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Research Communications

Just Between Friends 

What sets friendship apart from our other relationships—and why it matters

By Adam Liebendorfer

Brutus and Caesar made a complicated pair. On the one hand, they were best friends. Caesar promoted Brutus to governor of Gaul, kept him in his inner circle, and nominated him as a magistrate. But the relationship had its awkward elements, too. After all, Caesar was seeing Brutus' mother on the side. Some historians even believe Brutus was Caesar's illegitimate son, given that he named him second in line to his throne. 

So when it came time to say, "Et tu, Brute?" one could understand Caesar's surprise.

Bill Rawlins can appreciate the complexities of a friendship like the one between the famous Roman cronies. The Ohio University Stocker Professor of Communication Studies has become a leading expert on a topic so familiar to us that few have pursued it academically: how we build and maintain friendships. He's the author of the books Friendship Matters and The Compass of Friendship.

 rawlins
Bill Rawlins (Photo by Ben Siegel, Ohio University)

Rawlins says we overlook the importance of friendships amid the minutiae of our day-to-day life. But as the title of one of his books tells us, it matters even more so today. Friendships and the tensions surrounding them underlie topical issues such as school bullying, social networks, and alliances among world leaders. Some experts argue that friendship is a crucial ingredient for our mental and physical health, especially as we age and risk becoming more isolated. 

"A lot of times we take friendship for granted," he says. "Friendship is not something that just happens."

When Rawlins was pursuing his doctoral degree at Temple University in the 1970s, most of the research being done in interpersonal communication was on romantic relationships. Platonic friendships, however, contain some unique dynamics. Friendships are dictated by freedom. People rarely enter exclusive friendships. There are also no contracts or vows to establish friendships. To complicate things more, siblings, spouses, and coworkers also can be our friends. 

"We choose our friends and our friends choose us," Rawlins says. "You can't make someone be your friend. When you were a kid your parents probably said things like, 'Why aren't you friends with Tommy Wilson? He's a nice boy.' But you may know that Tommy Wilson just plays up to parents and he's actually not a very nice boy."

All of these traits make friendship a broad and elusive topic for researchers, which still deters many social scientists from pursuing it. Rawlins finds himself reaching far back in time to find other leading friendship scholars. Aristotle, long known as the father of logic, also could be called the father of friendship. The Greek receives significant play in both books Rawlins has published so far, especially his lines about civic responsibility and friendship being essential to a well-lived life. 

Francis Bacon's essay "Of Friendship" also has figured prominently, as has Cicero's De Amicitia and works by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Rawlins particularly likes C.S. Lewis's The Four Loves. St. Augustine of Hippo, whom Rawlins cites regularly, called friendship an "unfriendly, unanalyzable attraction for the mind" in his 1,600-year-old opus, Confessions.

"I like to see how all these cultural discourses speak to each other," Rawlins says.

To talk about friends, however, one must talk to friends. Rawlins's preferred method is to interview two friends individually for about two hours each. Then he uses his observations to craft questions for an hour-long interview together, which he tapes and transcribes for word analysis.

This type of interviewing helps Rawlins see the unique story that underlies every friendship. "Friendships are a dialogue of narratives and a narrative of dialogues," he says. Friends communicate by telling each other stories, epics about morality, cautionary tales, personal triumphs, and stories to entertain. These stories we share with each other form chapters of a much larger friendship narrative, a major theme driving Rawlins's The Compass of Friendship.

Rawlins uses five criteria to define friendship. Friendship needs to be voluntary—no coercion allowed. It also needs to be affectionate. Friends must like each other. A friendship must be personal, between people, and what's more, something must put the friends on equal ground. Lastly, a friendship is mutual. These criteria come from Aristotle's concept of true friendship, that friends care for each other for the other's wellbeing. Bacon says the first fruit of friendship is affection and the second is healthy judgment.

Through his interviews, Rawlins created a model for how friendships come about. When we first meet people, we stick with our social roles and don't stray too far away from safe topics. We make small talk on the bus; we complain about a boss or a teacher. In the small talk, we start to see similarities with this potential friend. From there, we're ready to lay down the friend foundation. Conversations become more substantial. Topics become more personal. We start hanging out. 

