Social ties, including friendship, are important factors which enable us to build resilience in the face of precarious conditions. What is it, then, that makes friendship so important to live a better life?
by Verónica Policarpo
Photo: Helena Lopes / Pexels
Since 2008, European countries have undergone a period of economic recession. This had a substantial impact on the quality of life of citizens, namely economic and social conditions of living, as well as related levels of health, happiness, life satisfaction and resilience.
According to a more recent Eurofound survey (2016) which explored the quality of life in Europe, 10 years after the beginning of the economic crisis, with the exception of countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Spain or Croatia whose citizens do not report high life satisfaction, Europeans are feeling greater satisfaction with life in general, and their standard of living.
According to that same study, quality of life is determined by structural factors, such as employment status, with the unemployed (namely the long-term unemployed), the less educated, and those with lower income, reporting lower levels of satisfaction. But structural factors are not the only ones which affect quality of our lives. There are also “soft” factors such as the intensity and quality of social relations: living with a partner, having a child and having face-to-face or ICT mediated contact with friends or family, outside the household, every day.
Social ties, including friendship, thus seem to be important factors to build resilience in the face of precarious conditions of life. What is it, then, that makes friendship so important to live a better life?
Friendship as a Norm for Contemporary Life: From Social Expectations to Effective Practices
Known for being a more informal and less institutionalized type of bond, when compared to family, friendship is often associated with ideas that resonate with the ideal features of late modernity. Friends are supposed to be chosen, rather than given (as it is the case of kin)—and therefore, these relations are expected to be based on freedom, rather than constraint. They are also supposed to be built on the basis of pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction, and not obligation (as it is often the case of family or other imposed social relations, such as co-workers). Therefore, friendship is always associated with the idea of conviviality: socializing is an important part of friendship.
We expect our friend to give us back the affection we nurture towards them, in a similar degree of intensity or frequency (even if in a different form).
One expects these relationships to be based on affects, and not on the imposition of, and abiding to, institutional roles and demands. Depending on the type of friendship, such affects may be more or less intimate. Furthermore, among friends, significant differences of power, or status, are not supposed to exist. In other words, from friendship, one expects equality. And hence, reciprocity: we expect our friend to give us back the affection we nurture towards them, in a similar degree of intensity or frequency (even if in a different form).
A study about the meanings that the Portuguese give to the expressions “good friend” and “intimate friend” showed that the notion of trust is paramount to define friendship. According to this study, there are four main types of social representations related to the definition of “friend”. One of them equals the word “friend” with family or kinship ties. For instance, a friend we consider to be a “brother”; or a family member (e.g. a cousin) we consider to be our best friend. As for the other types, one is mostly defined by the valuing of trust; another is mostly oriented towards the construction and improvement of the Self (valuing aspects such as self-disclosure and unconditional support); and a fourth type values friends who are physically or emotionally present, both in bad and in good times.
Despite the underlying notions of informality and freedom that support it, the word “friend” is associated with high social expectations.
As we can see, despite the underlying notions of informality and freedom that support it, the word “friend” is associated with high social expectations. It brings a great moral imperative, one that constitutes a challenge to the actual relationships we build and have to deal with, in our daily lives. In other words, beyond the ideal of friendship, lie the actual practices through which, more or less regularly, friendship is built in between (idealized) expectations and reality.
These practices reveal the latent tensions that rest beneath the construction and maintenance of friendship ties, which are not, after all, always “chosen”, “free”, or based exclusively on pleasure and satisfaction. Rather, friends may be imposed on us—by other friends, by spouses, by other family members, or even by our own past and history. There are friends that even become a “burden” difficult to deal with, from which we do not manage to free ourselves, at least without guilt and ambivalence. To “let go” of a friend may be a very painful process, with consequences to our own identity, as it brings with it feelings of uncertainty and insecurity in relation to the ways we see ourselves, and the world around us. And such difficult friendships also translate into conflict and delusion, with money often appearing as a sensitive topic that highlights, and tests for, the resistance of the bond.
Caring Practices Among Friends in Times of Austerity
Indeed, friendships face numerous challenges during the individuals’ lifetime. And those brought by the socio-economic constraints of the “times of austerity” that European countries underwent during the last decade, are certainly among the ones that contribute to their reconfiguration. Losing one’s job, enduring long-term unemployment, lacking resources to make ends meet—all these present specific challenges that put friendships to the test.
For example, the story of Paulo, a 60-year-old journalist, illustrates how the instability caused by structural factors (long-term unemployment, and subsequent economic vulnerability), results in a state of precariousness that is ultimately transferred to the individual, as a problem to be coped with, and solved at an individual level.
