Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Friendships and reciprocity

12 August 2016


A recent NYT article has created quite some buzz if only because of its title: Do your friends actually like you? The article is about the shockingly low average reciprocity rate in friendships of some 40%. Similar to the definition of love, the definition of friendship is puzzling for scientists (NYT). Actually, that is rather weird, when you think of it, as both are essential human concepts.

I do not have many friends and the reason is simple: disappointment. The reason for that is also simple: I expect more time (eg, attention) than they give. Hence, friends become acquaintances and acquaintances become contacts. In that same process, I promoted myself to my own best friend, partly as I have finally learned to accept and appreciate myself, just the way I am.

My latter remark suddenly makes me wonder about the true meaning of the saying: “Show me your friends and I will show you who you are.” Perhaps our choice of friendships reflects our own inner feelings of shortcomings. We might even look for these missing attributes in friends and hope to compensate or compliment these attributes through our friends.

Today, many people claim to have lots of friends (eg, Facebook). I’m old school and prefer quality over quantity in friendships. Quality is measured by the amount of time we spend together. Time is also the criterion for the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. NYT: “He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily.”

“The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren’t friends.” (NYT)

I suppose the average reciprocity rate in friendships is only 40% because the true reasons for entering friendships do not match. A friend of a friend once said quite openly that she collects foreign friends in order to have cheap accommodation whenever she visits that friend (read: country). My friend allowed her presence as she also returned favours. The reality of a quid pro quo friendship often is that friendships have an expiration date when favours run out.

The most precious gift to my friends is the time I carve out of my life and spend with them. Every moment of my life is unique, irreplaceable and irreversible. However, the most common (tangible) gifts to our friends are the exact opposite. Our memories of time spent together with friends reflect the genuine appreciation of their gift.

Friendships usually start with shared interests (eg, books, movies, movies, neighbourhood, relationship, school, sport, work). In time, these circumstances will change. Friendships must evolve to a higher common ground in order to last longer than a shared period in time. Perhaps it’s ultimately as simple as this: our expected reciprocity in favours limits our reciprocity in friendships. Reciprocity in time allows for long-lasting friendships.

Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder

That’s What Friends Are For (1982) – lyrics, video, Wiki

Keep smiling, keep shining

Knowing you can always count on me, for sure

That’s what friends are for

For good times and bad times

I’ll be on your side forever more

That’s what friends are for


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