We Have a Connection Problem. Friendship Is the Answer. (The Case For ACTIVE Friendship in a Digital Age)
This weekend, while making pesto and energy balls and watching Idiocracy (go on, rewatch it and marvel), I exchanged a few messages with people I know to varying degrees of intimacy. The dominant theme for me — not only of late, but for my life in general — re-emerged: connectivity.
This is a topic I think about. A lot.
I give speeches on “Digital Happiness” and have written about our relationships with technology: Can we be happy in a digital world? How? What does it mean to truly connect? And what role does deliberate technological “disconnection” play in facilitating or hindering that connection?
I’ve also written about the challenges of “adult friendship”, describing how difficult it is to forge and maintain meaningful post-college friendships, particularly when technology promotes a false sense of intimacy and leads us into careless passivity.
I don’t think our connectivity issue can be summed up in one neat and tidy article, nor do I believe that pithy characterization will ease the woes felt by many when it comes to how devastatingly disconnected we feel. And yet, I think boosting human-to-human connectivity is one of the worthiest causes you can engage in.
If I told you you have the power to save someone’s life via your friendship, how would you shift your behavior?
This is my modest attempt to course-correct our disconnected state of affairs, not simply by complaining or pointing fingers, but by laying out a personal call-to-action we can all adopt today. It centers not on big tech companies or politicians, but on a category of people we too often take for granted: our friends.
Disconnection is one of the most serious issues facing us in the 21st century, on both a macro and micro level. It’s existential and very personal.
We are more depressed than ever and the suicide rate is at its highest since World War II.
Many of us can’t have an in-person conversation without checking our phone, and even when we aren’t actively using it, the mere presence of a visible smartphone measurably decreases the intimacy of our social encounters.
We know these things to be true, but what are we doing in our own social circles to combat disconnection? I promise you there are people in your life that you love who are lonely and disconnected (possibly even you), and you don’t have to wait for someone else to fix it: you can help, and it won’t cost you anything.
Today I want to address this issue specifically through the lens of FRIENDSHIP, which has become a highly subjective word and one we don’t talk about enough. I see three distinct varieties of friendship, all of which play important roles and operate very differently:
1) Passive Friendship
2) Periodic Friendship
3) Active Friendship
Passive friendship has skyrocketed with the rise of social media. Some passive friends were never close friends — they were acquaintances we knew and socialized with in passing, meaning we saw them at a party and said hello, or knew them by face and name, but had limited-to-no one-on-one interaction. And some of our passive friendships were once intimate, close relationships, but life happened and time and perhaps geographic distance created less active, one-on-one engagement. Instead of these relationships fading into our memories, triggered only when reminiscing or looking at old photos, social media now loosely maintains these relationships that, in previous eras, would have naturally ended.
Periodic friendship is a relationship in which you occasionally catch up. Perhaps it’s a phone call every few weeks/months, or a text message or email checking in, or if you live in the same town and prioritize clearing your schedules, you likely meet up with some degree of intermittent regularity. (The frequency of periodic friendship varies GREATLY: one person may consider it periodic while another might think it’s more extreme by their standards, making it either passive or active for them.)
Active friendship is an on-going, intentional relationship in which you have a perpetual flow of communication and interaction. At any given moment, we have very few of these. It is the type of relationship that interests me the most, and I believe it’s the one we are most sorely lacking, with devastating effects.
Let’s take me as an example. I am an unmarried woman with no children, I have a very tiny nuclear family, and I’ve geographically relocated multiple times. Therefore, friendships REALLY matter to me — perhaps more than they do to most people. They are crucial to my sense of belonging and feelings of love and connectivity, which is why I routinely, actively assess and reassess my friendships, in an effort to maximize the ones that matter and minimize relationships with individuals whose priorities and values don’t align with mine. I realize my preferred style of active friendship is not for everyone, and therefore some individuals inevitably shift into the periodic or passive mode. This process can actually be quite sad — it’s disappointing when other people don’t prioritize us as much as we would like, even when it’s not ill-intentioned, and it’s ok to acknowledge that sadness and adjust who you spend time with accordingly.
To bolster my Active Friendship Quotient (*not an official term*), I’ve tried multiple strategies: I’ve used technology to take passive and periodic friendships and strengthen or reinvigorate them, transforming them into active friendships (my long distance book club, for instance). I’ve also created social outlets whereby individuals who would otherwise slip into passive friendship mode are elevated to active status based on our shared love of an activity or topic (my monthly karaoke group or the people I regularly share articles/videos/information/thoughts on everything from politics to startups to humor on a weekly basis).
Here’s what’s important and distinctive about active friendship interaction:This flow of communication goes far beyond the periodic catch-up drink or meal. It’s about being in a semi-constant state of conversation with each other. It means finding a consistent rhythm and flow with a select few individuals and actively maintaining your status in their orbit.
In an age when every thought and action is filtered through a wide social media lens, it feels necessary to repeat: This rhythm and flow is NOT for the masses. It’s only for your chosen few. It is an exclusive club, and you are the gatekeeper.
