Friends v/s Acquaintances

How friendship and acquaintanceship differ.

How does a ‘friend’ differ from an ‘acquaintance’?

How does acquaintanceship become ‘friendship’?

I use the term ‘friend’ in its original sense before Facebook diluted its meaning.

Friends and acquaintances are two kinds of associations.

It helps to see them in context of the degrees of association-ship – which is how well you know someone.


The first filter – the biggest one – is ignorance of the existence of a person.

These are strangers – most of the billions of the world you don’t know, and probably won’t ever know.

Then you come to the few thousands you’ll ever know in your lifetime.

The majority of these are impersonal transactions.

Impersonal because you’re not really interacting with a particular human, but just dealing with a particular role – a waiter, a clerk, a bureaucrat, a shopkeeper, a customer support agent.

It’s particularly apt for one-time interactions oriented towards a specific outcome, like a sales pitch.

In general, the view is impersonal – to the customer, it’s a salesman; it could be any salesman for all he cares, and to the salesman, it’s a customer, one among many.

Sometimes you can get to names and try to be personal, but it’s rare the association lasts once the transaction is complete, unless you engage in future transactions.

After that you get to relations involving ‘particular’ people.


‘Particularity’ meaning the quality of being individual. You’d notice if your boss was replaced with someone else, though you mightn’t notice if the customer support agent was similarly replaced.

So no longer just ‘a shopkeeper’, but Mr. X, your local shopkeeper. Humans, not simply roles.

Not all such associations are the same kind – there are sub-categories here.

It might be that the particularity is one-sided. The relation between a fan and his favourite soccer player.

To the player, the fan is just one among many fans he doesn’t know – a role, not a human.

But to the fan, the player is a specific person, not just a soccer player.

One-sided relations – where one party doesn’t even know, or if knowing, doesn’t care about the other. It’s much more common now that information flows so easily.

There’s nothing ‘bad’ about it being one-sided – the people I’ve learned the most from, those for whom I’ve the most respect, are those I’ve read or listened to, who don’t know of or care about my existence.

Para-social relations are a specific type of such one-sided relations, and probably not a very healthy one. A common example being obsession with celebrities.

It’s when one party invests excessively large amounts of time, energy, interest in someone who doesn’t know / care about them, and begins to imagine a close relationship with them.

A major downside of fame, which I imagine is a big pain in the ass unless you crave attention, and a reminder to not try to become famous for the sake of it.

It’s evident that the boundaries I’ve drawn aren’t so well-defined in reality.

Transactional relationships lose their impersonality when repeated many times – so a storekeeper or salesman can become more human than role in the relation.

And it works the other way too – many apparently personal relations are very evidently pure transactions. Someone who meets or remembers you only when they want something from you.

A nicer word for it is ‘networking’.

Again, it’s not ‘bad’. Perhaps if done transparently it’s even admirable – no dressing up, no artificial pretense of appearing to care.

Too often though, for whatever reasons, its sought to be dressed up with solicitous enquiries and chit-chat, as though it were something wrong.


When the particularity works both ways – that is, both parties treat each other as individual humans, not roles – you get acquaintances – and perhaps, eventually, friends.

Now I come to what I began with, to relations involving particular humans, not roles – friends and acquaintances.

What’s the difference between a friend and an acquaintance?

Both are people you know, just to different degrees.

It’s probably fair to make a few claims about friendship.

One, that it isn’t preconceived. You don’t become friends with someone before you know of them, interact with them (or at least their work) in some way.

Two, that it isn’t random. You apply some judgment, whether conscious or not, to pick out some of the many humans you’re aware of to become friends with.

Evidently, something takes an acquaintanceship to friendship.


If it’s not preconceived, and if it’s not instantaneous – you take some time to apply judgment – then perhaps time enters into it.

Time is at the very least to some extent correlated with friendship.

It’s not necessary the people you’ve spent the most time with are your closest friends, but it’s unlikely someone you’ve not spent much time with is a very close friend.

Of course, it’s heavily biased toward childhood friends, because children spend a lot more time with peers without it falling under ‘work’.

Which is why you’d adjust for relationships formed in adulthood – one ‘adult’ hour equates to several childhood ones.

And one ‘leisure’ hour is worth several ‘work’ hours, because you have much more say in how to spend it.

I would think there’s some causality here too, that time spent together causes friendship. The more time you spend, the stronger the association tends to become.

At any rate, the fact that two people can bear each other’s company for extended periods is a proof of the strength of the association.

You can break down time spent into frequency of interaction * duration of interaction.

Meeting regularly but for short times, or meeting only occasionally but for a longer while.

