Friendships usually begin by meeting someone at work or school or in a social group. You are open to new people, discover that you have something in common with some of them and decide to enhance the experience of common interests with the spice of good companionship. Shared interests and experiences become the basis for genuine friendship wherein both parties come to understand and care about each other over time.
There’s a difference between developing such tried-and-true friendship and the acquisition of friends via social media, which, by appropriating the term “friends,” has actually cheapened the whole concept of friendship. Despite claims that social media is helping us be more connected more of the time, all too often we’re not really feeling it. Why not? Because like reality TV, it’s not quite real.
“Friends” who are too easy to get can’t be counted on to provide support, share experiences or communicate on a heart level. Having hundreds of so-called friends on a site like Facebook—which can be a lot like a staged popularity contest—is no substitute for the real deal.
Some interesting phenomena go along with the general demeaning of friendship. As Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, ours is rapidly becoming a “performance-based” culture, where image is everything and self-expression is a performance for attention from others. She explains how it is that so many young people refuse to have live conversations because texting is a performance they can better control.
A disheartening aspect of modern friendship is how ready people can be to ‘go dark’ after a broken agreement or even just an argument. They feel no compunction about cutting another person off rather than resolving things for the sake of clarity or the salve of closure that can preserve the memory of warm feelings. Understanding brings freedom from blame, including blaming oneself for expecting anything.
This is happening more in all kinds of relationships including between friends who had some falling out. A ready willingness to go radio silent is the dark side of a narcissistic trend where people find it easy to ostracize each other. Abandonment is more convenient than dealing with awkward feelings … and the world becomes a colder place.
Trust is vital and precious. If there is such a thing as emotional security, it depends on trusting and trustworthiness. Fake friendships and going dark damage peoples’ ability to trust. Empathy is the capacity to read the emotions of another. You must have empathy to experience sympathy or compassion, to ‘be there’ emotionally, to trust the other. It is a pity to live in such a shallow society just as it is a heroic challenge to serve as an empathic antidote.
Oxytocin, the bonding hormone, helps and we can increase it to the benefit of friendship. Studies demonstrate oxytocin’s role in social recognition, pair bonding, orgasm and motherhood. Personality–wise, oxytocin promotes empathy and altruism. It’s good for the tribe, it’s good for civilization.In both sexes, oxytocin rises instantly with a single touch. (Its power is more abundantly available to and through women because of how it synergizes with estrogen, whereas testosterone counteracts it.) Generate as much oxytocin as you can. Your real friends are the ones you hug the most!