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We Have a Connection Problem. Friendship Is the Answer.

Part one: the case for active friendship

Anna Akbari
Source: Anna Akbari

This weekend, while making pesto and energy balls and watching Idiocracy (go on, rewatch it and marvel), I exchanged a few messages with people I know to varying degrees of intimacy. The dominant theme for me—not only of late, but for my life in general—re-emerged: connectivity.

This is a topic I think about. A lot.

I give speeches on “Digital Happiness” and have written about our relationships with technology: Can we be happy in a digital world? What does it mean to connect and disconnect in a perpetually mediated life?

I’ve also written about the challenges of “adult friendship,” describing how difficult it is to forge and maintain meaningful post-college friendships, particularly when technology promotes a false sense of intimacy and leads us into careless passivity.

I don’t think our connectivity issue can be summed up in one neat and tidy article, nor do I believe that pithy characterization will ease the woes felt by many when it comes to how devastatingly disconnected we feel. And yet, I think boosting human-to-human connectivity is one of the worthiest causes you can engage in.

If I told you you have the power to save someone’s life via your friendship, how would you shift your behavior?

This is my modest attempt to course-correct our disconnected state of affairs, not simply by complaining or pointing fingers, but by laying out a personal call-to-action we can all adopt today. It centers not on big tech companies or politicians, but on a category of people, we too often take for granted: our friends.

Disconnection is one of the most serious issues facing us in the 21st century, on both a macro and micro level. It’s existential and very personal.

We know these things to be true, but what are we doing in our own social circles to combat disconnection? I promise you there are people in your life that you love who are lonely and disconnected (possibly even you), and you don’t have to wait for someone else to fix it: you can help, and it won’t cost you anything.

Today I want to address this issue specifically through the lens of friendship, which has become a highly subjective word and one we don’t talk about enough. I see three distinct varieties of friendship, all of which play important roles and operate very differently:

  1. Passive Friendship
  2. Periodic Friendship
  3. Active Friendship

Passive friendship has skyrocketed with the rise of social media. Some passive friends were never close friends—they were acquaintances we knew and socialized with in passing, meaning we saw them at a party and said hello, or knew them by face and name, but had limited-to-no one-on-one interaction. And some of our passive friendships were once intimate, close relationships, but life happened and time and perhaps geographic distance created less active one-on-one engagement. Instead of these relationships fading into our memories, triggered only when reminiscing or looking at old photos, social media now loosely maintains these relationships that, in previous eras, would have naturally ended.

Periodic friendship is a relationship in which you occasionally catch up. Perhaps it’s a phone call every few weeks/months, or a text message or email checking in, or if you live in the same town and prioritize clearing your schedules, you likely meet up with some degree of intermittent regularity. (The frequency of periodic friendship varies greatly: one person may consider it periodic while another might think it’s more extreme by their standards, making it either passive or active for them.)

Active friendship is an on-going, intentional relationship in which you have a perpetual flow of communication and interaction. At any given moment, we have very few of these. It is the type of relationship that interests me the most, and I believe it’s the one we are most sorely lacking, with devastating effects.

Let’s take me as an example. I am an unmarried woman with no children, I have a very tiny nuclear family, and I’ve geographically relocated multiple times. Therefore, friendships really matter to me—perhaps more than they do to most people. They are crucial to my sense of belonging and feelings of love and connectivity, which is why I routinely, actively assess and reassess my friendships, in an effort to maximize the ones that matter and minimize relationships with individuals whose priorities and values don’t align with mine. I realize my preferred style of active friendship is not for everyone, and therefore some individuals inevitably shift into the periodic or passive mode. This process can actually be quite sad—it’s disappointing when other people don’t prioritize us as much as we would like, even when it’s not ill-intentioned, and it’s ok to acknowledge that sadness and adjust who you spend time with accordingly.

To bolster my Active Friendship Quotient (*not an official term*), I’ve tried multiple strategies: I’ve used technology to take passive and periodic friendships and strengthen or reinvigorate them, transforming them into active friendships (my long-distance book club, for instance). I’ve also created social outlets whereby individuals who would otherwise slip into passive friendship mode are elevated to active status based on our shared love of an activity or topic (my monthly karaoke group or the people I regularly share articles/videos/information/thoughts on everything from politics to startups to humor on a weekly basis).

Here’s what’s important and distinctive about this type of interaction: This flow of communication goes far beyond the period catchup drink or meal. It’s about being in a semi-constant state of conversation with each other. It means finding a natural rhythm and flow with a select few individuals, and actively maintaining your status in their orbit.

In an age when every thought and action is filtered through a wide social media lens, it feels necessary to repeat: This rhythm and flow is NOT for the masses. It’s only for your chosen few. It is an exclusive club, and you are the gatekeeper.

Our romantic partners cannot and should not exclusively play this role. And yet, increasingly, we put that pressure almost entirely on our life partners, when we should be diversifying our active friendship portfolio. That means reaching out and/or being responsive to these active friendship dialogues. I have people in my life that I consider “close friends,” but who not only shy away from the active flow of communication, they often don’t respond when I reach out. Are they bad people? Do they hate me? In these instances, I feel confident the answer is decidedly ‘no’ on both counts. But does it hurt? Does it weaken the bond and diminish my confidence in sharing and connecting? Absolutely.

Occasional catch-ups are practical for most relationships. (We can’t have 100 active friendships; it’s not humanly possible.) But when the periodic catchups completely replace the active friendship flow, we suffer—individually and collectively. Similarly, when we take for granted that people we love have “someone else” who plays that active friendship role, we are very often mistaken. And if you’re the one whose efforts are discounted, it’s likely you don’t bring it up. It’s taboo to “want more” when it comes to friendship.

We love to wave the flag of outrage on social media, but we’re more uncomfortable than ever with calling each other out in our personal lives, in the relationships that matter.

We prefer to broker in “likes” and public comments than intimate conversations. I often think that certain “close friends” would be more likely to engage with me if I posted my message to them on social media than if I sent them a direct message or addressed them in person. I know I’m not alone in that frustration.

Read part 2 of this series for my solution to this problem.

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