The best ones are built of trust, reciprocity, and fun
Hoping everyone is enjoying their last few weeks of summer. As the fall approaches, my wife, Casey, and I are about to be knee-deep in the wedding circuit (noun: a period of nonstop weddings for every weekend as far as the eye can see), so I wanted to write a post about friendship. I hope it is helpful to everyone looking to build better relationships with the people they care about.
Let’s talk about gardening. If you want to plant a bountiful garden, there’s a logical process you need to follow. To start, you need to decide what size garden you can manage. Then, you’ll need to figure out what types of vegetables you want to grow. Depending on what you like to eat, you may plant more tomatoes than string beans. You may not even plant carrots or onions at all. Perhaps you love corn, and you decide to dedicate half of your garden to those big lumps of juicy knobs (sorry, I had to do it). Once that all is decided, you gather the correct seeds, water the stalks, provide ample sunlight, wait, wait some more, and finally harvest your creations. Editors Note: I’m sure it’s slightly more complicated, but I’m not a botanist.
Ultimately, what you plant is as important as how you grow it. If you’re looking for a well-balanced diet, you shouldn’t just plant potatoes. If you’re planting a bunch of different types of vegetables, you can be sure they require different quantities of water. And, if you plant a garden and then forget to water it altogether… well, then, you probably won’t have a garden for very long.
Please don’t stop reading to go grab a salad. I promise this is going somewhere.
The collection of friendships you cultivate over your lifetime is a lot like a garden.
You and a particular friend have a unique relationship. You won’t get everything you want or need from each one.
This is a piece of advice my Dad shared with me growing up. You can’t expect every friendship to fulfill every need you have. Likewise, you can’t expect to follow the same formula to nurture every friendship. Each one is like its own vegetable, requiring specific attention and care. However, they are all built on the same foundations of camaraderie, trust, and mutual respect. Some friendships are meant to be simple. Others, like close friends, are meant to be deeper and more intricate.
Different vegetables provide unique nutritional benefits and flavor profiles, and thus you eat them in different quantities and frequencies. So while lettuce may make sense to eat every day, super spicy peppers are probably good for once in a blue moon. Additionally, lettuce doesn’t contain all of the nutritional value we need for a balanced diet, so we naturally choose to diversify what we put in our bodies. In turn, why should we expect one friend to scratch all of the itches we have from non-familial relationships? Reality check. We shouldn’t.
While thinking outside the box is welcome for most things in life, I operate under the impression that friendships are better off placed inside one.
Some friends are great for Friday nights out. Others are there when you’re going through a tough time. In rare cases, you find a smaller group of friends you enjoy immensely and will be there no matter what. These are your close friends. More on them shortly.
Sometimes we get caught expecting more from our friends than we should. This leads to stress and disappointment. In difficult times, we may fault looser friends for not sending a condolence card. On birthdays, we may fault our work friends for forgetting to celebrate. I’d argue we feel disappointed because we set relationship expectations at a higher level than mutually agreed upon for the friendship in question.
For today’s grid, rather than a traditional 2x2 grid—which has been a Gridology staple for more than two years—I’ve opted for a more holistic chart: a Venn diagram with three circles. Yes, Venn diagrams are a type of grid. I make the rules here.
The overlapping areas of this Venn diagram offer us an opportunity to examine common relationship types, assess how to effectively nurture them, and set the right internal expectations to not stimy their growth.
In the first circle, we have reciprocity. Here, I define reciprocity as an approximately equal give and take between you and your friend. Do they text you or call you as much as you call them? Are you the one always trying to make plans to meet up or are they the ones? Strong friendships are like strong romantic relationships—they are two-sided. One-sided relationships build frustration and resentment.
In the second circle, we have fun. This is a rough measure of how much time you spend smiling or laughing with your friend. Do you 100% enjoy yourself when you are hanging out? Do you have fun no matter what you are doing or is it just limited to a specific domain?
In the third circle, we have trust. As Jeff Weiner aptly says, “trust is consistency over time.” Trust is something that takes years to build but can evaporate in a moment. Trust also unlocks deeper connections. There’s no quick way to build trust—it requires continuous commitment. Building trust in a relationship means opening up to others about personal topics and feeling supported to continue doing.
Understanding the Grid
This grid should help classify your friendships to gain greater clarity on where to spend your time and how to set the right expectations.
As I’ve written previously, there are many reasons why you may have conflicts with your friends. However, that prior post failed to mention all how we could set the wrong expectations with our friends, leading to conflict. Today’s grid builds off this work, with an emphasis on how to nurture different relationship archetypes effectively to not have them spoil.
This is where reciprocity and trust overlap. Heavy hitters are often people you see all the time but don’t enjoy their company unconditionally. Typically, this means people at work fall into this category. Given you’re seeing these people almost every day, there are many opportunities to build trust. Reciprocity grows from there. That may mean you and your work buddy instant message each other equally as often. It could also mean you both equally invite each other to do activities outside of work. However, the moment you switch jobs, your relationship is at risk. While you have trust, the reciprocity—the tenet that kickstarted your relationship in the first place—starts to fade.
