
You remember those, right? Merriam-Webster defines an acquaintance as: “someone who is known but who is not a close friend.” I’ve got plenty of those, and I’m fine with that status. If there comes a time when I want to transition into a more intimate friendship, I can do that, provided the other person is interested and willing to do what it takes to become better friends. But if that doesn’t happen, being an acquaintance is fine.
There’s a third approach, though, and it’s one I find particularly interesting. In 2011 Marcia Ann Gillespie, editor of Essence Magazine, asked Maya Angelou in an interview about the difference between acquaintances and friends. Ms. Angelou did not disappoint in her response.
MARCIA ANN GILLESPIE: There are friends and then there are acquaintances. How do you know when someone is really a friend?
MAYA ANGELOU: There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person; and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able. A woman can say to herself, If I die, I know that my friend, my sister friend will be here to hold up the banner. Now that’s very profound.
The concept of a “deep and serious acquaintance” appeals to me. It’s way too long for any social network to use, but it definitely captures the essence of a connection that is meaningful and relevant, but not overly intimate. Over on Quora, one respondent to the question “what’s the difference between acquaintances and friends” used the term “situational friends.”
You do have the contact information and a more extensive knowledge of the lives and families of your situational friends. There still is a context that brings you together, but your discussions have evolved past that context, and involve your life, your family and your other interests. You may even go on trips that involve the context with them. But when that context ceases to be a common bond, you will drift away from each other, maybe staying on the Christmas card list.
With these things in mind, is it time for a new term? One that bridges the gap between friend and acquaintance? Or should we just be satisfied with our connections that bring us joy and meaning and not bother with labels?