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Confusing acquaintances with friends

I'm the founder of SocialJane.com (www.socialjane.com) , a women's-only friendship networking site that helps women find new friends.

Hey, who you callin' a friend? You just met her, and you like her — but is she a friend or an acquaintance? What really is the difference, and does it matter?

two happy woman friends

You met Brenda at a neighborhood party last week, and you really hit it off — so much so that you asked her to join you at your weekly girls' night out, which is usually reserved just for the gang. But Brenda is new in town, so you thought she'd appreciate the chance to get to know some other ladies.

After Brenda left, one of the gals asked about her, and you replied, "Oh, she is a new friend."

But is she a friend... really? You've known her for like a hot minute.

Even though there are somewhere close to a million words in the English language, we still haven't come up with one that describes that person who falls somewhere between an acquaintance and a friend. Instead, we clumsily apply the term "friend" to anyone who isn't a colleague, a relative or someone who we've decided is simply never going to earn this descriptor (at least, not from us).

We might add certain adjectives to lessen the confusion — adjectives such as "new," "old" or "childhood" — but typically, we just lump everyone into the same friendship bucket and continue on about our lives. However, this big lump of friendships... well, it can actually cause us some problems.

A friend is a friend is a friend... unless she isn't

The most basic definition of a friend is simply someone with whom you socialize regularly. Here are two examples:

A) Although you never see her outside of your monthly book club meetings, Chris shares your sense of style, always brings good wine and tells the funniest stories about the confusion that is her life. Nope, you have no idea what her phone number is or what her husband's name is, but you sincerely look forward to catching up with her each month.

B) Meg and you went to grade school together (30 years ago), and now your kids are in the same class. You work on a committee with her, and you know that if you ever need someone to pick up your child, she'll do it absolutely and return the kid fed and clean. But Meg really isn't your cup of tea — you sit on opposite sides when it comes to politics, vaccines and minding one's own business.

Chris gives you the giggles, and Meg would drop everything to take care of your child. So who is the friend and who is the acquaintance?

Establishing a working definition

Of course, there is more to friendship than just thinking that someone is a hoot and wears cute boots — so what other ingredients are necessary to bridge the gap from acquaintance to friend?

Over time, those in the know have defined friendship by these reciprocal characteristics:

1. Caring and enjoyment: You truly enjoy your time with the other person, regardless of what's on the agenda. You also care for the other person and are pleased when things go well for her. This is a must — not just a nice thing to have. If you aren't happy for your "friend's" new promotion, then you aren't really her friend.

2. Sharing and support: You trust the other person enough to spill your beans to her regularly, and she supports you enough to keep those beans to herself or help you turn them into the best dip you've ever had. Additionally, she trusts you with her beans.

3. Dedication and consistency: You are invested in the friendship and consistently make it a priority to spend time with your friend. Time can be face-to-face or via some other vehicle, but you have to be committed to sharing your time. Real friends spend time together, consistently and frequently. Yes, it is fun to catch up with your childhood friend every 10 years, but without frequent interaction, you are merely fond acquaintances.

Lumping everyone into one big friendship bucket is a problem because it negates the fact that there are stages to building a friendship. As two people pass through these stages and begin to share and trust, different expectations come about. Unless we do a better job of defining our relationships, then our expectations may be out of whack, and this could cause angst for one or both of the friends... err, acquaintances — I mean, friends. Whatever!

Having "the Talk"

When we venture into a new romantic relationship, it is common to plan for and anticipate "the Talk." This is the discussion that establishes feelings, aligns expectations and perhaps defines the relationship (e.g., we are "dating," he is my "boyfriend," it's just a "fling"). And honestly, establishing feelings, aligning expectations and defining a relationship are good things since they put everyone on the same page and leave no one with false hopes, elevated beliefs and the like.

And while we expect to "check in" with a romantic partner, I definitely advocate checking in with each of our platonic partners, too (you know, your bucketful of "friends") for all the same reasons. These talks will help to ensure that you are both on the same path — that you both require honesty, loyalty and time from each other, with the same definitions and in the same increments.

Friendships grow across a continuum that involves positivity, interaction, support, openness and reciprocity. If you find that Sue is a downer, that Jill shares regularly and that Meredith isn't always available — these can (and should be) good indicators of compatibility or incompatibility, and they can help us decide if we should continue to pursue a relationship with that person or if perhaps a new definition or plan is in order.

If you decide you'd like to invest a bit more in a friendship, then by all means, broach the subject. Tell your potential friend that in order to deepen a friendship, you need to feel safe sharing problems and joys. You might be surprised to find her opening up about a current issue or eager to help with one of yours. Likewise, when an old friend becomes a bit distant, it is absolutely OK to ask why and let her know that you are feeling the drift. You may find that work is overwhelming her now or that she perhaps has different interests that she is pursuing — a sign that a deeper discussion may be in order.

Having periodic talks with your friends not only keeps you on the same page, but it also can warm your heart. Just hearing that you are enjoyed, cared for and loved by your various friends does much to enhance friendships and your devotion to your friends. And one good talk with a new acquaintance can quickly take her from new friend to good friend for a lifetime.

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