PAUL: The demise of friendly acquaintanceships

caroline-paul-headshotIt happens on a regular basis. I’ll see someone I kinda sorta know. It’s the type of association where you might nod or wave if you make eye contact on the street, but not the run up to and koala bear hug type of relationship. And if this someone is in a group of people, I’ll likely be introduced to the others as a friend.

But we are not friends. We are acquaintances. This is not meant to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it is a more accurate descriptor of our relationship.

Acquaintanceship is dead. It is dead, and not particularly well-remembered. Many people want to jump straight to being best friends, but not everyone is wired that way. In fact, some people find it tremendously invasive for someone to bypass acquaintanceship.

“Friend” is such a weighty word. It carries with it an expectation to know a certain number of objective facts about a person. It means you have to care when their goldfish starts to swim listlessly. It means carving time out of your schedule to watch a “Wife Swap” marathon while eating your combined weight in Cheetos.

Those aren’t bad things. They are actually very good things. It is nice to have people care about the things you care about. But these are the privileges of friendship. They must be earned. Throw it back to Aristotle, and you know that even accidental friendships of pleasure or utility come from actually knowing a person.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes people do become instant best friends. In those cases, the immediacy of the friendship is mutually agreed upon, and both parties work on getting to know each other. But it seems like this instant connection model has transferred over to be applied to every positive association with every person they ever meet. And when that happens, there is bound to be a person who does not actually want to be besties immediately.

Acquaintanceship is not a social death sentence. It can develop into friendship. It doesn’t mean you are doomed to be on the outside forever. It’s not an insult. It simply means you don’t have a high level of closeness. But believe in your dreams of friendship and you can achieve! Unless the person actually really doesn’t like you.

Moreover, the collective change in friend philosophy has led to a change in vocabulary. Friend is now a catchall term that you can use to describe your relationship with any person you know. We’re not in the Victorian Era anymore. With Facebook, you can call someone your friend without knowing them or being in the same social circle, and women can show their ankles now. This is progress.

So whether you are actually friends or not doesn’t matter. It’s part of a bigger cultural shift that makes it easier for people to come together. There are still people on the periphery of your social life, but you might count them as friends simply because the potential for that friendship exists. Perhaps acquaintanceship is dead only in word form, and the concept lives on under the umbrella term of friend. And the concept is all we really need as long as we can still internally distinguish the difference between friends and people we just know.

It doesn’t really matter whether the difference between friend and acquaintance is in the philosophy or the word itself. Either way, you will probably be called a friend by someone you barely know, and you will probably be referred to as less than a friend by someone you wish you were friends with. All you can do about it is not take it personally, and remember it makes it easier for people to connect.