What it Means to Have a Friend

Bill Abbate

How many friends do you have? Let me ask that same question with a slight twist: How many close friends do you have in your life? Answering each question gives you a different answer, correct? Depending on your personality type, the number of friends can be quite different for each question.

My wife has a significant number of friends as an extrovert, but her genuinely close friends are far fewer. As a typical introvert, I have far fewer friends and a handful of close friends.

Is it better to be an extrovert or an introvert? In a broader sense, the answer is no. They are merely different types of personalities. The main difference between the two is where we draw our energy. Extroverts are energized by socializing in larger groups of people, where introverts are energized by being with a much smaller group or spending time alone. As an extrovert, my wife makes friends quickly, while I do not. That may or may not be considered an advantage. More on that later.

Advice on making friends from ancient times

One of the best pieces of advice I have found about making friends is from an ancient Greek rhetorician who lived nearly two and a half millennia ago. If you are not familiar with the term rhetorician, it simply means someone skilled in rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion.

Here is his wisdom:

“Make no man your friend before inquiring how he has used his former friends; for you must expect him to treat you as he has treated them. Be slow to give your friendship, but when you have given it, strive to make it lasting…” Isocrates (436-388 BC)

Before accepting someone as a friend, why not subtly inquire how they see other people and former friends in their lives. What you learn will tell you a tremendous amount about the person. As Isocrates says, you can expect them to treat you similarly. Take your time before giving your friendship, but when you do, work to make it lasting.

What is a friend?

Please note, we are not using the term friend lightly. No, these are not like so-called “friends” on social media. The vast majority of such “friends” barely, if at all, meet the definition of friend. Look at how the Oxford Dictionary defines this word:

Friend (noun) - a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.

Most so-called friends are just connections on social media rather than real friends. For example, I have thousands of “friends” on social media, most of whom I do not really know. Again, I also have thousands of business “connections” on LinkedIn, most of whom I do not know. Which term seems more appropriate to you: friends or connections? Obvious, isn’t it? Perhaps social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, et al. should change from friends to connections. It is far more honest and certainly makes more sense.

How many friends can we have?

Have you heard of Dunbar’s number? In the 1990’s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested the cognitive limit of the number of people we can maintain a stable social relationship is around 150. For many introverts like me, that sounds high, yet it can sound low for some extroverts. Dunbar’s number comes from cognitive limits based on the average size of the human brain, not from how many friendships we think we can maintain.

Dunbar further identified layers of friends, such as 5 in the closest layer, 10 in the next layer, and so on. In other words, the average person likely has five very close friends, what we may call best friends. Most people find this number to be valid whether they are introverted or extroverted.

Since there are practical limits on how many close relationships we can maintain, it only makes sense that we would want to manage them carefully. If we do not, we can jeopardize some friendships because of our limited bandwidth.

How those around us affect us

No one can be friends with everyone, but everyone can be friends with a few. Therefore it is important who those few friends are. Every relationship we have with another person, whether we call them a friend or not, affects our lives, and we, in turn, affect their lives. That is how relationships work.

However, friendships are special types of relationships and affect our lives more than others. It is crucial to be thoughtful about who our friends are if we want to live a good life. It is commonly understood we become like those we are around most.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Jim Rohn

Since we are so heavily influenced by those close to us, why not ask yourself if you would like to be like them or not. One thing that is not good is to hang around those who pull or push you in the wrong direction. If you are around others because of peer pressure or some other form of coercion, run! Get away from them as fast as you can because you can bet their influence is unlikely to produce anything good in your life.

“Distance yourself from negative people who try to lower your motivation and decrease your ambition. Create space for positive people to come into your life.” Roy T. Bennett (1958-present)

Those we are around most influence what we believe and how we feel about ourselves and others. In an ideal world, what type of people would you want to be around? For me, it is those who are a positive influence with a good handle on reality. Why not give some thought as to who you wish to be around? When you do this, you may find they “magically” begin to appear in your life. It is wonderful to be around positive people who build you up and are interested in what you have to say.

“Surround yourself with positive people who believe in your dreams, encourage your ideas, support your ambitions, and bring out the best in you.” Roy T. Bennett (1958-present)

There is a lot of truth in our becoming like those we are around most. When you identify your preferred type, think about the wisdom in the following quote:

“In your free time, you will choose who to hang out with. If you were to show me your friends, I could tell you your future.” Mark Ambrose(1965-present)

Final thoughts

While many of us will throw the term friend around easily and often as we do here in the south, how many are real friends?

Each of us has only one life to live, and it is up to us to choose who we let into our lives. Why not be a little more careful with your choices and take the following advice?

“Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, nourishing, and uplifting people -- people who believe in you, encourage you to go after your dreams, and applaud your victories.” Jack Canfield (1944-present)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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