The next stage, we go official: We are friends. We ritualize things. We call each other every Sunday night to recap each other's weekend. We do lunch the same time every week. Trust starts to enter the friendship, and with it comes more intimate details. Hanging out becomes less arranged and more meaningful. Friends may stay at this point, or the relationships may crest and begin to wane. Friends feel so comfortable with each other that they start to feel independent. Independence leads to personal growth and branching out, something that isn't guaranteed to keep a friendship cohesive. People drift apart and, well, beware the Ides of March.

"Friendships are very edifying and upbeat parts of our lives, but they open up a ton of quandaries, especially moral quandaries," he says.

Friends constantly negotiate a set of tensions, Rawlins says. The first deals with ideals and realities. Problems arise when one friend thinks two friends should be foils—connected at the hip with many of the same interests and moral positions—but the other doesn't agree. The next tension is between public and private, or how the friends interact in the outside social setting. 

If one friend feels the friendship is more intimate than the other, awkward secrets might be shared, people might come off as different in front of mutual friends, or secrets may not be kept.  The third tension is on the plane of dependence. A friend that constantly needs a lift and constantly needs advice on his or her love life becomes perceived as needy. Many friendships, though, work perfectly well between people who hardly need each other at all, but will come together to gossip or talk about a shared hobby every once in a while.

Friends also need to decide how affectionate they are with each other. Workplace friendships rarely ever warrant a kiss on the cheek. Another source of tension in friendships appears when friends come to criticize each other. Two artists may rely on constantly critiquing each other's works, while college roommates may want to hear only each other's opinions on what to wear to the bars. The final tension Rawlins has identified is that between expressiveness and protectiveness, living and letting live. Should a woman reveal that her best friend's boyfriend is cheating on her?

The motivation for seeking friends, as well as the nature of friendship, changes as we age, Rawlins' research has found.

"Friend" enters our vocabulary at about the age of three, but these friendships often are fleeting, circumstantial, and fickle. As children grow, they gravitate towards other kids who share personality traits and interests, but may lack a sense that these relationships extend beyond the playground. More mature phases of childhood friendship are marked by periods of sharing, collaborating on projects, and a desire to help each other, Rawlins says.

By middle school, children seek pals to act as sounding boards to help them navigate the rigors of early adolescence. They're more aware of what others may think of their friendships and may be more concerned about social norms. Friendships feel more permanent, and friends can become possessive. In the teen years, we're confronted with such life or death quandaries as who is popular, how to be popular, and how to manage popular and unpopular friends. Close friends to spill your guts to become a highly sought commodity, and allegiances shift.

Once puppy love enters the picture, the emotional stakes get higher and kids adhere to dating norms. Cross-sex friends now need to stress that they're just friends. Most failed passes at relationships end in dead friendships.

"A lot of times what people say is that cross sex friends who really care about each other are going to somehow feel that they need to become romantically involved. And I take issue with that," he says. "In our culture, that's another way friendship falls through the cracks. Friendship takes a backseat to romantically loving in our culture. We've got Valentine's Day. We have this tremendous emphasis on falling in love and finding someone to share your life. Those sorts of things. It's very much touted in our culture, romantic loving. Friendship isn't as much. One thing I say is, 'Is there a Friendship Day?'"

By college, however, men and women often can pursue platonic friendships as they mature, become more independent from parents, and begin to focus on careers. 
Adult friendships are marked by managing several different friends from various social groups, such as work, school, and the neighborhood. They may juggle old and new friendships. Adult friendships may focus more on connections made through partners, spouses, and children.

After spending the last few decades documenting personal friendships, Rawlins now is looking at the bigger picture, civic friendship, or what makes for a friendly society. He draws from Aristotle's thoughts on how to promote civility in the classroom and hopes to see how friendships between political groups work.

Since he started his friendship scholarship, what it means to be someone's friend has evolved. Social networking opens up a Pandora's box of questions. What role does "friending" people have? How does a constant ability to interact affect friendship? What does the public nature of Facebook or Twitter have on the private versus public dialectic? Rawlins isn't sure yet, but he does believe it won't replace face-to-face interactions anytime soon. It may even put a premium on them.

Lately, Rawlins has been looking closely at friendships between middle-aged men. Much research on middle-aged friendships has dealt with women. Rawlins says he's been increasingly drawn into how other men craft narratives around what Franz Kafka called "the cares of the family man." He's still in the reading phase of the research, but he's tentatively thinking of starting up pair interviews again.

"It would've been interesting to see what Brutus and Caesar would have said about their friendship," he says, "if you sat them down together." 

 This article appeared in the 2012 Autumn/Winter Issue of Perspectives magazine.