Friending: What I've Learned in Researching My Book

How do you define friendship?  

Before I wrote Friending, I interviewed dozens of people, ranging in age from 12 to 85. In the interviews, I asked how they would define “friend” or “friendship.” Sandie, 12, my youngest interviewee, was clear and concise in her excellent definition:

“A friend is someone who is there for you and who doesn’t gossip about you.”

Juliet, a minister in her thirties, defined a friend as

“someone you can count on, a person who you can be open and honest with. A friend is like a pair of old slippers, you can put them on and feel comfortable and just be yourself.”

And Jack, a university professor in his fifties, said,

“The words ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ bring to mind deep sharing, deep listening, intimacy, a sense of ease, willingness to risk in care and concern, joy, laughter, fun, jokes, kidding, different levels with different folks and different friends for different times . . . but all good.” 

In my life, friends are the people who have listened to me and taken my ups and downs seriously. They have supported me, laughed with me, and shared their life and wisdom with me, and I have tried to do the same for them. Many of them have prayed for me and with me. Friendship is the state of being friends, and being friends requires actions of love and care. 

What do you see as characteristics of healthy life-giving friendships?  

Over and over my interviewees talked about friends being there for them in times of crisis. They talked about people with whom they are comfortable, who accept them and sometimes challenge them, and who listen to them.

Several people talked about concentric circles of friendship, wishing we had different names for people we might consider to be “soul friends,” people who are pretty good friends, and people who we know and like but are more like acquaintances.

A healthy, life-giving pattern of relationships will include many different kinds of friends, some of them very close and some of them more casual. 

What are some basic skills for maintaining strong friendships on or offline?  

I believe the central friendship skill is the ability to initiate. Throughout my life, most of the people who have told me they are lonely have also talked about having trouble initiating. Initiative in friendship can be quick—such as brief text message, email or Facebook comment—or initiative can involve big commitments of time and energy—such as making meals week after week for a friend who is ill or spending hours helping a friend with a project. But without initiative, friendships wither. 

Listening is another important friendship skill. Something about Western culture in our time encourages us to believe we need to be talking all the time. The kind of listening that nurtures friendship involves slowing down long enough to attend deeply and carefully to what our friend is thinking and feeling.  

Other friendship skills include giving gifts, asking for help, being thankful, forgiving, and  remembering what our friends tell us so we can respond appropriately later. All of these skills are just as significant online as they are in face-to-face interactions. 

What are some tips for making friends?  

One woman told me about her very shy son who had just gone off to college. During his first weeks there, he was extremely lonely. When he came home for a visit, she told him he would have to get beyond the “hi, hi” stage by asking a question after the other person said “hi,” and then listening to the answer. Simple questions, like “How was your weekend?” or “How are your classes going?” This made a tremendous difference to her son, and he began to form friendships.

A basic skill for making new friendships involves taking initiative to ask questions and listening carefully to the answer. 

One tip for making friends is to put yourself in places where people gather: church, hiking clubs, arts groups, community center classes, etc. Once there, ask questions to get beyond the “hi, hi” stage. Then, as you get to know people a little bit, think about creative ways to show love. I believe any time we show genuine love to another person we are creating an environment in which a friendship might develop. Acts of kindness do not always result in friendships, but sometimes they do. And all acts of kindness shape us into people who are kind, and that is a blessing in itself. 

How can we use social media to further our friendships?  

The principles of initiating, listening, and showing love and care are relevant in online settings. We can initiate by making contact with people who are on our mind or by responding to something a friend has posted. We can “listen” by paying attention what our friends post and by asking questions and praying in response to what we see.  

Many of my interviewees talked about using email, texting, IM-ing, skyping and Facebook to stay in close touch with their friends. Close contact keeps us up to date with our friends’ lives, so we are involved in the daily events that they care about. In the midst of that close contact, acts that show we are listening, loving and caring always make a difference.  

What are the risks of using social media?

I think the biggest risk is the overload of information about people. Too much information tends to make us forget that friendship is one of the most precious gifts in the world. People are not commodities or objects; they are beloved by God and we need to view them that way. A second related risk is the addictive nature of social media. Vast quantities of information are enticing, and it’s easy to enjoy the process of accessing the information so much we forget the people whose lives lie behind it. Another risk is that we can enjoy our friends conveniently, on our own time, forgetting that love always, sooner or later, involves sacrifices of some kind. 

What are some common obstacles to friendship and how can we overcome them?  

The three biggest obstacles to friendship in our time are busyness, mobility and the new issues raised by electronic communication (social media, cell phones, etc.). Never before have so many people lived such hectic lives, never before have so many people moved so easily to different cities and countries, and never have so many options for communication existed. All of these create challenges for friendships, and I believe overcoming them requires intentional commitment to the skills of friendship that I describe in my book. 

How can our relationship with God inform our friendships?

Jesus invites us into friendship with him (John 15:12-17). As we grow in our friendship with Jesus, we will grow in other friendships as well, because Jesus invites us to abide in his love and show that love to others. As we continue in faithful relationship with Jesus, we will grow in Christian character, and it becomes easier for us to show compassion and kindness to the people around us, to forgive them when problems arise, to pray for them in times of trouble and be faithful to them over the long haul. The old adage—“to have a friend you have to be a friend”—is so true. The love of God, shown to us in Christ and made known in our lives through the Holy Spirit, is an excellent foundation for being a friend.