At the time he was interviewed, Paulo was long-term unemployed and had no tangible means of subsistence. Over the years, friends had been his major source of stability, often providing material and economic support. He had several professions in many different areas and had recently tried to develop a new career, without much success up to now. Friends offered him the possibility, not only of acknowledging his own vulnerability, but also of gathering the necessary means to make ends meet, in such difficult times. As he told me,
Not so long ago, I needed some money […] I made a set of drawings, and then did a crowdfunding on the internet saying ‘I need a loan of X, and my way of giving back is offering you a drawing’. And that was it; my friends all lent me money. And, as a matter of gratitude, I offered them one drawing.
His story, thus, highlights the role of friends in providing practical and instrumental support, not only in emergencies and special occasions, but also in long-lasting times of material insecurity and/or deprivation.
Dependency nevertheless creates an imbalance of power that, even if temporary, challenges the “nature” of friendship.
However, the dependency that these exchanges entail is not without problems, as it questions the principles of equality and reciprocity that are the major grounds of friendship. And although this may be somehow moderated by the way friends reciprocate in different types of goods, it does nevertheless create an imbalance of power that, even if temporary, challenges the “nature” of friendship.
To some men, with more traditional gender representations, being dependent on a woman may threaten male identity, thus highlighting the persistence of a gendered double standard in regard to care. In friendship, this gender effect is also present in the way women are mostly seen by their male friends as sources of emotional support, around the affective figures of “the good confidant”, “the good listener” or “the good counsellor”. In these cases, friendship doesn’t contribute to challenge, rather it reproduces gender inequalities that permeate the societies we live in, including their caring practices.
Global Recession and Long-distance Friendships
The socio-economic crisis of the last decade had also another well-known effect: the “forced” global mobility and migration movements, in search for, either a better paid job, or any job at all. In these cases, distance and geographical mobility bring specific challenges to friendship. Lived at a distance, these friendships benefit from the many affordances of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Face-to-face contact and co-presence continue to be valued as forms of keeping, or updating, the intimacy within friendship.
Social media platforms, such as Skype, Facebook or Whatsapp, among others, enable friends to keep a constant contact that, though technologically mediated, is now possible to be more frequent and synchronous. And yet, a whole range of tacit norms seem to rule the ways these ICTs are used to keep long distance friendships. For instance, certain occasions (such as birthdays or anniversaries), or critical ones (such as death of a relative or illness), seem to call for a voice conversation (with or without moving image). On the other hand, face-to-face contact and co-presence continue to be valued as forms of keeping, or updating, the intimacy within friendship. Going on vacation together, visits to the country of origin, attending parties and other social events—all these constitute key moments in the maintenance of a bond which is meant to be close, in order to keep up to its name.
To Conclude: ‘Always Look at the Bright Side of Life…’
All this being said, not only of difficult moments do friendships live from. Rather, the practices that build them, in daily life, are many-fold. Either being regular or sparse, they are made of many different elements, with conviviality and sociability playing a determinant role. Lunches and dinner parties, going out for dance or shows, birthday parties or any other type of celebration—all these constitute the “little nothings” that make friendship happen, every day. They are part of the pleasurable side of friendship; we go out with whom we enjoy ourselves, and with those that bring us happiness. “Fun friends” have precisely this important role: keeping up with the joyful and ludic dimensions of friendship. They feed our optimism and help fighting the gloomiest sides of the neo-liberal mindset.
This article is inspired by the research developed in the course of a postdoctoral project called ‘Friends will be friends? Personal communities and the role of friendship in times of uncertainty’, funded by an individual scholarship from the Portuguese FCT—Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (SFRH BPD 85809 2012). It includes partial adaptations of another article published in Portuguese, in the website of the Portuguese Society for Clinical Sexology, under the title: A Amizade: ‘Naturezas’ Relacionais da Vida Contemporânea [Friendship: Relational Landscapes of Contemporary Life].
Verónica Policarpo is a sociologist and a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Her research interests are multiple and interdisciplinary, with a focus in the Sociology of Personal and Intimate Lives, at the intersection with Affect Studies, and Human Animal Studies. Currently, she studies the topic of friendship: both among humans, and between humans and non-human animals. She explores the construction of affective bonds in human-animal relations, and whether these bonds contribute to challenging inter-species barriers and redefining the human-animal continuum. Other areas of interest are gender and sexuality; resilience, quality of life and well-being; advanced research methodologies, both quantitative and qualitative.