Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good friend. What, specifically, can you do to nurture a friendship and keep it strong?
Friendships are peculiar in that they lack the exclusivity or explicit commitment of typical romantic relationships. There is absolutely no contract of obligation, so a friendship is really nothing but a tower of mutual favors, exchanged back and forth. This is wonderful and terrifying. Nothing is keeping that tower safe and upright except for both parties’ mutual desire to keep being kind to each other. Lacking any other structure, friendship is simply a series of generous acts.
Some of these acts are obvious and common: hugs, regular check-ins, little gifts, specific plans. Some are more nuanced and intangible. These odd, ineffable acts of friendship are so special to me. They demonstrate an advanced level of emotional intelligence and personal understanding.
Here, I’m bringing into the spotlight several of these types of acts. I’ve nicknamed each one, like it’s a trick sports move. Friendships may not have defined contracts, but we can put names to the small acts that add up to a friendship, and in that way learn to cherish them.
One day when I was in middle school, I abruptly realized that I could recite the alphabet backwards at a rapid pace without any concentration or practice. Ten years later, it became clear why God had given me this ability: to use it as a stupid party trick. To this day, whenever I have had a few drinks and am in the company of someone new, I am eager to show this off.
A work friend who was often with me at mixers and events involving drinking knew this about me. In a gesture of incredible patience and generosity, she made a habit of asking about the backwards alphabet when we were with new people, even though she personally had seen it a million times.
All of us have a favorite anecdote, joke, or trick we love to share. What are your friends’? How can you give them the spotlight to show off?
I have ascended to a higher plane of existence
This is what I texted a friend when I unlocked a time-consuming achievement in an utterly trivial mobile game we both played. And my friend? She reacted as if I had won the damn Nobel Prize. Capslock, extensive odes of praise, the whole drill.
Listen, not every day of life is huge promotions and births of children. Sometimes, you gotta celebrate the minor things at which your friends slay: cleaning out closets, or going on a first date, or making a stressful phone call. Even better if you can do so in dramatic, hyperbolic fashion.
And then I found five dollars
In college, my friends and I developed a shorthand for “I just realized this anecdote I’m telling is going nowhere”: you’d abruptly cut yourself off by saying “and then I found five dollars.” If the story was particularly pointless, you might have to increase the amount you found as a sort of apology. (On one occasion I recall needing to announce that I had located the entire budget of NASA.) My brother and sister-in-law learned about this convention and adopted it in their own lives, and it remains in use today.
When a friend mirrors your idiosyncratic slang back at you, it’s high praise. They’re saying, “I love the way you express this very specific thing, and I know exactly what you mean, and I identify with it so deeply I’m going to use it too.”
“Now That’s What I Call Prayer”
A friend and I had a conversation in which the Lord’s Prayer came up. “Which one is that, again?” she asked. “That’s the one that starts ‘Our Father…’” I answered. “It’s basically track 1 on ‘Now That’s What I Call Prayer.’”
That’s a B+ joke at best, but it was tailored specifically to my friend’s sense of humor and cultural touchstones. Since then, when I land a good joke, she calls it “Now That’s What I Call Prayer-level.”
There are general-purpose jokes, and there are the bespoke jokes you custom design based on intimate knowledge of what makes your friend laugh. The latter aren’t just funny, they show that you’re present in the moment and know the ins and outs of how your friend thinks.
I got lunch with a friend immediately after hearing a story on This American Life about a deformed baby doll named Nubbins. I promptly recounted the story to her in great detail, and she listened with great attention and proceeded to reference it on occasion for years afterward.
Get excited about what your friends are excited about! Don’t just patiently indulge them when they talk about their interests. Be an active listener, emotionally engaged, asking follow-up questions. Watch a TV show or movie they love that is outside your wheelhouse. Then work to empathize with why it means so much to your friend, and compliment it specifically from that perspective. It expands your horizons, and it’s magnificently generous in a way that makes anyone’s heart light up with joy.
One of my absolute favorite friends to hang out with has a wonderful policy for our time together: at any moment, one of us can say, “I just need to do my own thing for a bit.” And then we’ll sit together in companionable silence, each zoning out and doing our own thing (usually on our phones), until we’re both ready to re-engage.
I never dread hanging out with this friend because I know she’ll never ask for more energy than I have to give. Give your friends a clear sense of when you’d like their full attention and when you simply want to appreciate having them a few feet away while you focus on something else.
Here’s what to say in the text
“I don’t know what to say to this guy,” I IMed my friend. “We’ve been texting for a while and I realized I don’t want to go out with him.”
