Friendship refers to a broad category of interpersonal relationships communicatively accomplished with peers and characterized by voluntary, reciprocated, nonromantic affection and good will. These relationships range in depth and duration from superficial, transitory bonds developed from situational associations, such as residential, educational, or workplace proximity, to profoundly dedicated lifelong attachments spanning time and distance.
Nature Of Friendship
Friendships involve five characteristics to varying degrees, depending on social and cultural circumstances, interaction patterns, and individuals’ inclinations. First, communicating as friends is voluntary; persons choose to view and treat other persons as friends. While social stratifications dictate opportunities to interact, persons elect to communicate and experience another’s behaviors as friendship. This feature contrasts with the blood bonds of kinship, contractual and economically determined associations such as labor relations or partnerships, and religiously and legally sanctioned bonds such as marriage. These relationships occupy social categories with requirements transcending individuals’ preferences. In contrast, friendships persist to the extent that friends fulfill each other’s particularized expectations for interactions and may be unilaterally dissolved.
Second, friendship is a personal relationship involving regard for each other as a specific individual with unique qualities, not as a member of a category. Third, friendship involves nonromantic affection for another person. Friends display their affection through encouraging each other’s freedom to fulfill themselves as individuals. This quality contrasts with the possessive and exclusive nature of romantic love or the self-gratification of sexual loving. Fourth, friendship strives for equality based on the corresponding validity of each person’s subjective experiences. While friends may be unequal in certain objective respects or abilities, communicating as friends involves identifying the means and areas within the relationship to treat each other as equals. Fifth, friendship is a mutual relationship reciprocated between persons. Mutually shared good will, understanding, trust, and support are hallmarks of enduring friendship. Onesided offerings of friendship do not constitute a viable relationship.
Friendships are contextually negotiated between persons. Accordingly, friendships may be developed as free-standing relationships, or they may be pursued as an added dimension of other relationships already serving required functions within the social structure. Because of their minimally determined status in the normative hierarchy of role relationships, peers develop friendships that complement, fuse with, compete with, and substitute for other interpersonal relationships (Hess 1979). For example, communicating as friends may complement the daily activities of two co-workers but compete with the requirements of a superior–subordinate relationship. The behaviors and expectations of friendship can fuse so extensively with a spousal or sibling relationships that it becomes difficult to determine when and whether persons are communicating as spouses or siblings or as friends. Finally, with no close kin nearby, friends may substitute for one’s family.
Theories Of Friendship
Recognizing the significance of interpersonal communication in achieving and defining friendships between peers as well as the importance of communication as an activity friends enjoy sharing, researchers have devoted increasing attention to friendship over the past 25 years. This work displays differing approaches to defining friendship for research purposes. Investigators developing generalizable theories tend to specify the definitions of friendship employed by participants in offering their responses to research questions. In contrast, inquirers emphasizing that definitions and practices of friendship differ according to the context and relationship allow their participants to define the relationship for themselves in providing responses. A second issue distinguishing researchers is whether they examine specific behaviors, communication skills, personal attributes, or provisions associated with friendships, or they study more holistically a constellation of experiences or communicative situations recounted by participants. Some projects combine the assessment of specific indicators with general descriptions of participation in friendships. As to the empirical methods employed, investigations of communication and friendships have utilized exclusively and in combination survey questionnaires with fixed and/or open choices, structured interviews, open-ended and narrative-based interviews, participant journals, ethnographic field notes, and auto-ethnographic reflections, as well as audio-and video-taped activities of friends.
Research concerning communication in the formation, maintenance, and dissolution of friendships emerged in the 1980s in response to social attraction studies examining personality variables or residential propinquity as static features of friendships. Prior to this time, friendship appeared mostly as a residual category of social participation in demographic and sociometric studies, contrasting friendships (often termed “other”) with family and work relationships. Scholars began examining friendship as a relationship with characteristic demands and benefits in conjunction with a developmental perspective on communication in interpersonal relationships. This view assumes that what brings people together may not ensure the continuation of the relationship and that communication in relationships changes over time. Static conceptions of relationships say little about what makes friendships function on an ongoing basis or why their continued interaction holds mutual significance.
Closely associated with a focus on the communicative development of friendships is the recognition of dialectical tensions shaping and emerging from their interaction. Whereas earlier work typically described friendship in benign terms and conceived relational growth as a linear process of increasing breadth and depth of disclosure, time spent together, intimacy, and satisfaction, a dialectical perspective challenges such notions. It argues that relating as friends involves inherent contradictions, antagonistic features of relational life that simultaneously presuppose and oppose each other. Several dialectical tensions of friendship have been reported. The dialectic of the ideal and the real describes the tensions between the abstract ideals of communication associated with friendship and the troublesome realities or unexpected rewards arising from its ongoing, concrete accomplishment. The dialectic of the freedom to be independent and the freedom to be dependent describes the cross-cutting requirements of availability and obligation in light of friendship’s voluntary basis. Friends must continually reconcile autonomy and interdependence within their relationship as well as enveloping social connections and circumstances. The dialectic of affection and instrumentality describes tensions arising from caring for a friend as an end in itself or as a means to an end. Friends rely on each other for emotional and practical assistance, but different meanings of friendship arise when someone feels befriended primarily for utilitarian reasons vs unqualified personal regard.
