Sunday, September 11, 2005

Why Can't We Be Friends?

I've recently been pondering the meaning of the word "friend". Unsurprisingly, this is yet another term that has so many different meanings to so many people.

Due to recent miscellaneous events in my personal life, I have had the occasion to meet some new friends, as well as sorely try the patience of some old friends. And I have lost some friends as well. And the range of fun, fondness, respect, reliance, and support I feel for these friends varies wildly, yet they all fall into this category of "friend."

Eskimos have a large number of words for "snow", right? But we have really one word for Friend. (Yes, there are lots of synonyms fore "friend", but they don't really translate to different kinds of friends.)

For supposedly such a social animal, our language is remarkably blunt when it comes to terms describing this kind of relationship. Or is it just the English language? Do other languages have a broader range of more nuanced terms for the various sort of friendships that we in the U.S. just lump together? (If you have examples, please tell me.)

Friends can be lost and found. Friends can be leaned upon, frowned upon, put upon, and put on. They can also be supported, assisted, guided, advised. With a friend we can party, hang out, laugh, cry. Through friends we can make new friends. Friends can also lose you friends.

Is there any common basis for calling someone a friend? Let's start with the definition(s):


1. A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts.
2. A person whom one knows; an acquaintance.

Word History: A friend is a lover, literally. The relationship between Latin amcus “friend” and am “I love” is clear, as is the relationship between Greek philos “friend” and phile “I love.” In English, though, we have to go back a millennium before we see the verb related to friend. At that time, frond, the Old English word for “friend,” was simply the present participle of the verb fron, “to love.” The Germanic root behind this verb is *fr-, which meant “to like, love, be friendly to.” Closely linked to these concepts is that of “peace,” and in fact Germanic made a noun from this root, *frithu-, meaning exactly that.

Is a friend always someone we know? To an extent, this is true. Although the range here is extremely broad. We may not have even met the person for them to be our friend (take friends known only via correspondance, for example). Yet we call everyone from the person we met last night at a bar to ex-lovers "friends".

Is a friend always someone we like? I suppose usually, although there are definitely times when I truly don't like, even actively dislike, some of my friends. And I *know* that some of my friends despise me at times. But I suppose if you didn't like the person *most* of the time, you wouldn't call them your friend.

Is a friend always someone we trust? Once again, the range is huge. There are friends I trust to pay me back for lunch, there are friends I trust with my car, there are friends I trust with my inner most secrets - and these are not always (in fact, not even usually) the same friends.

So...a friend is a person whom one knows (from briefly to intimately), likes (at least the majority of the time), and trusts (to at least not to spit in my eye when I say hi). But when you call someone a friend, I have absolutely no idea what degree of any of these apply.

In fact, when you call me your friend, I truly don't have a clue what you really mean by that. Now, this may just be attributable to my borderline Asperger's, but I think it also has a lot to do with how poorly we communicate key concepts in language.

And people seem to prefer to remain ambiguous, for some reason.

Any ideas why?


At Thursday, November 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothin' wrong with a little Asperger's -- in fact, when I learned that my fiance was far from 'failing' (or rather, 'passing', in my book) the Asperger's quiz from Wired, I rethought the relationship -- but only briefly.

However, the tight bond formed from a few nights of intense drinking and a few emails expressing similar views -- well, that was one I was loath to relinquish. Until, of course, my assumed - 'friend' (not to mention other connections) Mike didn't even recognize my face as familiar, on two meetings in a row.

Guess the definition is fuzzier than I had realized.

At Friday, November 04, 2005, Blogger A Muser said...

I'm thinking perhaps you don't fully appreciate the inability to internally model the behavior of others. Your assumed 'friend' may very well have recognized your face as familiar, but been at a loss for words - or even at a loss of the proper emotion for the occasion. False modeling can also create imaginary motivations for the "other's" behavior, where the fear is usually "I probably did something wrong, so they probably hate me now."

One learned defense mechanism in these situations is to withdraw, emotionally and socially, from the painful awkwardness of the situation. All of it is wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. But real, nonetheless.

Not having Asperger's yourself, I'm sure you can generate some empathy and perhaps sympathy for these struggling misfits.


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