Friendship seems as natural as two children meeting on the playground and then, at least sometimes, staying friends long enough to eventually share pictures of their own children. But social history suggests that the sort of relationship Americans call a “true” or “pure” friendship is a relatively modern invention.
The O.E.D.’s first definition of “friend” — “‘One joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy’. . . Not ordinarily applied to lovers or relatives” — is good enough. Importantly, however, modern Americans usually consider a “real” friendship to be an intimate and benevolent bond that is separate from – or can be separated from – any other connection between the two people. That is historically new.
Friendships typically start between people who share a social setting – a classroom, neighborhood, workplace, military company, church, or other context. But the true friendship itself becomes independent of those other connections. That distinctiveness of that relationship becomes especially visible when people move on – they graduate, change jobs, move away, whatever – but still maintain their friendship, their “mutual benevolence and intimacy.” They are clearly now what I have elsewhere labeled “just friends.” And “just friendship” is pretty new.
Examples of such friendships, of course, go back a long ways. The biblical Jonathan, for instance, risked his life for his bosom friend, David – who later took the throne from Jonathan’s own father, King Saul. But “pure” friendship as a common experience for average people is, historians have shown, a modern development. (See readings below.)
People in classic pre-modern villages were heavily involved with one another in many ways. They knew each other intimately, yes, but as neighbors they might argue about whose livestock traipsed into whose garden; as townsfolk they often quarreled over who was paying how much of the taxes; and even as relatives they juggled the sort of complex issues blood kin and certainly in-laws usually have. Anthropologists have described twentieth-century versions of such villages as rife with tension and suspicion, and not much encouraging of what we consider real friendships. They may have had the intimacy, but not necessarily with the mutual benevolence.
The coming of modern society, the argument goes (an article by Allan Silver is a classic on the topic), made pure friendship possible. A market economy led to specialized, commercial relationships, which allowed people to separate business from friendship. If, for example, you sell your crop to a traveling buyer, a stranger, instead of to friends, then you can conduct your friendships without worrying about whose getting the short end of a business deal. (An American proverb supposedly goes: “Before borrowing money from a friend decide which you need most.”)
With increasing travel and population, people increasingly met and befriended others who were not entangled with them in collateral issues. Similarly, with improved communications, people could maintain contact with ex-classmates or ex-neighbors; they could sustain “just friendships.”
Another element in this story that social historians have identified is the emergence of sentimentality and its infusion into friendships.
Love Piping Hot
As relationships based only or focused on “intimacy and mutual benevolence” became more common among the upper and upper-middle classes, they were infused with the intense sentimentality of the 18th and especially 19th centuries. That sentimentality emerged in many aspects of bourgeois life, such as romantic literature, social movements to ease the suffering of children and animals, and idyllic nature-park cemeteries. It also showed up in the language of friendship.
In letters and diaries, educated Americans learned to describe their friendships with words of strong emotion, even passion. Strikingly, this was true not only of young women, but also of men. Young Daniel Webster addressed his closest friend as “dearest” and as “the only friend of my heart, the partner of my joys, griefs, and affections.”
A Virginia lawyer sent greetings from two of his friends to a third friend: “They send their love piping hot.” (We might consider such language today as homoerotic, but that projects our understandings of such language onto people who understood it differently.) In the 19th century affection became an increasingly important element of same-sex relationships, and a key element of what upper middle-class Americans considered true friendships.
In the twentieth century, the language cooled down – it was an era historian Peter Stearns as described as “American Cool” – but those sentimental “just friendships” became increasingly common for most Americans. These days, perhaps one-fifth of the average American’s immediate relationships, kin and nonkin included, are with “just friends” (see Made in America, p. 312n137).
We now take such friendships as a matter of course. But they are historically new. And we now worry about what is happening to Americans’ ties of “intimacy and mutual benevolence.” Are they waning? – That will be the subject of another post on another day.
(This column was cross-posted on Bella DePaulo’s Blog, July 19, 2010).
K. Hansen, A Very Social Time: Crafting Community in Antebellum New England, 1994.
A. Jabour, “Male Friendship…” Journal of the Early Republic, 2000.
S. Oliker, “The Modernisation of Friendship.” In Adams and Allan, Placing Friendship in Context, 1998.
E. A. Rotundo, “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy…” Journal of Social History, 1989.
A. Silver, “Friendship in Commercial Society.” American Journal of Sociology, 1990.
C. Smith-Rosenberg. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” Signs, 1975.