A common need we have as people is the need to feel connected with others. We experience great joy, adventure, and learning through our connection and interactions with others. The feeling of wanting to be part of a group and liked by others is natural. One way we meet our need for connection is through our friendships. Friendship means different things to different people depending on age, gender, and cultural background. Common among all friendships is the fact that they are interpersonal relationships of choice. Throughout your life, you will engage in an ongoing process of developing friendships. Researcher William Rawlins developed a model of friendship after many years of study. While we may not follow these six steps in exact order in all of our relationships, these steps help us understand how we develop friendships.
The first step in building friendships occurs through Role-Limited Interaction. In this step, we interact with others based on our social roles. For example, when you meet a new person in class, your interaction centers on your role as student. The way that you communicate is characterized by a focus on superficial rather than personal topics. In this step, we engage in limited self-disclosure and rely on scripts and stereotypes. When two first-time freshmen meet in an introductory course, they strike up a conversation and interact according to the roles they play in the context of their initial communication. They begin a conversation because they sit near each other in class and discuss how much they liked or disliked aspects of the course.
The second step in developing friendships is called Friendly Relations. This stage is characterized by communication that moves beyond initial roles as the participants begin to interact with one another to see if there are common interests as well as an interest to continue getting to know one another. As the students spend more time together and have casual conversations, they may realize a wealth of shared interests. They realize that both travel from far distances to go to school and understand each other’s struggle with missing their families. Each of them also loves athletics, especially playing basketball. The development of this friendship occurs as they identify with each other as more than classmates. They see each other as women of the same age with similar goals, ambitions, and interests. Moreover, as one of them studies communication and the other psychology, they appreciate the differences as well as similarities in their collegiate pursuits.
The third step in developing friendships is called Moving Toward Friendship. In this stage, participants make moves to foster a more personalized friendship. They may begin meeting outside of the setting in which the relationship started and begin increasing the levels of self-disclosure. Self-disclosure enables the new friends to form bonds of trust. When the students enter this stage, it is right before one joins the basketball club on their college campus. As she starts practices and meetings, she realizes this would be something fun for her and her classmate to do together, so she invites her classmate along.
The fourth step in developing friendships is called Nascent Friendship. In this stage, individuals commit to spending more time together. They also may start using the term “friend” to refer to each other as opposed to “a person in my history class” or “this guy I work with.” The interactions extend beyond the initial roles as participants work out their own private communication rules and norms. For example, they may start calling or texting on a regular basis or reserving certain times and activities for each other such as going on evening runs together. As time goes on, the students start texting each other more frequently just to tell each other a funny story that happened during the day, to make plans for going out to eat, or to plan for meeting at the gym to work out.
The fifth step in developing friendships is Stabilized Friendship. In this stage, friends take each other for granted as friends, but not in a negative way. Because the friendship is solid, they assume each other will be in their lives. There is an assumption of continuity. The communication in this stage is also characterized by a sense of trust as levels of self-disclosure increase and each person feels more comfortable revealing parts of him or herself to the other. This stage can continue indefinitely throughout a lifetime. When the women became friends, they were freshmen in college. After finishing school some years later, they moved to separate regions for graduate school. While they were sad to move away from one another, they knew the friendship would continue. To this day they continue to be best friends.
The final step in friendship development is Waning Friendship. As you know, friendships do not always last a lifetime. Many friendships come to an end. Friendships may not simply end abruptly. Many times, there are stages that show a decline of a friendship, but in Rawlin’s model, the ending of a friendship is summed up by this step. Perhaps the relationship is too difficult to sustain over large geographic distances. Or sometimes people change and grow in different directions and have little in common with old friends. Sometimes friendship rules are violated to a degree beyond repair. We spoke earlier of trust as a component of friendships. One common rule of trust is that if we tell friends a secret, they are expected to keep it a secret. If that rule is broken, and a friend continually breaks your trust by telling your secrets to others, you are likely to stop thinking of them as your friend.
