Friends or Just Friendly?

By Joseph A. Holt | Spring 2011

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How to Tell the Difference

A traditional Irish blessing includes the wish “that you may always have a friend who is worth that name, whom you can trust and who helps you in times of sadness and who will defy the storms of daily life at your side.”

That lovely wish implies the sad reality that not all friends prove worthy of the name. Indeed, life sometimes teaches us the hard way that some we had considered friends cannot be trusted or counted on to be there “in times of sadness.” That was certainly the case for a former student I will call “Al” and for my dear friend “Kate.”

Al graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and hit the ground running at a major firm. He enjoyed his work and excelled at it; he also liked his co-workers. He often participated in Friday happy hours with a few he considered his friends. On one of those occasions, Al mentioned to his friends that he might one day return to school to earn his MBA. He had no definite plans to do so but was just thinking out loud in the secure company of friends.

He didn’t think about the fact that he and his two friends were then being considered for the same promotion. They each wanted it, but Al just assumed the best person would win and that the others would be happy for that person. He therefore was stunned when he was called into his boss’ office that Monday morning and asked, “What’s this about you leaving to get your MBA?”

Al learned the hard way that certain information should be shared with friends, but not with beer buddies. He learned that not everybody who is friendly is, in fact, a friend who is worthy of that name, because not everyone who is friendly is trustworthy.

Kate also learned the hard way that not all friends prove worthy of that name. She had shared in a close friendship with a circle of girlfriends in Chicago from her college years to her early 30s. They got together often and reveled in all that great city has to offer in terms of dining, dancing, festivals and outdoor activities.

That quickly changed one May, however, when Kate injured her back badly in a car accident. She was constantly in great pain for months and could barely walk, let alone continue a very active lifestyle. She could do little more than go to work and to physical therapy sessions, and even that took great effort.

Some of the friends called for a time after the accident to see how she was doing and to invite her to rejoin them in various activities. But the personal visits were few and far between, and the calls dwindled as the debilitating pain persisted. After a few months, one of the women Kate had long considered a friend told her that she was a “downer” and should call only when she could be fun and active again.

The experience was hurtful and disillusioning, but it affirmed the truth of Aristotle’s observation, “Misfortune shows those who are not really friends.” People who want to be around you in good times, but not in bad, are lovers of the good times, but not of you.

Why do we sometimes need unpleasant wake-up calls to realize which friends are worth the name? Part of the difficulty lies in our cultural tendency to apply the term “friend” loosely to a range of relationships.

As Al learned, beer buddies and bosom buddies should be lumped together in the general category of friendship only in the same extremely loose sense that fruits and popsicles are both food.

In our social lives, as in our refrigerators, the best of what we find is beneficial and enjoyable. But some of what we find is one or the other, not both. Living wisely requires that in our social lives, as in our diets, we learn what we most need to thrive, in the right quantities and at the right times.

Aristotle devoted two of the 10 books constituting his Nicomachean Ethics to the topic of friendship. He taught that we form friendships based on either mutually recognized and appreciated goodness, or on anticipated pleasure or usefulness. He wouldn’t be surprised by the emphasis on business networking today, given his belief that “friendship based on utility is for the commercially minded.”

True or perfect friendships are based on goodness. Imperfect friendships are based on pleasure or usefulness and have a weaker claim to being called friendships. 

What are the defining characteristics of true friendship in Aristotle’s view?

   LOVE You are loved for the good person you are rather than the pleasure or usefulness you can provide to others. One of the saddest statements I ever heard came from a man who was extremely rich in terms of material wealth but not in terms of friendship. To him, it seemed that everybody in his life wanted something from him. He had no idea who would want to spend time with him if he weren’t wealthy.

   MORAL GOODNESS Moral goodness endures, while pleasure and usefulness are fleeting. A person may be pleasant or useful today and not tomorrow. But he or she will not be a good person today and a complete jerk as of tomorrow. If the foundation of a friendship is goodness, you can be confident the relationship will endure. But if the foundation is that one person is pleasant or useful to another, the friendship will end as soon as the pleasantness or usefulness ends.

   VITALITY Aristotle wrote, “With friends, people are more able both to think and to act.” In the presence of friends, we are eager to discuss important questions and issues, and to drink in life to the fullest. Anyone who has moved from one city where he or she enjoyed close friendships to a new city in which he or she has no close friends can appreciate Aristotle’s insight.

True friendship also increases our vitality by conferring significant health benefits. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Sue Shellenbarger points to recent research that “deeper friendships” yield greater benefits: “A sense of being loved, cared for and listened to fosters a sense of meaning and purpose and reduces stress-induced wear and tear on the body, lowering the heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones … Supportive friendships also are linked … to increased longevity and may actually change the way you experience stressful events, buffering the negative mental effects.”

   COMPANIONSHIP Aristotle would have a hard time understanding two dear friends who hardly ever have time for one another. He would describe that relationship as an inactive friendship. A recent New York Times essay on friendship by Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar reported that emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to occupying the most distant outer layer of one’s circle.

Aristotle believed we should consider ourselves fortunate if we find a few friends in the most true and perfect sense of the term. And we should appreciate all our other relationships for what they are. Never expect from them what only our closest friends can provide. Never forget which friends are most worthy of that name.