This article focuses on communication skills associated with success in same-sex friendship across the life-span. The ability to maintain a variety of relationships throughout life is important to people’s well-being, of which friendship is among the most significant. Individuals who lack friends experience myriad adjustment problems including drug and alcohol abuse, academic failure, antisocial conduct, depression, loneliness, anxiety, and fatigue. The relationship between friendship and communication has been studied in a variety of ways. One particularly promising approach involves analysis of individuals’ conceptions and expectations of friendship, as well as the daily activities in which they engage (Zarbatany et al. 1990). Understanding what people think of and do with their friends tells us something about the duties and obligations of being a friend, the standards to which friends are held, and the kinds of skills through which such duties and standards are met.
Characteristics of the Research Area
Three caveats are in order before going into detail. First, most work in this area has centered on communicative competencies predictive of children’s friendship success. Perhaps this is so that negative, long-term consequences can be avoided through a concerted effort to understand and remediate skill deficiencies early in life, or because of the common assumption that romance should take precedence over friendship as one enters adolescence and adulthood. Whatever the reason, it is clear that more work is needed to grasp the relationship between communication skills and friendship across the entire life-span.
Second, much of what we know about children’s friendship comes from sociometric studies in which youngsters’ social standing is evaluated relative to their peer group. Social standing – or peer acceptance – is typically regarded as a unilateral construct because it captures a group’s evaluation of the individual. Friendship, on the other hand, is seen as a bilateral construct which indexes a reciprocal relationship between two people (Parker & Asher 1993a,b). Hanna (1998, 311) argued that “although elements important to peer acceptance are likely to make an individual seem an attractive potential friend, additional elements may be necessary for developing high quality friendships.” Children cannot form friendships with those to whom they are not attracted; thus, findings from the sociometric literature are included here.
Third, space precludes discussion of gender differences. It is important to note, however, that such differences are most pronounced in childhood and attenuate with age. By adulthood, men and women are much more similar than they are different in their beliefs about friendship – and in performance of the skills that predict its success. The readings below examine sex and friendship.
Early and Middle Childhood
The ability to take another’s perspective drives children’s thoughts about friendship. Very young children do not understand that others possess thoughts and feelings different from their own; thus, young children fail to recognize that they can choose friends on the basis of personal qualities. Friends are conceived of as “nonspecific” others who share activities, time, and/or materials. Many children equate play and friendship – but the relationship lasts only as long as interaction. Youngsters become friends because they play together; when this activity is absent, friendship ceases to exist.
Play remains an important feature of friendship throughout middle childhood, but is much more organized than earlier. As children gain more complex ways of viewing the social world, they begin to understand others have thoughts and feelings that differ from their own – and that some of these may center on evaluations of one another as “friend.” Thus, “fitting in” and gaining acceptance among peers is a primary task of middle childhood. Youngsters not only evaluate themselves in comparison with peers, but also develop rudimentary self-presentation skills so that they can project a desired image. In addition, children regard help as an indication of friendship and liking – however, at this stage, help centers largely on tangible acts that others can do for them (Selman 1981).
Several interaction competencies coincide with friendship during this time. Many skills reflect the idea that friendship revolves around play; when performed correctly, each skill allows play to proceed in a smooth fashion. For instance, youngsters must not only be able to recognize and respond appropriately to others’ emotional displays during play, but also be able to produce affect that is suitable for the situation. Researchers argue that children who can control their emotional expression and reactions are better able to reflect on the problematic aspects of social situations that arise during play.
Second, skills that foster coherent discourse are associated with friendship success throughout early childhood. Speech dysfluencies and articulation errors prohibit peer acceptance. Similarly, compared to children who are not well liked, those who are well liked exhibit mastery of basic conversational devices such as turn-taking, making appropriate requests, initiating dialogue, responding when spoken to, making intentions clear, and active listening. Scholars suggest that limited language and conversational abilities may prevent friendship development because youngsters cannot access significant peer activities such as play. A related competency is peer entry. Youngsters with friends attempt to enter games by integrating their behavior and comments with the ongoing activities of the group. In contrast, youngsters who lack friends try to access games and conversations through a variety of tactics that direct attention away from the activity and onto the child. Such tactics include disagreeing, asking questions, saying something about themselves, or stating opinions and feelings (see Haslett & Samter 1997 for a review).
As youngsters move into middle childhood – and “fitting in” becomes paramount – being perceived as fun is key to friendship success. Although not widely researched, there is some indication that possessing a sense of humor, engaging in playful teasing, and even having interesting gossip discriminate children who possess friends from those who do not. The nature of conflict and its role in friendship also change from early to midchildhood. Among young children, fights typically involve issues of social control (e.g., following the rules of a game) or object control (e.g., not sharing toys). Here, the most common responses to conflict are to vent angry feelings and to resist the other in nonaggressive ways.