Our romantic partners cannot and should not exclusively play this role. And yet, increasingly, we put that pressure almost entirely on our life partners, when we should be diversifying our active friendship portfolio. That means reaching out and/or being responsive to these active friendship dialogues. I have people in my life that I consider “close friends,” but who not only shy away from the active flow of communication, they often don’t respond when I reach out. Are they bad people? Do they hate me? In these instances, I feel confident the answer is decidedly ‘no’ on both counts. But does it hurt? Does it weaken the bond and diminish my confidence in sharing and connecting? Absolutely.
Occasional catch-ups are practical for most relationships. (We can’t have 100 active friendships; it’s not humanly possible.) But when the periodic catchups completely replace the active friendship flow, we suffer — individually and collectively. Similarly, when we take for granted that people we love have “someone else” who plays that active friendship role, we are very often mistaken. And if you’re the one whose efforts are discounted, it’s likely you don’t bring it up. It’s taboo to “want more” when it comes to friendship.
We love to wave the flag of outrage on social media, but we’re more uncomfortable than ever with calling each other out in our personal lives, in the relationships that matter.
We prefer to broker in “likes” and public comments than intimate conversations. I often think that certain “close friends” would be more likely to engage with me if I posted my message to them on social media than if I sent them a direct message or addressed them in person. I know I’m not alone in that frustration.
A quick word on gender: I know this might stir some controversy (sigh), but I’ve found, personally and amongst women I’ve coached and based on people who have reached out to me on this topic, that male friends are more likely to be responsive to attempts at active friendship (as I’ve defined it) than female friends, and they’re more likely to consistently make time for friendships and socializing.
Before your heads explode, let me explain: Women often slip into periodic friendship, but label it active friendship because a) they occasionally meet face-to-face or exchange a text every so often and/or b) they reliably show up when there’s a crisis (we women are great in a crisis! Which is wonderful.) Especially as we age, active friendships take a backseat for many women, and it becomes rarer to have an ongoing dialogue or virtual exchange with close friends on topics divorced from our personal lives or practical obligations. We become impossibly difficult to schedule with and many women stop initiating new points of contact altogether, even with the most beloved of friends.
This does NOT mean that women don’t care about their friends or that our social habits make us less interesting and interested than men (far from it). Instead, there are many explanations that might account for this trend, including the fact that women often have to play too many roles as professional/wife/mother/person-holding-it-all-together and therefore don’t feel they have the bandwidth for extended or frequent non-work/family interactions. I get it. The pressures are real.
But regardless of the reasons, it has an effect. For me, that means I look to the men in my life for most of my active, day-to-day friendships, when I’d love to be equally leaning on and sharing with the women.
(Before you protest this section, let’s reflect on this as a gender and think about how we can better support other women in all contexts of our lives and how we women can give ourselves permission to start prioritizing intentional, consistent socializing as both self-care and an expression of love.)
Bottomline: We can ALL do better at building and maintaining active friendships. Ask yourself how you can be better at showing up — not just when there’s a four-alarm fire like cancer or a death (though, yes, those matter, too) but in the day-to-day. Because 99% of our lives are the moments in between the crises. Are we proud of how we show up in those moments when we think no one’s looking? When there’s no public record for scrutiny (like there is when we show up at a funeral or send a wedding gift)? What about the fun, casual text exchange? The impromptu, “Hey, I’m in your neighborhood — can I drop by and say hello?”
Yes, we need people when we’re down and out, but let’s also start acknowledging how much we need them to make us laugh, make us think, and keep us company the rest of the time, just because.
What might that look like in action? Again, let’s take me as an example. I love to host things and I love to gather people. I also love to communicate and share curated content and ideas I think are relevant and interesting to specific people in my life. That’s not everyone’s M.O., nor need it be. But that doesn’t mean they're off the hook! Receiving should be equally active and conscious. If you assess your relationships and you’re neither hosting/sharing nor being responsive to those who are, there’s a problem. You’re likely doing one or more of the following: 1) over relying on your partner or immediate family to give you everything you need and want from friendship (setting those relationships up for disappointment and strain), 2) isolating yourself, and/or 3) taking people you love/who love you for granted.
I believe, collectively, we can do better.
In an age where our thoughts and intimate lives are most frequently shared digitally with masses of strangers and passive friends, it’s a privilege to have someone think specifically of us and act on that thought. I feel grateful every time someone takes a second to share an idea or resource with me, or to invite me to something, or takes a moment out of their day simply to make me chuckle — how lucky am I to be in their consciousness?
So here’s my personal call-to-action, and one I invite you to consider doing, as well:
Take stock of the friendships you consider “close” (for some it may be 2-3 people, for others it might be closer to 10-15). Identify those individuals by name. Assess whether — using the above definitions — these are Active, Periodic, or Passive friendships. (Note: not all “close” friendships are active friendships, and not all active friendships are as intimate as some periodic, close friendships. Sometimes that’s ok.)
