What Does The Word “Friend” Even Mean Anymore?

Molly McAleer wrote a stellar post on her Tumblr recently about the Kardashian divorce. I won’t rehash those points here because they’re not what caught my eye the most. What did strike a chord with me was when McaAleer made a comment on the definition of a friend:

I am such a fan of Rob Delaney and consider him to be a pal (I say “pal” because I have a hard time calling anyone but Ed my “friend” because I’m not entirely sure what that word even means any more as it’s been bastardized and twisted so much in the second half of my life…

This loose definition of friendship is something I’ve definitely encountered as I’ve graduated and entered the workplace. On paper, it would seem like my social life has expanded in the past year. I know more people in New York City than I ever have before. I G-chat and send emails with people every day. I’ll hang out with someone I genuinely adore for about a month and we’ll get drunk together, maybe go to a show, and maybe even go to each other’s houses. And then, unprompted, it will just stop. We’ll disappear from each other’s lives, only to make cameo appearances on one another’s Twitter feed. Plans will be made to hang out and maybe it’ll happen or maybe it won’t. The one thing that I notice about all of this though that makes me a bit uneasy is that no one questions the disappearance. It’s somehow implicitly understood that you’ll have these moments with people, only to watch them dissipate. It waxes and wanes. The person you went to the show with doesn’t necessarily see you in the daytime. You can’t really count on them for much and it goes both ways. The funny thing is that when you see each other, you’ll bare your soul. You’ll discuss job disappointments, love life, fears. It’s as if you’re bonded. And then, just like that, you’ll leave.

Maybe it’s having a career, maybe it’s living in New York, or maybe it’s just called networking. All I know is that when you get older, you’re cluttered with these static friendships and it becomes harder to find that daytime friend, to find that person you can actually depend on.

What does a friend even mean these days? With social networking sites and all of our technological gadgets, it’s been made clear that our BFF—the thing we see the most —is an object, not a person. The more connected we become, the more disconnected we become from each other. This is an argument that we’ve heard forever but damn it if it’s not true. We collect friendships like they’re Pogs. We collect them until there’s no space left for us to breathe. The question is, which Pog will be worth something one day? Which Pogs aren’t ones we use to just adorn our wall?

It’s hard to find quality friendships in your mid-twenties. Chances are people have already found the meat of their social life and now they’re just searching for dressing. It is what it is, I guess. It still annoys me though when someone’s name gets brought up and, on instinct, I say, “Oh, she/he’s a friend of mine!” And then I start to think, “Wait, no they’re not. We sometimes email each other and I see them out at parties. They have no idea what I do during the day, who my family is, where I come from. They aren’t my friend!” As Molly McAleer put it, they’re my “pal”, which still somehow feels like a generous description. Another Person I Sort Of Know In The Nighttime sounds more accurate. TC mark

image – h.koppdelaney

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.


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  • lefty

    I just read her piece this morning, and the same thing stood out to me. Thanks for putting more words behind the idea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=691429600 Simone Baker

    Very interesting food for thought!

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans

    I do not know what you’re talking about

  • macgyver51

    Such a sad outlook on things. I have friends. I don’t mind calling them friends because thats what they are. Maybe its a suburbs thing. I guess thats why I’m good out here in the suburbs, its where my friends are.

  • http://twitter.com/keithpinthecity Keith Pence

    I always have conversations with people about the difference between a “week” friend and a “weekend” friend.  They are extremely different, although the week friend can overlap into a weekend friend.  The week friend is the one that you call up to have lunch with, the one that you know you can depend on to bring you medicine when you have a cold, the one that you know pretty much everything about and the one that knows pretty much everything about you. The weekend friend is the one that you call up when you want to go out to a club but don’t want to wait in line and since they know the promoter, they are the first one you call.  Also, they most likely have bottle service, which, when you’re poor, is a huge plus to the weekend friend.

    I think the best friend you can make is the week friend, overlapping with the weekend friend.  The one that you can get shitfaced with but not worry about anything you may have said during that blur of a night.  It seems, however, that the overlapping friend is increasingly hard to find.