Outside the office, heavy hitters can come from any place you frequent. Perhaps you go to the same coffee shop every morning. You may start to develop a relationship with the owner of the store. As you continue buying lattes and croissants, trust between you both starts to develop. However, the moment you decide to stop going to that coffee shop, your friendship is as good as done.
Fun is a requirement for taking these friendships to the next level. Without fun, it’s hard to see heavy hitters in your life for the long haul. In situations where fun gets added to a heavy hitter, the relationship has the opportunity to blossom into a close friend relationship or jump to a historical pal (more on that soon).
This is where reciprocity and fun overlap. Some friends are fantastic because they offer reliable opportunities to have fun. When you have reciprocity and fun, it’s easy for each person in the friendship to extract utility from the relationship. For example, you may have friends that are based on doing a specific activity together—that could be working, hitting the gym, going to a sporting event, talking through a tricky career situation, or going to an art class. Because these friends are often activity-based, they tend to be newer to your life. As you try new things, you meet new people.
Because trust isn’t developed yet, you keep your relationship tethered to a single domain. Imagine going out on a Saturday night to a party with your friend from pottery class. It could happen in theory, but it isn’t the norm. I also doubt this person would be the first person you asked to go to the party with you. In this scenario, pottery acts as the glue to your friendship. For as long as you both decide to continue to throw clay, you both will protect the quality of your relationship. However, should one person lose interest in pottery before, I’d expect this reciprocity would fade and soon, too, your friendship.
While trust isn’t the focal point of your friendship, that’s okay. Remember our garden, not every vegetable provides the same utility. Heavy hitters enable us to have a buddy when doing a specialized interest. I had a friend throughout college who I’d frequently go to EDM concerts with on the weekends. We would share new concerts that popped up on the calendar with each other. And for a good year or two, we probably went to 10 or so concerts in downtown Chicago. While we were friends at school outside of that, concerts were the real way in which we enjoyed each others’ company. Nothing wrong with that. Without each other, we’d be at the concert alone or, worse, not at all. However, when we graduated, our friendship, unfortunately, began to fade.
This is where fun and trust overlap. With historical pals, you enjoy your relationship, but for one reason or another, neither person in the friendship decides to actively communicate or schedule events with the other. This category often is filled with old friends from high school, college, camp, or work. Because you’ve known this person for years, trust is well established. Plus, when you’re together, you both always have fun. However, initeria and societal tropes cause historical pals to stay historical pals rather than transform into close friends. We tell ourselves silly narratives such as “Oh I shouldn’t randomly message this friend because I haven’t spoken to him in six months” or “I can’t randomly ask this person to go grab dinner. That would be weird.” That said, when you finally silence these narratives and make a plan with a historical pal, you are left dumbfounded as to how you let so much time pass before you hung out.
Historical pals have all the kindling and tinder required to become close friends, but old habits and dynamics can be hard to disrupt. Plus, for historical pals to transform into close friends, it needs to be mutual. Reciprocity only works when it is a two-way street.
This is where reciprocity, fun, and trust overlap. From my experience, close friends are historical pals that increase reciprocity over time or new entrants that build enough trust outside of their current domain of overlapping interest. Close friends are individuals who you trust deeply, enjoy unconditionally, and engage equally. There is mutual respect. They’re the people who you’re always texting. You never feel strange about picking up the phone and just giving them a call.
When it comes to nurturing close friendships, maintaining trust and reciprocity is the most important. Given the nature of your friendship, fun with these people is almost guaranteed. However, as life throws more obstacles and responsibilities our way, it can be challenging to schedule the right amount of time to grow your friendships. Close friendships, like romantic relationships, can combust with a single breach of trust. Maintaining your honesty is essential. However, when close friendships continue to get the love and support they need to continue growing, they can blossom into the best friendships you’ll ever have.
This grid fails to account for the negative effects conflict has on relationships. This framework falls apart when conflict arises and causes individuals to act irrationally. If you have a historical pal but are often arguing with this person, it’s safe to say that this longstanding relationship could be in jeopardy. While disagreements are not necessarily considered breaches of trust, they erode all factors that support healthy friendships.
This grid doesn’t talk about friendship objectives. Hot take: you probably don’t want every friend you make to become a close friend. Some relationships are best left in their original category. Close friendships require lots of time to grow. At most, I’ve found I can manage five or so close friendships at a time. Again, this is okay. Not every friend needs to become a close friend. Keep people in the categories (or try to nurture them) into the ones that make the most sense for you. Prioritize the people that matter.
Best friends start at one tenet and take time to work their way to the very center of today’s grid. Like our garden, you can’t expect to plant seeds, add water and sunlight, and be able to see a full-grown tomato the next day. These things take time. I hope that this grid helps you keep the right expectations with the friendships you carry. How do you think about building, nurturing, and maintaining your friendships? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,