Challenges for Friendships
While the above steps are a general pathway toward friendship, they are not always smooth. As with any relationship, challenges exist in friendships that can strain their development. Three of the more common challenges to friendships are gender, cultural diversity, and sexual attraction. Important to remember is that each of these constructs comes with its own conflicts of power and privilege because of the cultural norms and the values we give to certain characteristics. These are challenges to relationships, since studies show that people tend to associate with others who are similar to themselves (Echols and Graham). Factors such as our gender identities and cultural backgrounds always play a role in our interactions with others.
Gender: Research suggests that both women and men value trust and intimacy in their friendships and value their time spent with friends (Mathews et al.; Bell and Coleman; Monsour and Rawlins). However, there are some differences in the interactions that take place within women’s and men’s friendships (Burleson et al.; Coates; Harriman). Quite common among female friends is to get together simply to talk and catch up with one another. When calling her close friend, Antoinette might say, “Why don’t you come over to my place so we can talk?” The need to connect through verbal communication is explicitly stated and forms the basis for the relationship. In contrast, among male friends, a more common approach to interaction is an invitation to engage in an activity as a means of facilitating conversation. For example, John might say to his friend, “Hey, Mike, let’s get out surfing this weekend.” The explicit request is to engage in an activity (surfing), but John and Mike understand that as they engage in the activity, they will talk, joke around, and reinforce their friendship ties. It is important to note that the research suggests patterns and trends, but there is never a standard way to predict how any gender will communicate.
While we have often looked at gender as male and female, culture is changing in which gender is viewed as a spectrum rather than the male/female binary. Monsour and Rawlins explain the new waves of research into different types of gender communities. More recent research is more inclusive of gender definitions that extend beyond the male/female binary. This research may be cutting-edge in its field, but as society becomes more accepting of difference, new ideas of relationship rules will emerge. We anticipate that all communication research will become increasingly inclusive and sensitive to these issues.
Culture: Cultural values shape how we understand our friendships. In most Western societies that emphasize individualism (as opposed to collectivism), friendships are seen as voluntary in that we get to choose who we want in our friendship circle. If we do not like someone, we do not have to be friends with that person. Contrast this to the workplace or school, where we may be forced to get along with colleagues or classmates even though we may not like them. In many collectivist cultures, such as Japan and China, friendships carry certain obligations that are understood by all parties (Carrier; Kim and Markman). These may include gift giving, employment and economic opportunities, and cutting through so-called bureaucratic red tape. Although these sorts of connections, particularly in business and politics, may be frowned upon in the United States because they contradict our valuing of individualism, they are a natural, normal, and logical result of friendships in collectivist cultures.
Sexual Attraction: The classic film When Harry Met Sally highlights how sexual attraction can complicate friendships. In the movie, Harry quotes the line, “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way.” Levels of sexual attraction or sexual tension may challenge friendships between heterosexual men and women, gay men, and lesbian women. This may arise from an internal desire of one of the friends to explore a sexual relationship or if someone in the relationship indicates that he/she wants to be more than friends. These situations might place strain on the friendship and require the individuals to address the situation if they want the friendship to continue. One approach has been the recent definition of friendships called “friends with benefits.” This term implies an understanding that two people will identify their relationship as a friendship but will be open to engaging in sexual activity without committing to the other characteristics common in romantic relationships.
Take a moment to reflect on how many friends you have in your everyday life. Is that number equivalent or more than the number you have on social media accounts like Instagram? Chances are, those numbers are very different. Social media is changing the ways we develop and maintain friendships. When you make a friend in physical life, the other person has to be in close enough proximity to communicate with on a regular basis to have a face-to-face interaction. That concept is almost nonexistent in the world of social media. Rawlin’s first step in developing friendships, Role-Limited Interaction, can be bypassed and moved right into Friendly Relations with the click of a button.