Recently, someone I’ve never met introduced me in an email as “my good friend Adam.” A few days later, a virtual stranger who has emailed me a few times posted an article by “my friend Adam.” And then a student from a one-day workshop that I taught listed me as a job reference, and when asked to describe our relationship, wrote “professor and friend.” After I endorsed a book, a reporter referred to the author as “a friend of Adam’s,” when our total interaction has consisted of a series of work emails and one phone call.
I like all of these people, but I wouldn’t describe any of them as my friends—I think that would misrepresent how well we know each other and the kind of the bond between us. Yet in the Facebook era, the boundaries on friendship have expanded dramatically. Someone recently called my brother-in-law a “dear friend,” but didn’t bother to attend his wedding. Judging from my recent Facebook friend requests, my "friends" apparently include a person who ignored me in grad school, a second cousin’s high school classmate, a colleague’s mentee, a Pee Wee soccer teammate I vaguely remember, and some guy who sat at a table near me at a restaurant once.
If you want to avoid committing the faux pas of describing a colleague or an acquaintance as a friend, here are some rules for when it’s fair game to use the term:
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn. Adam is the Wharton Class of 1965 Professor of Management and Psychology, and the bestselling author of Give and Take. Sign up for his free newsletter at www.giveandtake.com.