  • xx

    I don’t know what pogs are but this post is very relevant to my life.  Just wait until you get to be in your early 30s when everyone seems to be in a relationship, married and/or with kids.  Others are wrapped up in their careers and busy NYC lives. Everyone just seems to have time for meetings every month or so without any consistency so as to not have to commit to another “to do” on the list.  That whole saying about being lucky to have one or two real friends really rings true.

  • Lauren

    I totally see what you’re saying, but I think you’re overthinking it.  Us 20-something grew up in a bright, shiny time of Full House and Saved By the Bell and Punky Bewster; where even orphans and widows had perfectly happy, fulfilling lives with a solid group of friends and family.  And I think the older we get, out in the world on our own, we see that things are not cut and dry, and relationships with people don’t always pan out into a smiley, happy shiny ending.  What you’re describing is just life.  That said, if you’re in LA let’s grab a drink!  ;)

  • http://twitter.com/TheSlouchPotato Vishant

    I started reading the Thought Catalog today, and I must say it’s such better writing than what’s existing online and in tabloids. :] 

    I loved this post, and can relate to it. Though, I feel that as you grow (since you enter high school, for example), you always start wondering about your friends. Connecting, disconnecting and meeting new ones is a part of life. 

    My favourite line in this post – The more connected we become, the more disconnected we become from each other.
    ^So bloody true. There’s a Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, IM’ing and Video chatting so grilled in our life that we don’t even need to see the person in reality. 
    Last point: Love the writing here. 

  • Shelby Petersen

    this is so depressing because it is so true. even more depressing because i thought this was something that happened to me only. too many people can relate to this post – if we all feel that this is a bad thing, they why does it persist?

    • http://twitter.com/keithpinthecity Keith Pence

      exactly.  I thought that I was the only one that felt this way when it comes to making friends.  Good to know that I’m not.

  • Joanna

    I think it’s a combination of living in NYC and the end result of us living our lives online. I’m in my mid-30s now and find it harder and harder to find a friend that will be there for me when I’m sick or my dog dies or I need a ride around town. Yet plenty of people will come to our house if I offer to cook, or will comment on my photos and status updates. As one who has moved around a great deal (we’re preparing to leave NYC for city #6 in 13 years), it’s extremely frustrating. But I do feel like those friends that I’ve cultivated over the long-term are stronger than ever.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VYDVROKY4PUBOKUHB3QF42FH2Y Paul S

    “It’s hard to find quality friendships in your mid-twenties. ”
    Well, I’m in my late-30s and it sure as hell doesn’t get any easier.  Still, make your friends while you can since, the thing is , most of the “real friends” I have now, I pretty much made back in my mid-20s.

  • http://karyninny.com/ karyn

    i moved to ny and started dating about 3 times a week because i didn’t know anyone and online dating was the only way i could meet people. thankfully a lot of those dudes became my friends. it’s so much easier to get a date than a friend in this city. boo. luckily ryan o’connell is my bestie. 

  • kaylee

    A couple of weeks ago, my host mother (she is German, I am studying abroad in Germany) asked me how many friends I have at home. I was kind of surprised and like, uh, I’ve never really counted them? A lot I guess! And she was like, Hm! Wow! and then my host sister proudly announced that she has exactly four friends, and one boyfriend. I found it really strange, but chalked it up to a cultural difference and left it at that. Maybe it’s not, still no idea.

  • http://theholylance.com Nick Cox

    I think the index of friendship is not how often you see someone but how easy it is for the two of you to pick up where you left off—because if you and someone else can pick up where you left off, even after years of being out of touch, it’s because whatever you have in common, which made you become friends in the first place, is deep enough that it hasn’t changed. Don’t worry if your friends slip away—the ones that really matter will come back into your life eventually, even if it takes twenty years.

  • Herp McDerpaderp

    When you’re not trying to to be cutesy or harping on your sexuality/hipsterdom, you actually have interesting things to say, Ryan. Maybe you could post a few more essays along these lines?