Spend 5 hours together at one go, or spend 10 minutes a time 30 times – are they really the same?

It’s hard to answer.


Take duration of interaction.

When something’s in excess, it tends to go unappreciated. Lengthy interactions can begin to pall, and make time begin to hang heavy.

Whereas a scarce resource is valued – if you only have a few minutes, you’ll make the most of them.

Although it might be hard to reach a meaningful stage if time is so constrained – you never go beyond superficialities.

In that sense, duration of interaction begins to look like a threshold you have to cross, like the activation energy of a reaction or the escape velocity of a planet.

You have to get beyond a minimum threshold, but it’s not necessary to go beyond that.

Coming to think of it, the same probably applies to time in general here.

It’s not necessarily time is proportional to the strength of friendship, but there’s probably a minimum amount of time needed to be spent reach the stage of friendship.


Frequency is just as convoluted a parameter.

I’ve heard, though I can’t recall ever experiencing it, that people who spent a lot of time together as kids or in college, often meet after gaps of years and pick up as if nothing had happened in the interval.

That would imply that frequency wasn’t very important – as long as you spend enough time, it doesn’t matter whether how often you spend it.

If this was true, it would make sense why people say time is ‘invested’ in relationships.

Once you’ve ‘invested’ time to create the relationship, it could last a long time.

I’m not so sure though.

If the association was actually valuable to them, I would imagine people would take the trouble to reach out more frequently.

If you can go without something or someone for years without a thought, how important can it be?


Conversely, in my experience, the opposite is just as true, if not more so – that many apparent friendships can’t stand the test of time, and degrade into acquaintanceship.

As you get to know someone, you wonder what you saw in them.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt, but I think it’s more a case of time sweeping away illusions, imperfections in knowledge fading.

Both parties contribute to the imperfections.

On one hand, the mirror effect – the effort to enhance attractiveness by ‘mirroring’ a person, feigning interest in what they’re interested in.

And the corollary – the tendency to reflect our own values on others, to eagerly jump to the conclusion that they’re just like us – all too easy when they strive to create that impression.

The ‘test of time’ is just that – a test of friendship.

Whether, after getting to know someone, you still consider it worth spending your time on them.


You apply judgment in friendship, so probably your values (not morals, but what you value) come into it.

In that sense, there’s a transaction here too – you’d presumably get something of value from someone or you’d not go out of your way to meet them.

Different people value different things – two people who valued gossiping about people might hit it off together – so it’s not much use trying to pinpoint any specific universal values.

To find what someone values, and to show them what you value, requires authenticity – characterized by revealing rather than concealing your values.

If you can’t express your values, if you put on a mask and try to present a constructed image, you likely won’t reach the stage of friendship.

Authenticity – the absence of formality – is a pre-requisite then, for acquaintanceship to become friendship.

Ironically, this is also where it often goes wrong – trying to get close to someone by mirroring them and pretending to care about whatever they care.

A weak structure, built on false foundations, likely to crumble soon, and not be of much value even if it doesn’t fall.

Authenticity is a pre-requisite, and authenticity requires courage. People need courage to be authentic, to reveal who they really are.

If someone has courage, then that’s sufficient. Otherwise you have to ‘encourage’ them – literally ‘bring forth’ the courage, assuming you care enough to.


I’m biased, but I don’t think friendship can ever be hierarchical.

Some cultures, some people, tend to create more hierarchy than others.

I know the moment someone ‘sirs’ me that we’ll almost certainly never truly be ‘friends’, though that doesn’t mean we can’t get along well.

An imbalance has entered, one that can’t really be corrected, no matter how much one tries to compensate and re-orient the relation through artificial parity – that only makes the reality more evident.

Hierarchy makes authenticity difficult – the one below fears or aggrandizes, and the one above patronizes or dominates.

Fearing accepts subordinacy, aggrandizing constantly attempts to establish parity.

Patronizing seeks to whitewash hierarchy and construct artificial equality, dominancy constantly precludes equality and attempts to reinforce hierarchy.

A friend is at your level – not necessarily intellectually, monetarily, socially – but ‘humanly’.

Which is a fine concept, but hard to express what it means in practice.

I’d say it means listening to someone genuinely, as an equal – listening as though they had something worth saying, as though they were someone with things worth saying.

Not as listening to an inferior, as one would listen to a child prattling, not expecting much from it.

Nor as listening to a superior, taking every as word a command to be obeyed or a guru’s pearl of wisdom imbued with supernatural significance.

Hierarchy exists not in the sense of reporting to someone in the workplace – that’s a detail of the structure of an organization, not necessarily an aspect of a relationship.