The dialectic of judgment and acceptance involves the recurring dilemmas in friendship between providing objective appraisals of a friend vs unconditional support. People expect acceptance and encouragement from their friends but also look to them for tough truths and wise counsel. Compassionately objective reactions combining evaluation and support are experienced as constructive criticism. The dialectic of expressiveness and protectiveness describes opposing tendencies to speak candidly with a friend and relate private thoughts and feelings, and the simultaneous need to restrain one’s disclosures to preserve privacy and avoid burdening one’s friend. Many persons consider confiding a distinctive privilege of their closest friendships. But revealing sensitive information makes persons vulnerable, and the responsibilities imposed on others not to misuse intimate disclosures make confidence and trust problematic achievements. Friends develop trust through carefully managing the conflicting requirements of expressiveness and protectiveness.
Despite the challenges that friendships present as ongoing achievements, the communication of friends often distinctively embodies social ideals of shared good will, loyalty, trust, pleasure, assistance, personal validation, and moral comportment as equals. Considerable research examined how the outlook and practices of friendship are negotiated communicatively as dimensions of other relationships, and how other social bonds develop into relations that members consider friendships. For example, in the family context communicating as friends emerges between parents and children across the life course to the extent that they come to view their interactions as chosen and not compulsory; they address each other outside of the parenting role or the self-centered child’s role; they speak more respectfully as equals; and they emphasize the pleasures instead of the obligations of interaction. Between siblings transitioning to friendship involves emphasizing personal validation and cooperation over competition and hierarchical, role-based interaction.
The workplace is an important site for making friends of varying degrees of closeness between peers. Persons in similar jobs often share physical proximity, overlapping work schedules, and common interests and projects, which can facilitate routine contact and friendship formation. How persons communicate their availability, caring, assistance, and judgment in workplace friendships affects their viability both as friendships and as occupational arrangements. The transition from co-workers to friends involves developing common ground and choosing to socialize outside the work setting; becoming closer friends involves discussing personal and work-related problems, sharing confidences about life events, and the passage of time (Sias & Cahill 1998). Despite the potential benefits of workplace friendships for individuals and organizations, the objective demands, occupational mobility, or disappointments of either person’s job and conflicting expectations between friends can jeopardize and ultimately undo friendships, with negative repercussions for former friends and work settings.
Gender-linked patterns of communicating in friendships have been identified across the life course. Female same-sex friendships are characterized by extensive disclosure of personal thoughts and feelings, routine displays of affection, significant emotional involvement, instrumental assistance, and interweaving of daily lives and concerns. Talking together is considered a characteristic pastime of female friends. By comparison, male friendships are characterized by easy-going sociability, conversation about common interests, minimally binding instrumental help, and respect for each other’s autonomy. Male friends enjoy doing shared activities with a secondary focus on emotional sharing.
Scholars disagree about the precise nature and extent of these gender contrasts. Some argue that these gender-linked patterns imply qualitatively different forms of friendship offering comparable satisfaction and potential for intimacy for their participants. Others observe that gender-linked contrasts in friendship diminish in the closer and more enduring bonds of both males and females throughout life. Moreover, specific same-sex friendships of males or females may deviate significantly from these patterns depending on their social circumstances. While prevailing socio-cultural arrangements statistically link males and females with the patterns described here, the continual social construction of gendered relational practices in concrete circumstances and cultural systems of interpersonal relationships appears more crucial than biological sex.
Research addressing cross-sex friendships illuminates multiple issues in the communicative achievement of friendship. In such bonds females and males must negotiate desired communication styles and gendered practices for a person of each sex in a relationship including members of both. Meanwhile, a widely recognized benefit of cross-sex friendships includes gaining an insider’s perspective on the other sex. Such relationships frequently must communicate boundaries between friendship and romantic love, address sexual desire, sexual orientations, and sexual identities, and orchestrate public perceptions of the friendship. Cross-sex friendships clearly illustrate the always contingent position of friendship in social life.
These understandings of friendship derive from research primarily addressing white, North American, middle-class participants. Until recently, Robert Brain’s Friends and lovers (1976) presented one of the few surveys of cross-cultural and ethnic variations of friendship. Important areas of emerging and future research include: cultural and subcultural similarities and differences in meanings and practices of communication in friendships; how friendships shape and reflect individual and collective identities; the communicative achievement of interethnic and interracial friendships; communication skills for forming, sustaining, and withdrawing from friendships; the impact of communication technologies on friendships; the interrelationships of friendship and health; the roles of friendships in health care, education, and mentoring; and the contributions of friendship to community building and conflict resolution.
- Brain, R. (1976). Friends and lovers. New York: Basic Books.
- Diggs, R. C., & Clark, K. D. (2002). It’s a struggle but worth it: Identifying and managing identities in an interracial friendship. Communication Quarterly, 50, 368 – 390.
- Hess, Beth B. (1979). Sex roles, friendships, and the life course. Research on Aging, 1, 494 –515.
- Monsour, M. (2002). Women and men as friends: Relationships across the life span in the 21st century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Rawlins, W. K. (1992). Friendship matters: Communication, dialectics, and the life course. Hawthorne: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Samter, W. (2003). Friendship interaction skills across the life span. In J. O. Greene & B. R. Burleson (eds.), Handbook of communication and interaction skills. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 637 – 684.
- Sias, P. M., & Cahill, D. J. (1998). From co-workers to friends: The development of peer friendships in the workplace. Western Journal of Communication, 62, 273 – 299.
- Tillmann-Healy, L. M. (2001). Between gay and straight: Understanding friendship across sexual orientation. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.