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How We Really Choose Our Friends

5 core components of "friendship chemistry."

Key points

  • Defining the boundary that separates friends from acquaintances can be tricky.
  • One's cultural background is a key factor in how friendships are managed.
  • Because friendships require an investment of time and resources, we can only manage a limited number of them at one time.
  • Having "chemistry" with another person is a key ingredient to a solid friendship.
Dezy/Shutterstock
Source: Dezy/Shutterstock

We use the word “friend” to describe an astonishing range of relationships. Calling someone a friend may have little to do with how often we actually see them, but it communicates a feeling of closeness that elevates that person to a special status in your life.

In many ways, friendships have hazier boundaries than most other relationships. For example, our association with coworkers begins with our employment and ends when we leave our jobs (unless the coworkers have also become friends), and our relatives are our relatives from the time we are born until the time we die.

The beginning and ending of friendships are rarely so clearly marked.

Changes in friendships usually accompany major life transitions such as going away to college or getting married, but maintaining old friendships throughout such transitions can help to buffer the stress of major life changes.

Where Does Friendship Begin and Acquaintanceship End?

How can we tell when an acquaintanceship has crossed the line into friendship?

The answer to this question partially depends upon the cultural background of the people involved. Friendships are less easily established in cultures where kinship structures remain strong, and this is further complicated by the fact that friendship patterns can be quite different between social classes within the same culture. Americans tend to use the term “friend” more freely and loosely than people in non-western societies, possibly because the word “acquaintance” in English has acquired a rather cold connotation. Thus, we may use “friend” to put a more positive spin on our bonds with others.

Some cultures use words to describe degrees of friendship the way young Americans sometimes employ the acronym “BFF” (Best Friends Forever) to set some friends apart from others. For example, in Poland, there are words that describe different intensities of friendship. A przyjaciel is a person with whom one probably has a long-standing relationship characterized by a great deal of self-disclosure. The best English translation would probably be a best friend, although this phrase is used more liberally in the United States than przyjaciel is used in Poland.

The least intimate term, znajomy, corresponds closely to the word “acquaintance” in English. There is a ritual by which a znajomy formally acquires a more intimate status and becomes a kolega, which is roughly equivalent to “buddy” in English. This occurs when the two parties—regardless of their sex—grant mutual permission to address each other in the future by their first names instead of by a more formal title such as Ms. or Mr. A celebration frequently follows, often with the pair drinking shots of alcohol while their arms are linked.

Because friendships require an investment of time and other resources, we can only manage a limited number of them at one time. Consequently, researchers have suggested that we are continuously, if unconsciously, tracking how many friends we have so that we can keep that number in our comfort zone.

While deciding who to newly admit to the club and who needs to be jettisoned, we sometimes need to make harsh decisions. We want to keep people who can be counted on during tough times, but we also need to replace people who inflict undesirable costs on us in terms of time, money, or emotional wear-and-tear.

And we almost certainly want to retain those with whom we have “chemistry.”

How Important Is Chemistry in Friendship?

Most of us have an intuitive sense of what having chemistry with someone looks and feels like. There is an easiness and a flow to interacting with them; a smoothness and synchrony in nonverbal behaviors, conversational turn-taking, and the way humor is deployed. There is confidence that you are reading each other’s emotions and intentions correctly. All of this makes the interpersonal experience energizing and fun, and interactions powered by chemistry foster relationships that are more than just simply the sum of their parts.

An instrument called the “Friendship Chemistry Questionnaire” has been developed that identifies the five main factors that contribute to chemistry in relationships. They are:

  • Reciprocal honesty and openness
  • Mutual interests
  • Warmth and being personable
  • Similar values and worldviews (especially important in friendships)
  • Physical attraction (especially important in romantic relationships)

Interpersonal relationships featuring these qualities are well on the way to becoming friendships. Throw in a bit of chemistry and, well, as Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick says in the last line of the movie Casablanca, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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