Friendship in the Tech Age

In an interview with Young Germany, sociologist and journalist Dr. Andreas Schinkel, says growing mobility and technology have, in some ways, changed the face of modern friendships

Dr. Schinkel,  how valuable are friendships to young people these days?    

Friendship continues to be very important to young people. Empirical studies show that again and again. On the scale of social values, friendship ranks right behind family and relationships.

You just mentioned that family still provides the most important social ties for young people. But are there any functions that the family used to perform, that friendships have now assumed?    

Over the past 20 to 30 years, friendships have increasingly supplemented the role and functions of the family, especially for young professionals. Particularly over the last ten years, we have seen a “mobility push.” Young people are leaving their families, relocating all over the place because of their jobs, in addition to traveling a lot for work anyway. All that has strongly reduced the regular contact people have with their families. And that, in turn, means young adults must develop other relationship networks to find intimacy, comfort, emotional support etc. locally, at the place where they have settled. That’s where friendships come into play. Friendships are a great supplement to family.

You touched on an interesting point, the growing mobility of young adults, meeting new friends. But what about the old friendships from, say, high school? Can these friendships endure geographical separation?

We need to differentiate between different types of friendship and different degrees of friendship. The bonds with so-called “best friends,” relationships that are based on intimacy and familiarity can overcome time and distance. Numerous studies show that. But it’s important to note that – even in those cases – friendships depend on personal contact, on face-to-face contact, even if that contact is just sporadic. The reason: nothing is as bad for a friendship as mutual alienation. That is, to get into a situation where your friend seems estranged or develops character features that you can no longer see or understand. You meet again after some time, have contact, and all of the sudden, your friend has become someone else. Alienation is the sword of Damocles hovering over friendships. That’s the danger for friendships faced with geographical separation.

It seems that in today’s society many young people always have to be on the go, always have to be busy doing something, and always have to be entertained. With respect to reaching that “goal,” to what extent has friendship – specifically a large circle of friends – become a status symbol?

In this case, it’s once again important to differentiate between true friendship and what I call “network relationships.” When I say, “network relationships” I mean relationships that are personal, but that revolve around shared interests and individualized pleasure gain. Take an online gaming community, for example, or chat rooms on the Internet. Another example: teenagers who store hundreds of phone numbers on their cell phones. Of course those are not all friends. Instead, what we have here are network relationships serving a certain purpose. They can serve the mere purpose of reassuring the other person of your presence, or they can help arrange meet-ups or plan parties. And in fact, in this case, the saying does hold true: “the more contacts you have the better.” Quantity is important. By contrast, young adults can very well differentiate: When it comes to their friendships, quality is what matters, not quantity.

That is a nice segue to our next question: What aspects and characteristics of a friendship prevail to this day?

Friendship is a cultural relic. It has something archaic to it, because it combines characteristics and features that existed hundreds and even thousands of years ago. For example, take the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and what they wrote about friendship. You will find that many young people today see friendship the same way. To break it down: “old,” lasting characteristics of friendship include faith or helping a friend. Traditionally, a friend has always been seen as someone who helps out when push comes to shove. Trust is another prevailing characteristic; showing mutual trust is an old and new characteristic of friendship. Also very interesting is the importance of critical faculty between friends, even more so than in a relationship. Between friends, critical faculty is permitted, and friends even demand it from one another, although care and respect should never be kicked to the curb in such situations. In friendships, all of the characteristics I mentioned are based on the principle of reciprocity. Friendships must always be reciprocal.

What characteristics are “new” in modern friendships?

New characteristics of friendships include “having fun.” Enjoying the other’s presence, having fun together – friendships of pleasure, as Aristotle called them. In the past, they were often frowned upon. Also new is the fact that friendships should always provide a benefit. Take, for example, the best friend of a single mother. It’s important to have someone who helps you cope with everyday life. That’s also a key part of friendships today.

Let’s talk about technology. Young people have a great degree of technological affinity. How has modern technology impacted friendships?

Technology has both simplified and complicated friendships. On the one hand, modern technology such as the Internet or mobile technology allows friendships to overcome geographical separation. On the other hand, such technology increases the danger that friendships become superficial. To give you an example: There are people who find “friends” in cyberspace and call them “friends,” but in reality all they found were “network relationships.”

The term “relationship management” is mentioned early on in your book “Freundschaft” (“Friendship”). How do you define the term “relationship management”?    

Actually, in my book, relationship management is meant in a sort of disparaging manner. The term describes a friendship that really isn’t a friendship. It refers to a relationship that is entirely based on benefits. For both people involved, it’s only about advantages and usefulness. It’s not about the person as such and the person as a whole. For example, the thinking goes, “someone can tell good jokes at the bar, and in return, I can help him with an oil change on his car.” This rational, calculating approach is increasing. Thinking in benefits, and literally managing those benefits. But cases like that shouldn’t be seen as friendship.

Young Germany is a very international medium, with an international readership, so we have to ask you this question: To what extent are differences in culture and language a hindrance to developing and maintaining friendships? Or is friendship so universal that such barriers play no role?  

Friendship is an institution of its own, a structural characteristic of societies that can be found in the most diverse cultural circles. There is a certain type of friendship in Japan; the same goes for Islamic cultures etc. In essence, friendship always means the same thing: it’s a non-relational, non-sexual, yet intimate, close relationship. At the same time, there are different rules for these types of relationships between different cultures. That pertains to the people you can be friends with in the first place, what you can say in a friendship, or what has to be left unspoken. And still I am convinced that friendship can provide the most fertile ground for intercultural and international relationships. After all, a friendship is very focused on the person as such, and it’s not so much about what society or culture a person belongs to.