“Friendship is being conceited for one another,” my friend suggested as three of us stretched out on her lawn, enjoying a socially distant picnic and the June heat. Her newly concocted definition was a response to the confidence that the other friend and I professed in her ability to achieve her wildest dreams. Sub-five percent acceptance rates to programs she will apply for in the future? No problem. As far as we are concerned, she’s got them all in the bag. I jotted my friend’s spontaneous definition of friendship into the notes page on my phone. I’ve spent the past few months thinking about friendship as the current RCWMS Anita McLeod Intern, and this definition of friendship seemed as good as any other.
In May and June, I interviewed nineteen people—all of whom identify as either women or non-binary folks, and the majority of whom are white—about the ways in which friendship functions in their lives. I talked with participants in a one-on-one format through Zoom and over the phone, chatting about some of their favorite people while I sipped on tea and typed notes. At my request, many participants shared their own definitions of friendship. One defined friendship as a verb, “to be there for somebody even when it’s not convenient.” That rang a bell. I remembered an evening in college that followed a truly terrible day. My roommates sat with me on the floor of my dorm room. They worked hard to turn my tears into laughter, and once they accomplished that task, they ordered pizza. It wasn’t convenient for them to postpone their chemistry homework until midnight, but they were there and it mattered. Other participants echoed this presence-oriented definition through anecdotes. One interviewee described a friend who cared for her in practical and consistent ways following a stroke, assuming responsibilities for paperwork and scheduling while she healed. Several of the folks I talked with described the positive impact of friends who infused joy, laughter, and a little bit of wine into their lives in the wake of disappointments, divorces, or deaths. Convenience did not mark any of these interactions, but compassion did.
When I asked another participant how she would define friendship, she described the bond as “sisterhood,” invoking a familial term to emphasize a particular type of committed relationship between women. Another person I talked with described friendship as relationships with people who have “proximity to [her] soul, [her] heart.” One interviewee asserted its criticality in her life. “For me,” she said, “[friendship] is a lifeline.” An answer that struck me as uniquely honest came from a woman who, when asked for a definition of friendship, stated, “It varies. It depends on whom I’m thinking about.” The more I think about friendship, through this project and in my own life, the more ambiguous friendship as a whole feels and the more particular each of my friendships feels.
Like many of the interview participants I spoke with, I am quick to identify the magic in friendships, and so I was unsurprised to discover scientific and sociological data affirming the positive benefits of friendships in our lives. Friendships excel at boosting our ability to manage stress, making us laugh, and teaching us to honor difference. And, as I learned from the interviews I conducted, the discourse and cultural expectations that we have created around friendship are also good at making us feel inadequate. Almost everyone I interviewed mentioned, in varying levels of detail, a meaningful friendship in their life that had gone awry. In an episode of the podcast Code Switch, a guest named Sarah shared her own story of a shattered friendship, and then suggested to the podcast hosts, “I just think people would feel a lot better if we talked a little bit more openly about friendship breakups and about stuff that’s really quite embarrassing like this, because if you come out of the interaction and you feel righteous, you know, that’s an easy story to tell. But we don’t really want to come out and say, like, this was humiliating and I’m still really embarrassed about it.” Friendship fairytales are easier to tell than subtle or even catastrophic tragedies, and I am particularly grateful for the folks I interviewed who acknowledged painful experiences of friendships that crumbled.
Several participants raised concerns about the value of their contributions to my project before the interview questions even started. “I don’t know if I’m the best person for this interview,” one woman confessed, “I don’t have as many friends as other people.” A handful of her fellow interviewees echoed this fear. While friendships can be a source of empowerment and confidence, they can also amplify our self-doubt and insecurities. Several of the folks I talked with worried that if they had never captured the spotlight as the “popular” girl who always maintained enough friendships to fend off life’s loneliness, they were not adding value to my project. Amidst these stories and emotions, I tried to assure each participant that they and their contributions belonged in the conversation, but their doubts about the validity of their own experiences and worthiness as interviewees spoke to a larger theme within contemporary studies of friendship: transactionality and the influence of capitalism.