Of course, with some organizations, the two are nearly impossibly entangled, but they’re still not necessarily the same thing unless people make them to be.

Hierarchy is something people create, positioning themselves above or below, and getting others to position themselves appropriately in response.

The one who thinks he’s above always chastens or preaches – being above gives the right to rebuke or to enlighten, after all.

Just as the one who considers himself below seeks always to please or receive guidance.

Hierarchy poisons a relationship, no matter how chill the ‘senior’ might be or how confident the ‘junior’ is.

The difference in level – above and below – never fades from the background, though it might be less noticeable with some than with others.

You might be courageous enough to be authentic in front of someone ‘above’ you, or chill and egalitarian enough with those ‘below’ you.

Those are traits by which you get or give something. The first is something you take from others, the second something you bestow on them.

But you can’t interact as equals, interact naturally without that inequality hovering in the background, without anyone always needing to attempt to ‘create’ a non-hierarchical setup.

Double Coincidences

Relationships in one sense are transactions of value.

The word ‘transaction’ is instructive – it’s not a judgment of good or bad, you can replace it with ‘exchange’ if it bothers you.

It’s instructive because – in the absence of a common exchange of value like money – transactions imply double coincidence of wants.

The buyer wants what the seller has to offer, and the seller wants what the buyer has to offer.

That’s probably extremely rare – a shoe seller who wants apples has to find someone with apples who wants shoes – and agree on a suitable exchange rate.

And there is no common exchange of value like money for relations.

Someone with ‘intelligence’ who wants to befriend someone who values ‘kindness’ can’t convert his intelligence into kindness or its equivalent – though he might pretend to.

Which means that, in a lot of cases, the ‘double coincidence of wants’ won’t be met.

So you end up with situations where one party wants to befriend the other, while the other doesn’t.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of O. Henry’s story The Social Triangle, about Ikey Snigglefritz worshipping Billy McMahan, who venerates Cortlandt Van Duyckink, who in turn feels elated to meet Ikey Snigglefritz.

I’ve experienced it so frequently that I’ve often speculated there’s an inverse relationship between how much you want to talk to someone and how much they want to talk to you.

Maybe it’s inevitable.

I’d like to think the reason is that someone who many people want to talk to is likely to be worth talking to, which perhaps means he’s often busy doing stuff that makes him the sort of person worth talking to.

Although I accept that’s likely weak, wishful thinking.

It’s hard to believe that anyone, no matter how apparently successful or important, is super busy. Probably everyone has time – it’s only a question of whether and how badly they want to do something.

You see that most clearly when illness or calamity strikes – suddenly, everything changes, what was ‘important’ is no longer so, and time isn’t a constraint any longer.

Perhaps the real reason is the tendency to want what one can’t get, and not appreciate what’s in reach, which makes one value those who don’t reciprocate more than those who do.

People Matter

‘In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.’

That might sound profound and humbling, and it is true – I doubt you could find someone whose knowledge was a perfect subset of yours, who doesn’t know a single thing you don’t already know.

And yet, search costs are real, time and effort is finite – too often the juice isn’t worth the squeeze; the cost of mining overwhelms the value of minerals extracted.

I still believe people matter.

People matter more than anything – you can’t do anything of any worth on your own.

No matter how bright you burn, your flame carries only a short distance.

Behind is darkness, and this little flame too is temporary, soon to be extinguished – unless you invest in creating lights behind you.

But hyper-selectivity is nowhere more real than with people – one person can offer more value – howsoever you define value personally – than thousands.


One additional metric that comes to mind – does sacrifice distinguish friendship and acquaintanceship?

I don’t believe in sacrifice in the sense the word is used – there is nothing like sacrifice.

But it’s true that you’d do some things for certain people you wouldn’t do for others, and be willing to put up with more shit from them.

That’s simply the expected value from the transaction – you do more, because you get more too.

Moreover, sacrifice is a lagging, not a leading indicator – it probably comes after friendship has ripened, though it’s true enough that it can strengthen the friendship too.


So there are ways to gauge whether an acquaintanceship is friendship.

Time – how long you voluntarily spend with someone.

Just as someone’s purchases reveal what matters to them, someone’s choice of people to spend time with reveals who matters to them.

Equality – if you can converse without hierarchy.

Without looking down, always chastening or preaching. Or looking up, pleasing or following.

Authenticity – how freely, how easily you can be yourself, not put on a charade.

If you can’t reveal who you really are, and in turn get to know who someone really is, you’ll never be friends; you’ll remain two constructed personas, two artificial masks dealing with each other.