“You better not say someone is your best friend”

Looking for new friends, Beate Völker has experience with it herself. In her twenties, she moved from her native Germany to the Netherlands to get her PhD at Utrecht University. From day to day she left her entire network and had to start over. “It was very radical,” she says in a video call. “In the beginning, I called my friends for hours three times a week and told them everything I was going through.”

Over time, she developed a network in her new hometown and less contact with her friends in Germany. “They are still dear to me and I still call them friends, but they are no longer very active in my network. I see them once or twice a year. The friendship has taken on a different status.”

Your ‘active friends’, who really play a role in your daily life, usually live within cycling distance, Völker now also knows from his research. Until recently, she was a professor of urban sociology specializing in friendship and social cohesion at Utrecht University. She is currently the Director of the Netherlands Center for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement in Amsterdam.

When do we call someone a friend? How do you define friendship?

“It’s something that the people involved define themselves – that’s the great thing about friendship. But I also like to refer to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He talks about three dimensions. First, friendship is useful: you get reliable information from your friends. If a friend tells you to go to a certain restaurant once, you value it more than information you read on the Internet. Friendship is fun too. You have fun with your friends. And finally, friendship is ‘the good’. Friends bring out the best in each other, and they also want the best for each other. It’s selfless.”

“When we survey friendships, we usually ask our respondents who they visit, with whom they discuss important things. And then we ask who those people are. Some say ‘my partner’ or ‘my brother’, others say ‘my friend’.”

Can straight men and women be friends?

“It’s rare. And if it happens, you always have to make it clear at some point what you have with each other. Could you fall in love, or is it pure friendship? The outside world will soon see you as a couple. And have you a partner, you often have to explain it to them. It puts pressure on a relationship like that. You have to be very strong to keep it up.”

“Two gay men or women are also in that difficult situation. What do I really want? And what does the other want?”

Why are friends important?

“People are social beings. We have always entered into relationships outside of our family. It promotes peace. You don’t go to war against friends. We also want to feel connected. When you only have your partner and your family, the world becomes very small. Friends make that world bigger and connect you to society. Finally, friendship also affects your mental and physical health. Friends reduce stress and strengthen your immune system. And they take care of you when you are sick: they take you to the doctor and shop.”

We have already mentioned that male-female friendships are less common. But also in other areas, we primarily look for friends who are similar to us. Why do we do it?

“It is the principle of equality: we feel best around people who are ‘equal’ to ourselves. The age differences between friends are often small, they often have the same gender, the same type of education, the same religion and ethnic background. And it goes even further: They often have the same taste in clothes and read the same books. It’s easy and you confirm each other. ‘I like the other person, and the other person looks like me, so I’m cute myself!’”

“Furthermore, society is divided. In elementary school you still have a lot of diversity, but after that your surroundings become more and more homogeneous. At university you only see people who look like you, even in cafes. Society sorts. So it feels nice and comfortable, and you meet less and less ‘others’ over time.”

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