Political philosopher Todd May (as summarized by philosopher Diane Jeske) argues that, at their best, friendships function as “a training ground for solidarity movements with the potential to undermine the dominance of neo-liberalism.” In other words, according to May, friendships can be a starting point and avenue for resisting capitalism. However, as writer and lawyer Ephrat Livni points out, friendships are not necessarily a sanctuary from our capitalistic tendency to objectify those around us. The seeping of capitalism into our friendships has dangerous implications for the ways in which we conceptualize ourselves and others. Livni convicts us of transactional tendencies, writing, “We can quantify everything now—from our steps on Fitbit to our literary consumptions on Goodreads. As a result, we feel we must make everything and everyone count for something.” As someone who religiously logs her daily runs and reads, I feel convicted by Livni’s critique of the ways in which I live into a capitalistic reality rather than imagining a world in which we fully affirm one another’s humanity. Realizing my tendency to quantify each jog and page unsettles me. Are my friendships real, or are they yet another transaction in my life? Am I a terrible person for including checking in with friends and responding to their messages on my to-do list?
At the same time, I must admit that I am finite. None of us have the capacity to be everything for everyone, and this understanding is crucial to treating ourselves and those around us with compassion. While treating our friendships as financial investments leaves us feeling icky, we burn ourselves out when we treat ourselves as limitless. Several of the people I talked with described the burden of their implicit designation as the “social director” of their friendships. The social director takes on the majority of the initiative to stay in touch and plan shared time. Participants described this role as unsustainable and exhausting, despite their love of connecting with friends. In a world in which planning shared time often requires Doodle polls, phone tag, and a series of emails all beginning with an apology for a delayed response, the burden of being the friend who sustains the friendship can quickly become overwhelming. Additionally, some interviewees described the emotional turmoil caused by friendships in which one party expected almost constant communication and immediate responses. As a self-proclaimed “bad texter” who resents the expectation to be constantly available, this cycle of guilt and fear resonated with me. When friendships are measured by 24/7 availability and unrealistic expectations, they become wells of obligation rather than delight.
Questions of capitalistic tendencies and norms within friendships are particularly important in considering friendships between people of different identities and backgrounds. Many of the folks I interviewed emphasized the beauty and deep learning offered by friendships with people who have different life experiences from one another. Participants described interracial, intergenerational, and intergender friendships as particularly life-giving—and sometimes particularly challenging—relationships.
Several interviewees spoke specifically about interracial friendships during the interviews, and one white participant described the importance of interracial friendships in her life, noting that these relationships often require willingness to engage in uncomfortable conversations. From her perspective, friendship can be “a portal to be sensitive across gender, race, class, sexuality, all of that.” In a Code Switch podcast episode on the topic of interracial friendships, author Beverly Daniel Tatum described a UC Berkeley study in which researchers found that “Black students were more interested in engaging with white peers in a more structured environment. They wanted to have dialogue about race and social justice issues. Meanwhile, the white students didn’t really want to talk about race. They just wanted to hang out.” White folks often expect interracial friendships to exist separately from experiences of oppression, in spheres void of racial dynamics. That expectation is rooted in white supremacy and inhibits the formation of authentic interracial friendships.
Additionally, many of the white folks I spoke with defined friendship according to a sense of ease and a feeling of being “uncensored.” While this sense of ease can be a valuable form of rest, and is particularly important for people with marginalized identities to create with one another, classifying anything outside of it as a form of interpersonal labor rather than friendship creates a breeding ground for friendships with people whose identities largely match our own. Intentionality is important when white people talk about race, when able-bodied people talk about disability, and when cisgender folks talk about gender. When we resist carefulness and glorify ease in the context of identities in which we hold power and privilege, we miss out on challenging and meaningful friendships.
A white woman I interviewed leaned into the need to talk about racism and other forms of injustice within friendships, describing interracial friendships as particularly enriching while acknowledging and accepting that “the conversation may never flow the same way.” Therapist Miriam Kirmayer’s analysis of friendship in an episode of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend affirms this participant’s embrace of discomfort. Kirmayer warns us to be wary of “the assumption that friendships should not involve any kind of conflict or heartache, and that the minute that shows up, it says something about our relationship with our friend. And we often interpret that to mean, okay, this is no longer a friendship that’s working… We just decide that this isn’t worth it.” Kirmayer offers the caveat that commitment to friendships does not mean that a person should maintain a friendship marked by violations of boundaries or abuse. Instead, her analysis of our capitalistic inclination toward disposability reminds us that relationships across difference require us to reckon with the ways in which our own actions and words collude with oppressive systems. If we want to live more fully into diverse and genuine communities of friendship, we have to recognize the areas in which we have privilege and risk the sense of ease and clumsiness that we have used to define friendship.
