The language of friendship was said by poet Thoreau to be not about words but about meanings - and certainly the meaning of words like "friend"," share", "like" and "unfriend" which populate our social media have altered the old meanings of those words.
Or have they?
Despite the hundreds of friends many people have on Facebook, the old saying that you can count your real friends on the fingers of one hand is likely to be true. It's in our special friendships that we find one of the most meaningful aspects of our lives. Literally, our friends can help us to make meaning of our lives and we of theirs.
There seems to be a factor X which draws people together in a very special way. Mix this with shared values and humour and interests and some shared history and we have one of the most precious possessions life can offer - a true friend. Like all valuable possessions though, our friendships will need careful maintenance.
Here are 6 top maintenance rules governing how we can be better and kinder friends to our friends:
Treasure you friends and err on the side of generosity. Friendship won't always be about giving and taking in exactly equal share. Are you keeping a scorecard about who pays for what and who does more for whom? Who does most of the listening or most of the driving? Resentment will suck the oxygen out of friendship - and if this is creeping in, then it's a signal that it is time to talk or time to reassess whether their values match yours any more. True friends will be sensitive to each other's situations - keeping an honest balance in our friendships is fundamental.
2. No dramatics
Friendships in ones adult years should not be full of gossip and drama and back-stabbing. We did those hard yards as teenagers. Keep it real, but positive and nurturing. There is enough drama in life with out turning our friendship into a melodrama. If something is bugging you, don't give your friend the silent treatment or passive aggressive attacks. If there are some mixed assumptions or feelings then raise them - preferably over that coffee or during an activity. The cornerstone of friendship is about really knowing each other and being able to sort out the difficult times.
3. Be available
We all get too busy - but let your friends know you are there for them and they are special to you. Schedule meetings or phone calls in advance and stick to them. We are not hurt by shorter times together - avoid trying to fit a time consuming commitment into a crammed schedule and constantly cancelling. Small and often is the maintenance we owe each other. And just because you have someone new in your life, it doesn't mean that the friends who were your biggest cheerleaders can now take second place - they will feel like the understudies whilst you were waiting for the right one to come along. No friend appreciates that - it can feel like a betrayal even if it is not intended to be that way.
You know your friend is feeling down. And maybe they are not much fun to be around. Listen, and listen and listen more. A friend in need is a friend indeed. But don't be afraid to set your limits - it won't help your friend if you suddenly snap at them because you are over exposed from too much giving. Make them laugh and remind them that our dramas all pass - but be careful and compassionate as well.
5. Be the bigger person
Oscar Wilde said that it's a lot easier to sympathise with a friend than to sympathise with a friend's success. This is a real acid test. Your friend gets that person, break, windfall, job (etc) that you wanted so badly. You feel joy for that friend, but don't be surprised at the arrival of the green-eyed monster. It doesn't mean you are not being a true friend- but remember to own and work on your feelings. Or perhaps it's you who got lucky. Kindness to our friends means we don't go on and on about how great our lucky break is. Enjoy your luck and let your joyful energy embrace your friends by making sure they still feel treasured and special. Empathy is the glue that builds healthy relationships. Good times or bad, remember to walk a mile in your friend's shoes.
6. Be honest but careful
Of course we want our friends to be safe and happy and to give them our views if we think they are making a big mistake in their lives. But intelligent honesty is discerning and non judgmental and you have to pick your topics. You won't be thanked for advice that seems patronising or not asked for - and be careful what you say about your friend's recent ex - only your friend knows what is really going on and why they are suddenly back together again.
Remember that science is very clear that friendship is not an optional extra - we have evolved with a survival need to bond and it produces measurable and essential feel-good chemicals in the brain. Next time you feel too busy to catch up, remind yourself that your friendship is a win - win investment in the health and wellbeing of you both.