“Text him this,” my friend replied – and proceeded to write out, verbatim, a gracious and empathetic text I could copy and paste. I had been stressing over exactly how to word things and navigate the awkward moment. My friend, who was removed from the situation, saw my anxiety and took the hard part – finding the right words – out of my hands without even being asked. A weight instantly lifted. It’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me. (By the way, here’s a great breakup text template.)
Even life’s little tasks can feel overwhelming sometimes. Each of us has specific tasks and situations we particularly dread. If you find out what your friend’s major stressors are, and if they bug you less, offer to help out. It might be choosing a travel itinerary, or establishing a process for decluttering an apartment, or setting up a new tech device. Taking on emotional labor that you know your friend struggles with is a pro-level friendship move.
This can also play a role in more routine interactions. If your friend doesn’t like making decisions, propose a specific plan for when you hang out. If your friend ignores text messages when they’re stressed and then feels guilty about how long they’re taking to answer, call or text them (whatever makes them less anxious), recap whatever it’s important that they know, and tell them they don’t have to answer at all. If your friend is feeling overwhelmed by a lengthy task list, identify an item from that task list you know you can do and carry the ball as far down the field as you can.
Do you want Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham?
The 2018 movie “The Favourite” is great, but for me its most enduring legacy has been that it helped me articulate two specific paradigms of friendship, as personified by Queen Anne’s two closest confidantes: Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. Sarah Churchill is blunt and pragmatic, pushing Queen Anne to be more ambitious and calling out her missteps. Abigail Masham is soothing and affectionate, making Queen Anne feel valued.
After watching the movie, my friend and I took to asking each other in moments of stress, “Do you want me to be Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham right now?” Both kinds of friendship are valuable, and sometimes it just makes sense to ask explicitly what your friend needs at that moment.
Other variations on this question: “Do you want advice or do you want to vent?” “Do you want me to ask questions or do you just want to talk through it while I listen?” “Do you want me to push and encourage you or do you want me just to empathize with where you are now?” These are honest, nonjudgmental questions, focused on making sure that you’re meeting your friend’s needs. It should be clear from how you pose the question that either answer is welcome and will be respected.
Some jokes have a half-life, but others deserve to be raised into the rafters and memorialized forever.
When my friend and I were in college, I had a crush on a classmate I called Dan. (His name was not Dan or anything like it.) She had a crush on a famous actor named Daniel. Incredibly, my Dan won a contest in which a poem he wrote was read and recorded by her Daniel. This was eight years ago and we still marvel at this event, which we refer to as “Dans Collide.” My friend and I often discuss someday staging a multimedia vaudeville show that recounts major milestones in our friendship. (I am not certain either of us is kidding.) Dans Collide will certainly be a headlining moment.
Celebrate the banner moments in your friendships. These almost become a sort of call-and-response – a reaffirmation of shared experiences and the joy they’ve given you.
Can you name all my siblings?
I have four siblings. This is an absurd number, and I don’t begrudge anyone in my life who loses track of how many there are, their approximate ages, or their names. But I have a few friends who have learned all the names, and who, when I offhandedly mention “my sister” or “my brother,” will quickly clarify, “Which one?” and mention their names. While I’ve certainly never nailed the art of remembering my friends’ biographical details, I find this very impressive.
If you can, put an effort into memorizing the personal details your friends share with you. It shows you’re invested in the friendship and intend for it to continue. It also gives you a fuller picture of your friend, so you can be better to them.
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This is a simple one: pay attention to your friends’ creative output. Think of how much love and care your friends put into the creative things they share, whether they’re YouTube videos, drawings, or just funny tweets. Regularly engaging with and commenting on your friends’ creations makes them feel seen and valued in one of the arenas of life that they feel is most connected to their fundamental identity.
Apropos of nothing
When’s the last time you told your friend how much you cherish their friendship, without any kind of prompting or occasion? Who among us doesn’t melt when they get that kind of affirmation and affection?
Learn what your friends’ favorite traits about themselves are, and take time to compliment and validate those specifically. Think about small traits your friends have that you wish you shared, and compliment those too.
For added color, express appreciation for the kinds of small, invisible gestures of friendship I describe above. Show that you’re aware these little moments are happening, and you cherish them.
Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list. That might be my favorite thing about it. I can’t wait to see the new nuances of friendship I discover in the coming years – and I hope I have the sense to recognize and appreciate them wherever they unfold.
If you want to keep thinking on how you can be a better friend, I recommend this article’s smart, detailed advice: A More or Less Definitive Guide to Showing Up for Friends.