Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The 3 Kinds of Close Friendships

Are your friends socially, emotionally, or functionally connected?

Key points

  • A close friendship can be one of the most meaningful relationships in someone's life.
  • Friendship can be influenced by a person's exposure to travel and different cultures.
  • Three common types of friendships that can develop include socially connected, emotionally connected, and functionally connected.

Friendship is a ubiquitous component of human life. Cicero, one of the greatest Roman orators and philosophers, said of friendship, “Nothing better than this has been given to man.”

For several decades, psychologists, sociologists, and counselors have tried to define friendship and understand its importance in relation to one’s development and socio-cultural well-being. After Baumeister and Leary (1995) reviewed various attachment and relationship theories and examined the belongingness hypothesis, they concluded that a sense of belonging is an essential, powerful, and pervasive motivation for human beings. In particular, developing a meaningful friendship is one of the crucial developmental tasks in life.

Friendship, Travel, and Culture

Various adjectives—such as voluntary, directly interactive, reciprocal, well-intentioned, and personal—have been used to characterize friendship.

For example, friendship was defined by Hartup (1975) as a relationship where people spontaneously seek the company of one another, regardless of strong social pressure to do so. Hartup and Stevens (1997) described friends as people who demonstrate frequent self-disclosure in-depth, interact directly with one another compared to non-friends, and exchange affection more frequently than exchanging money, information, or goods.

Hays (1985) defined friendship as a voluntary interdependent relationship between two individuals over time; friends share various types and degrees of companionship, intimacy, affection, and mutual assistance. Reisman (1979) highlighted reciprocity between friends by defining a friend as one who likes and wishes to do well for someone else with good intentions, and these feelings are reciprocated.

With developmental context, culture is a significant compounding factor related to the qualities or behaviors identified as characteristics of the closest friends. Despite an increasing amount of research on friendship and significant progress in understanding this construct, most prior research has focused on European Americans. Variations within and between diverse cultural groups, specifically regarding the qualities or behaviors identified as characteristics of the closest friends, have been overlooked.

Choi et al. (2013, 2015) explored characteristics of the closest friends of college students who were categorized into three cultural groups based on their transnational transition experiences:

  • persons in the first culture group had no transitional transition (excluding short-term international trips)
  • persons in the second culture group had one transitional transition (immigrants or international students)
  • persons in the third culture group had spent more than half of their lives in countries other than their home country with multiple transitional transitions (third culture kids)

3 Kinds of Friendships

The results found that there were three distinct friendship types, including These included:

  • Socially Connected (a friend as a playfellow)
  • Emotionally Connected (a friend as nurturer)
  • Functionally Connected (a friend as a resource)

The Socially Connected friendship seemed to focus on being in each other’s presence, doing things together, and feeling comfortable. People in this group enjoyed their friends as playfellows. The closest friends in this friendship type enjoy socializing with people and being in one another’s presence.

The Emotionally Connected friendship appeared to focus on one’s demeanor and intimate relationship. People in this group appeared to desire support and had compassion for each other’s well-being. These closest friends appeared to be sensitive to each other’s needs and feelings, and they were considered nurturers in this friendship type.

The Functionally Connected friendship seemed to be driven by intellectual stimulus and challenges from the closest friendship. People in this group regarded their closest friends as resources and highly valued independence, intelligence, ambition, and creativity. The closest friends in this friendship type enjoyed intellectual conversations, learned from each other, and respected one’s independence. In spite of their distinct perceptions of their closest friends’ characteristics in these three groups, they shared some of the consensus characteristics of closest friends, including being joyful to be with, trustworthy, able to listen, and able to consult about anything.

The finding suggests transnational experience is a factor in forming close friendships because those who have had these experiences appeared to have similar criteria for friendships. Many first-culture persons (i.e., Americans who have not lived outside the U.S.) were identified with the Socially Connected friendship type. Many second-culture persons (those who only reported a single transnational transition experience) showed very strong preferences for deep emotional connection. Many third-culture persons were identified with the Functionally Connected friendship type, characterized as being independent, serious, intelligent, ambitious, and creative.

It seems like frequent transnational transition experiences stimulate intellectual challenges and enrich social and cultural coping skills; however, recurring separations and frequent relational terminations may hinder emotional openness and closeness in a new relationship. On the other hand, a single transnational transition may facilitate persons to value the importance of a deeper emotional connection. Moreover, persons who had never experienced a transnational transition appreciated socializing more with their friends but connected less in a functional or emotional way.

As our society is becoming increasingly multicultural and transnational, we expand our social network with persons who might look for certain characteristics and qualities in their friendships. Understanding different friendship characteristics and patterns can contribute to our knowledge and sensitivity towards how we form and develop relationships with those who have similar or different transnational transitional experiences.

Facebook image: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Makistock/Shutterstock


This post is adopted from Kyoung Mi Choi's research article and book chapter published in 2013 and 2015.

Choi, K., Bernard, J. M., & Luke, M. (2013). Characteristics of friends of female college Third Culture Kids. Asia Pacific Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy. doi:10.1080/21507686.2013.779931.

Choi, K., Luke, M., & Bernard, J. M. (2015). Being connected: A friendship comparison among U.S., international, and third culture college students. In S. Benjamin & F. Dervin (Ed.), Beyond “Third Culture Kids”(pp. 165-186). Cambridge: Polity.