The Most Important Qualities of a Friend

atkins-bookshelf-cultureIn the age of social media — the Facebook Generation — the true meaning of “friend” has been devalued; specifically the distinction between an acquaintance and a friend has been lost. Defining an acquaintance is very straightforward: “someone who we barely know” But, how do we define a friend, something far more complex? Even a dictionary definition falls short, sounding somewhat cold and clinical: “a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” We must turn to the philosophers and poets for a better definition of a friend. Aristotle provided the most succinct and eloquent definition: “A friend is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Brilliant.

For the answer to the question: “What is a friend?” the Baby Boomer Generation turned to musician Carole King. In 1969, talented songwriter and singer Carole King wrote “You’ve Got a Friend.” In an interview King explained how the song came about: “The song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside myself, through me.” The song was included in two albums (both released in 1971), King’s album titled “Tapestry” and an album by James Taylor’s (a close friend — do you see the poetry in that?) titled “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.” The song struck a chord with a worldwide audience — it was an instant hit for both recording artists. “Tapestry” became a top-selling album (more than 10 million copies sold) and won Album of the Year and four Grammy Awards in 1972. It remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, with sales of more than 25 million copies; Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it 36th in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.) Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it 36th in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. For many Baby Boomers, the words from this beautiful song, indelibly etched in their minds, defined friendship. J. D. Perone, author of The Words and Music of Carole King, summarized the song’s universal theme: “[Friendship is defined as] a universal, sisterly/brotherly, agape-type love of one human being for another, regardless of gender.” The first two stanzas appear below:

When you’re down and troubled
And you need some loving care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend

For the answer to the question: “What is a friend?” the Gen-Xers and Millenials turned to the NBC hit show, Friends, about six friends in their 20s who lived and worked in Manhattan. The show, that ran ten seasons from 1994 to 2002, was created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman who pitched it to NBC as a show about a family of friends: “It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.”  American audiences adopted this lovable and zany family of friends — Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler, and Ross — that expressed every facet of friendship over 236 episodes — no matter what they said or did, they supported and loved one another. The cast did not have to explicitly discuss friendship, they defined it through their actions. The show was one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, and was recognized by the industry with 63 Emmy nominations. The editors of TV Guide ranked the show in 21st place in the list of “TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Shows of All Time.”

Clearly friends are important — but they are precious and rare as flawless diamonds. Several studies have consistently indicated that despite the flourishing of social media and the so-called “community of friends” that it creates, the average person has two close friends (true friends or BFFs vs. Facebook friends or acquaintances). In 2010, Mathew Brashears, an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, surveyed 2,000 adults (ages 18 and older) and asked them to list the names of people that they discuss important matters within the prior six months. 4% listed zero names, 48% listed one name, 18% listed two names, and 29% listed more than two names. Thus the average survey participant had 2.03 close confidantes. A similar study in 1985 indicated that the average American had three confidantes. Across the pond, a survey conducted by Nivea, a skincare company, found similar results: the average British person has three true friends, and for 75% of them, a family member is considered one of their close friends. A spokesman for Nivea stated: “Most of those polled seemed to have one solid best friend who they have grown up with, one family member and another friend they have either met at university or work… While social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and more on-the-go technology such as texting no doubt have a role in the way we communicate with friends and family, there really is nothing like making the effort to meet face-to-face.” Surprisingly the spokesperson did not lead into a shameless promotion, adding “Since you should be setting up more face-to-face meetings, why not look your best? Use Nivea skincare products.”

Any serious discussion of friendship raises the critical question: what are the most important qualities of a good friend? There are dozens of websites that list the top ten or essential qualities of a friend. Although they all differ in minor ways, there is consensus around four essential qualities — loyal, trustworthy, accepting, genuine — but most leave out the key qualities of shared values, shared experiences, and the icing on the cake — shared sense of humor. Although not one list is definitive, the editors of have produced one of the most well-rounded lists of the essential qualities of a friend:
1. Loyalty

2. Intelligence
3. Sensitivity
4. Humor
5. Honesty
6. Listening
7. Supportive
8. Generosity

So the next time you need to Unfriend someone, don’t feel too bad. You know who your two true friends are.


Read related posts: Letters to a Young Poet
Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: Friendship Poems, selected and edited by Peter Washington, Knopf (1995)

2 thoughts on “The Most Important Qualities of a Friend

  1. I like Aristotle’s definition about a single soul in two different bodies. I’d also add an extra bit of definition; a good friend knows you so well that they’re able to finish your sentences!

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.