Intergenerational friendships, defined for this project as friendships in which two parties differ in age by fifteen years or more, are also an example of friendship across difference. One person I talked with described intergenerational friendships as having the same value as friendships with peers, but a “different flavor.” While age gaps between friends can be beneficial—as they are for one participant who expressed, with great relief, that none of her friends golf—they can also create uncomfortable tension. Several elders noted their distaste for the maternal role they felt coerced to assume in friendships with younger people and the lack of nurturing they received in these friendships, while some young interviewees described their discomfort with feelings of deference and condescension they experienced in intergenerational friendships with women who are older. One woman described how perceptions of age differences can change over time, noting that the “generational gap begins to narrow as you get older.” The changing nature of friendships and the range of emotions they elicit demonstrate that friendships are not an oasis in which we can exempt ourselves from power dynamics and biases. Rather, friendships offer an invitation to dig more deeply into these realities, so that we might untangle our communities from pervasive injustices.
While friendships can deepen our commitment to social justice work with urgency and understanding, they should not be weaponized as tools to muffle cries for justice or excuse inaction. Friendships can function both as sanctuaries and wilderness, protecting people from pain and further exposing them to injustices. They are not a self-improvement course, no matter how much our capitalistic culture tries to convince us that they exist purely for our own benefit. While it may be tempting to idealize a friendship with someone who is marginalized in one or more ways as an opportunity to cleanse oneself of prejudices, the value of an intergenerational, interracial, and/or intergender friendship cannot be reduced to its functionality. When friendship is valued for its function rather than its being, it ceases to exist as friendship. Friendships are not a substitute for unlearning ageism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, or binary conceptualizations of gender. In fact, one must already be on a journey toward unlearning these injustices and taking substantial action to create a more just world in order to fully delight in these friendships.
While I interviewed and took notes for this RCWMS project on friendship, I found myself struggling to wrap my mind around the fundamental nature of friendship. Is it magical? Does it help us rise above life’s banalities and enter into a more exciting, authentic reality? Is it a radically inclusive way of relating to one another? Or is friendship mundane? Is it a burdensome conglomeration of disappointments? Does it function as a means of excluding people outside of its boundaries, and wounding those it permits inside?
The folks I interviewed taught me that the answer is “yes.” Friendship is magical and mundane—mostly, it seems, a mix of the two. The moments we spend sharing presence with one another are glimpses into the magic of the mundane, and, if we are fully honest with ourselves, some moments of friendship are marked by cruelty, missteps, and discomfort, too. So, what do we do? I think we show up. We warm blankets in the dryer when our friends are sad, and we drive four hours to be present on the surgery date, and we call our senators to demand that they stop hurting our friends. We send holiday cards, and we carve out time for togetherness, and we allow our connections to ebb and flow. If we are willing to trudge through the mundane with one another, I suspect we will find magic waiting for us there.
Sources in Order of Appearance
Interviews conducted by Rachel Sauls with women and non-binary folks in May and June of 2020.
“Keep Your Friends Closer,” an August 2020 episode of the podcast Code Switch, hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/18/903718460/keep-your-friends-closer
Diane Jeske’s 2013 review of Todd May’s 2012 book, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: An Electronic Journal. ndpr.nd.edu/news/friendship-in-an-age-of-economics-resisting-the-forces-of-neoliberalism/.
Ephrat Livni’s article, “We’re treating friendships like transactions, and it’s ruining relationships” published in Quartz. https://qz.com/1352437/our-friends-arent-toxic-theyre-just-human/
“Breakdowns: Summer of Friendship #7,” an August 2020 episode of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, hosted by Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, with guest Miriam Kirmayer. https://www.callyourgirlfriend.com/episodes/2020/08/14/friendship-breakdowns