From that list of close friends, identify which ones you actively engage or want to engage in an active friendship, which means going beyond periodic catchups to elevate to a regular flow of “you’re in my consciousness” communication. Star those relationships.
Identify your role and that of your friends in these relationships, and tweak your behavior accordingly. Ask yourself: Are you the instigator or the receiver? (That may differ from friendship to friendship, so note it for each individual relationship.)
If you are the instigator: Ask yourself if that person is receptive the majority of the times you reach out?
If so, awesome. Tell them how grateful you are for that connection and that you value their consistency in connecting with you. I’m serious — reach out and tell them. Why? How often do any of us get to hear something like that? Rarely to never. I promise you’ll make their week.
If your assessment reveals they are often not receptive, you have two choices:
1) Ask them about it: “Hey Friend, I noticed you aren’t always responsive when I reach out. I know life is busy and these things slip through the cracks, but I really value our relationship. If you do, too, can we shift our communication habits a bit?” — feel free to be less formal, but you get the gist.“
2) You can pull back and disengage. Perhaps you know they’re either not capable or unwilling to show up in the way you need and want. Or you’ve tried to appeal to them in this way in the past and they were unresponsive or possibly grew defensive. Perhaps it’s worth trying one last time using this deliberate, positive mindset and approach, or maybe you feel it’s a dead end. That’s your call. And it’s possible that completely pulling back will prompt them to ask what happened, opening the door for you to try option 1 again.
If you are more often the recipient of their initiation: Ask yourself how receptive and responsive you are? Since you’ve already flagged this as a relationship you care about and want in your active friendship inner circle, challenge yourself to be more receptive and more responsive. It’s easy to get lazy and take that person and their communication for granted. Remember: they are not the masses; you love them and they love you. Challenge yourself to show them how you regard them with greater consistency by treating even non-emergency communication with reverence and gratitude. Not sure if you’re accurately assessing your responsiveness? Ask your friends and invite them to give you feedback (their response may surprise you).
[I created this nifty infographic so you can share it with your friends or social media networks and start a conversation on active friendship and why we need it. If it makes one person feel less lonely, it’s a win.]
Some of you might be saying I’m overthinking something that should just “happen naturally.” But the state of our collective and individual consciousness tells me that whether it should or shouldn’t happen “naturally” is irrelevant: It isn’thappening. As least not often or consistently enough. And we are suffering as a result.
It’s ok to acknowledge that friends sometimes disappoint us. That’s an uncomfortable truth we don’t often like to admit. We expect families and significant others to occasionally let us down — endless articles and commentaries are written about what to do when that happens, and therapists would go out of business if we stopped endlessly discussing the challenges and disappointments from partners and families! But discussing the role of friendship — and specifically active friendship — in modern society is largely taboo. We’re too often dismissed as “asking for too much” if the topic is introduced. I’d like to change that.
For good measure, I’ll repeat one more time that not everyone can or should be your active friend, and whether they are is not necessarily a reflection of whether they like you or whether they’re a good person and vice versa. But someone needs to play that role for you (beyond your significant other), so it’s time to take stock, name your people, and put in the joyful work necessary to love and support them fiercely — not only when sh!t goes wrong, but during all the underrated in-between times.
Oh, and did I mention that Active Friendship is super fun?? :)
So here’s the TLDR version of this article: We’re lonely. Intentional, active friendships are the answer.
So reach out to an “active friend” (or would-be active friend) today and tell them how much you value them, why, and what you’re going to commit to doing to continue to nurture your bond.
Then, coming off that high, reach out to an active friend (or would-be active friend) where that relationship is falling short of your expectations or where you feel you’ve fallen short. Have that uncomfortable dialogue with them (you can totally blame me). And remember: even though it seems like a “tough” conversation, it’s one of the most flattering tough conversations you can initiate, because you’re essentially saying, “I love and value you so much that I’m willing to be vulnerable, put myself out there, and risk rejection — because I think you’re worth it.” Be prepared: They may not want or be able to show up in the way you are looking for, but at least then you can mourn that reality and move on to investing in someone who can and will.
This is an imperfect process, but it’s an important one. Friendship should be a priority, not an afterthought, and I believe it’s the single most significant investment you can make not only in your life, but in the betterment of our society.
If you try out this process, I’d love to hear how it works for you in the comments. And if you’ve customized it in some way, please share!
Earlier this year, when my world was turned upside down and inside out, I needed a sanctuary. A place I could retreat to and make sense of the world. Since I live in California, I chose the beach. Once I was strong enough, I started taking near-daily walks along the beach in front of my house to give me a dose of fresh air and exercise (beach walks/runs are a time when I do some of my best thinking and emotional processing).
But I needed a soundtrack. Something to motivate me and simultaneously fuel reflection. So I put together this playlist of my anytime beach anthems. Disclaimer: These aren’t the songs of the summer (or any season, for that matter). But perhaps this hour of random-music-that-makes-me-happy-and-or-pensive will spark an idea or a memory or just make you smile. If not, maybe it’ll inspire you to make one better suited for you to jam to at your go-to sanctuary.