A Friend: A Sociologist's Perspective

A Friend: A Sociologist's Perspective

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By Karen Dill, Phd.

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Being that we are a “friendship site,” we at SocialJane.com always appreciate hearing expert opinion on friendship, and women’s friendships in particular. So we rounded up a host of questions based on common experiences of SocialJane.com members, and took them to an expert in the field of human behavior, Dr. Karen Dill. An author, a social psychologist, a professor at the Fielding Graduate University, and a blogger for Psychology Today, Dill offers her perspective on friendship and its move to the internet.

Q: What is a friend? Is there a universal definition for what a friend is, or is this definition completely unique to each person, and if so, what are we all basing that definition on?

There seem to be some universal desirable qualities in a friend. According to a Psychology Today poll, here are the top ten qualities of a friend (ordered by importance from greatest to least): (Walker, 2007)

1. Keeps confidence
2. Loyal, warm, and affectionate
3. Supportive
4. Honest and frank
5. Sense of humor
6. Willingness to make time for me
7. Independence
8. Good conversationalist
9. Intelligent
10. Socially conscious

Here’s a quote from George Eliot (who, as you may know, was the pen name for Mary Anne Evans) on friendship:

“Friendship is the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful friendly hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping and with a breath of comfort, blow the rest away.” George Eliot

I think one thing Eliot expresses here is a universal desire to have someone we can disclose our genuine thoughts and feelings to, knowing they will give us a kind ear and that they want what’s best for us. Also, we want friends who take us with the faults that we all have, not friends who are too self-centered or have unrealistic expectations for friendships. The ability to disclose our authentic selves to a friend is a universal desire.

We seek friends who are similar to us on a number of dimensions. These include interests, education, political views, social status, occupation, and even ethnic background. Some say this is because the similarity is affirming – in other words, we like to have people validate our own point of view. If you disagree with all my political views, it makes me question my judgment. There’s also a theory called the repulsion theory that says rather than liking similar others, we are repulsed by dissimilar others. In other words, your differing political and social views turn me off. Similarity tends to lead to longer lasting and more satisfying relationships. Sometimes, though, complementary can play a positive role such that it helps to have someone who has complementary strengths that can help balance out your weaknesses.

Q: Are women’s friendships different than those between men, and if so, what are those differences?

Women tend to have greater social support networks and to disclose more to their women friends.

Q: We’ve all heard that good friendships can be beneficial in terms of both physical and emotional health, so what are some of the specific ways that friendships aid us?

Social support is a great predictor of physical and mental health. They say no man is an island. Well, no woman is an island. Friendships fill our need for belonging. Our friends give us someone with whom to discuss our ideas, beliefs, and problems. These are needs that we can’t meet on our own. They help us through difficult times by giving emotional support and counsel. Without friends, we feel lonely. This is probably because we are social animals. We need each other’s care and guidance. We need someone to laugh with and someone who’ll be a shoulder to cry on.

Q. Many gals say that making friends as an adult is so much harder than it was as a child. Why is this, are we letting insecurities hold us back, or do we place higher expectations on friendships as adults, or is it simply a question of time, focus, and proximity?

The mere exposure hypothesis says that we’re more likely to become friends with people we see most frequently. When we’re younger, we’re in school and we have many people around us every day. This gives us a group of similar others to choose from. As we move on in the work world, or as stay-at-home moms, our circles can become smaller and it can be harder to find friends. Also, we have more responsibilities at home and at work, which is also a hindrance to finding friends. Also, those of us who are more mobile may have to start over in a new community, which means physically leaving behind friendships we have built up over the years.

Q: Seems that many women are a bit embarrassed about their need to find some new friends, feeling that this current deficit in their social circle is somehow a poor reflection on them. What’s your take on this?

I think we women have a tendency to take things personally. And also people tend to assume that a problem like this reflects more on the person than the situation. But that’s not true. You can have a lot to offer as a friend, but still suffer from some of the issues I mentioned like the lessened social circles and time that can come with leaving school or college.

Q: Is there a magic number of friendships needed for optimal health and happiness?

No, I think a more important factor is the depth of the friendships you have. This goes back to having people you can trust and count on in times of need and also share good times with. Having said that, sometimes we need friends for practical reasons, like having someone who can come help us when our car breaks down and we need a ride.

Q: What’s you opinion of the move to finding friends online?

I think people were understandably cautious at first when this was a new thing. What I like about a site like SocialJane.com is that, unlike when you walk into a room of new people, you are being more direct about your interests and desire for friendship and you can learn more meaningful information about the person right from the beginning. You avoid certain pitfalls, like having a person over for dinner or a cup of coffee only to learn of their love for your least favorite politician, musical group, or philosophy. I think an important part of the process is making that personal connection where you know if the two of you click and enjoy each other’s company.

Q: Do internet friendships count as real friends, or do you need live, in-person interaction in order to have a “real” friendship?

I think it’s very helpful to have some “in person” time with a friend. But I also think that even if those times are rare, they form a foundation through which real, authentic relationships can be supported by phone or online conversations. I teach at Fielding Graduate University, and we have a hybrid or blended educational model, which means that we have face-to-face sessions periodically, but that on an everyday basis we communicate via phone and over the Internet. For example, we use video cameras and document sharing to have conversations where we can see each other, hear each others’ voices and look at documents, the Internet or programs together. I find these relationships have a strength and warmth that is interesting and unique. We look forward to the times we spend together in person, and we keep up authentic connections from our homes across the country.

Q: Many of us have a series of friendships throughout our lives – some long-term, first developed in childhood or during our school years, and some of the shorter variety, perhaps based on an interests or special activity.  So, is a friendship a friendship a friendship? Or do we need to strive to acquire the all types of friendships?

For me, the relationship between any two friends is unique and hard to define. It’s like that bond between a parent and a child – it’s a special combination. We may have friends that we talk to about certain topics or share particular interests with, or friends who we tend to laugh with or talk seriously with. I don’t know if there’s any magical combination other than to say that a person can intuitively feel what they need from friendships – what areas are fulfilled and what areas are still lacking.

Q: It can be quite disappointing to send out an email to someone online and receive no response. Are there different rules of conduct for internet interactions than what we expect with live interactions? Do we need to make adjustments to how we interpret online responses (or a lack of a response)?

People write differently than they speak sometimes. That has good and bad consequences. It can be hard to detect tone – for example, when someone is joking. I’d say to go with your instincts and intuition if you are getting a good or bad feeling from someone. And if you’re unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask.

There are specific things we might have to get used to, like a delayed response if you are chatting with text online. But people seem to get the hang of it pretty well.

Q: Do you have any advice on the best ways to approach someone online?

I’d say be honest, be yourself, and don’t fret about it. Just give it a try. A lot of it is the same as when you meet someone in person. Use your instincts. And don’t be afraid to say that something came out wrong and ask to start over. Don’t be afraid either to back off graciously if it isn’t working out. Above all, enjoy the fact that new doors are opening up because of the times we live in and the advances in technology. In the future, this will be seen as the beginning of new ways of interacting and who knows what new technologies we’ll have then.

Walker, V.  Becoming Aware: A Text/Workbook for Human Relations and Personal Adjustment. 10th ed.  Kendall/Hunt; 2007.

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About the Author

Karen Dill is a social psychologist who publishes in the field of media psychology, studying video games, interactive media, magazines and music with an emphasis on gender and racial stereotyping and aggression. She is the author of How Fantasy Becomes Reality: Seeing Through Media Influence from Oxford University Press. Dill is a faculty member and director of the Media Psychology doctoral program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Her Psychology Today blog is How Fantasy Becomes Reality.

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