  • Anonymous
  • bree

    :( this is so true and I definitely didn’t realize so many people dealt with it. hmph. my best/truest/daytime/call at 4 in the morning sobbing friend is the one I made in 8th grade. crazy how things turn out.

  • twistttttt

    Honestly, I have this friend who has been bullying me. I’ve known her since last year, but I never really got to know her much until the recent months where we’ve been working together in some orgs. Everybody who knows her would know that she could be quite mean, but when I got “closer” to her, I realized not only was she mean, she was also an bully. She would nag and call me things that I’m not, even to a point that she says she can’t be wrong because she has “a talent to read people” which I found really annoying. Honestly, I want to leave her. I don’t understand how she can call me a friend when she has such a big attitude problem. But then maybe I have the wrong idea of friendship. When I read this post, it made me ask when what is the wrong idea of friendship anyway?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=677642246 Joshua Logan

    This is definitely true when you are in your mid to late twenties when
    you are first being inducted into the wide wide world. But trust me in
    that it settles down once you come into your 30’s.  I now have friends
    that I see on a regular basis that aren’t at all part of my social
    network on the Internet (or course I have friends that are both) but
    more importantly you begin to develop a ‘friend filter’. Meaning you
    develop an efficient system to discern whom it is you want in your life
    and you hold on to these people.

  • Sapphoozmak

    You did it again, Ryan. 

    I have about 1500 friends on Facebook, but only about .01 per cent of them are what I would call real friends. They are the ones who know me inside out no matter the distance, no matter the time we’ve been separated. There are those people who pour your heart and soul to the moment you meet them, and there are those friends who become awkward strangers after not seeing them for years. 

    Interestingly, you cannot mix your group of friends in one party. You may, but it doesn’t usually work out, at least for me. For my 21st I put together some university and sorority friends, my travel buddies and my party crew. One group felt left out, and I had to play the part of the great host, in vain. 

    Superficial friendships only work at a certain occasion, but real friends– that’s different. Whether it’s a house party or a night out in the club, nothing feels awkward, and even if something does, it’s just one of those crazy things you all laugh at.

    • 0.01 x 1500

      atleast you have 15 frendz

      • Paladin0037

        Incorrect, he stated “percentage” ,so it’s 0.01/100 x 1500 . Which gives the answer of , 1.5 true friends .

  • JoshRom

    Allowing friends to diffuse through your life seems consistent with the transient nature of things.  

  • Tori

    I tend to use the term “strategic allies” because most of my amiable relationships are made to survive classes/school, but I wouldn’t hang out with them outside of that.  Everyone asks why I don’t call them friends and my general response is “….because they’re not really friends?”

    In other words this is perfection and I relate to it in the extreme.

  • http://twitter.com/amseries AM Santos

    Truth like this hurts. There are just some people we outgrow. There used to be a lot of pretty little flowers in my garden, but as the years passed only a few of them have come into full bloom. The rest turned into weeds that sucked the nutrients out of my soil. I had to pull them out for they no longer served any purpose and had become harmful to me. My garden now is quite bare but the flowers that survive are lovely, strong and healthy. And there is enough room for me to plant vegetables.

  • Charlie.

    I know why you think this way but I cannot agree. What is wrong with having many pals?  Having one or two really really close friends that stick with you is nice, but as a person you need a social life.

  • D Rudd

    Have faith, Ryan. I’m 29 and am living in
    London and have met and made what will be life-time friends in the past two
    years. I expect I’ll find more as I grow older as well. Course, people come and
    go but to think that people find their friends for life in their mid-20s is borderline
    hilarious. I’d say people in their mid-20s are even more fickle than teenagers
    because they have agency and freedom previously unknown to them – and so can be
    as callous and shallow as they desire. Then they’ll grow weary of it and
    actually seriously invest in relationships with friends. Any one of you can do
    this now, too.


    Anyway, burn through people like so many matchbooks,
    that’s fine. But real fuel and fire is always there if you want it.

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