With development, however, children not only believe that conflict is common to all relationships, but they also distinguish between major skirmishes (that can threaten a friendship) and minor ones (that are part of everyday life). Conflicts in middle childhood often center on the rules associated with social groups and activities. Although negotiation becomes increasingly common as children age, disengagement may be even more important to friendship; the capacity to disengage minimizes prolonged problem discussions that interrupt the coordinated and sustained activities of the group (Hartup et al. 1988). Children without friends tend to be particularly poor at disengagement and, in fact, escalate conflict via aggressive responses.
Adolescence and Young Adulthood
In adolescence, children develop the capacity to take the perspectives of others. This enables them to think about themselves, others, and relationships with a sense of objectivity and insight they did not have before. Adolescents often apply this ability to their search for self which, in large part, is accomplished through interactions with friends. Adolescent friends are now defined as others who possess unique psychological dispositions. Friends are expected to share their innermost thoughts and feelings and through such sharing provide each other with opportunities for intimacy and growth. Friendship is perceived as the most important source of emotional support in the adolescent’s life, and loyalty is highly prized. Given such expectations, it is not surprising that talk is a valued activity among adolescent friends (Damon 1977). Studies indicate a high degree of continuity in the friendship expectations of adolescents and adults. Across adulthood qualities such as loyalty, warmth, and the ability to discuss personal matters are most often mentioned as important characteristics for friends to possess.
As was the case in childhood, pragmatic competencies make it possible for adolescents and adults to initiate and sustain conversation with potential friends. Compared to individuals with friends, those without friends make fewer statements focusing on the partner, change the topic more frequently, ask fewer questions, and respond more slowly to the partner’s previous statement (see Samter 2003 for a review). Nonverbal expressiveness in the form of gaze, positive affect displays, and back-channel utterances are also linked to one’s attractiveness as a friend.
Once formed, friendships are dominated by conversations involving self-disclosure. In general, people who engage in intimate self-disclosures are better liked than those who do not. However, there does seem to be an art to knowing when and what to disclose. Revealing extremely personal information can damage relational development if done too early in the friendship. And, while friends report that they purposefully use self-disclosure to maintain their relationships, they also note that the majority of their disclosures are about mundane topics. In fact, avoiding certain topics – particularly those involving negative life experiences and relationship issues – is actually functional for friendship maintenance (Afifi & Guerrero 1998; Berg 1984).
Emotional support is a key aspect of friendship and a prominent activity in which adolescent and adult friends engage. Individuals perceive communication skills focused on the management of negative affect as the most important for same-sex friends to possess, and relationship quality is linked to the kind of support they receive. Strategies that acknowledge, elaborate, and legitimize another’s feelings and perspective are regarded as the most sensitive and effective, and the most likely to alleviate emotional distress (Burleson 1994).
Finally, although conflict seems contradictory to the essence of friendship, there is evidence that adolescent and adult friends have disputes. Such disputes appear to center on violation of friendship rules – for instance, betraying a confidence, not repaying debts or favors, ignoring one another’s privacy, etc. Some work demonstrates that individuals who are well liked avoid minor conflicts and employ integrative strategies to manage major ones.
Middle and Older Adulthood
Researchers distinguish between the middle-aged, the young-old, and the old-old. In terms of friendship conceptualizations, individuals in the first two categories are similar both to one another and to young adults. The old-old, however, alter the criteria they use to define friendship in three ways. First, face-to-face contact is not seen as essential for maintaining friendship; letters and phone calls are enough to sustain relationships. Second, ideas about who legitimately qualifies to be a friend are expanded. Unlike earlier periods, friends do not have to be equal in status; thus, acquaintances, hired help, and whole categories of people (e.g., people from church) count as viable relational partners. Third, friends are no longer identified as sources of support and esteem, but rather as companions with whom to have fun.
Given such conceptions, we might expect emotional support and self-disclosure to become less important to friendship as people get older. The few studies that have examined interaction competencies of the elderly bear out such assumptions. People aged 85 and older report it is “inappropriate to bother others with problems” (Johnson & Troll 1994, 85). When negative information is disclosed, it centers on events, not feelings associated with those events. In fact, expressing feelings to others is inversely associated with self-esteem and relationship quality among the oldest old. And, although conflict is mostly avoided during this time, pressuring another to be too close can be a source of conflict between elderly friends.
We begin and end our lives by seeing friends as people with whom to have fun. Yet, because most studies focus on the serious pursuits of friends, little is known about what makes someone enjoyable to be around. Research on skills that enable others to be perceived as entertaining companions is needed. It is also important to note that most of what we know, and most of what is summarized here, concerns a small percentage of the world’s population. Studies examining the effect of culture on friendship conceptions and interaction competencies are also needed. Finally, although a great deal is known about the speech and linguistic patterns of older adults (Giles et al. 1994), little attention has been directed toward understanding the relationship between specific communication skills and friendship success among the oldest old.
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