It’s very peculiar how describing someone as “friendly” to you usually means (s)he is not your friend.

When a supervisor is understood to be friendly, that’s normally taken and offered as code for “but not friends”. To presume that you are friends with your boss (or even with a coworker) just because (s)he is friendly is, well, presumptuous.

The new manager who, on day one, says, “I like to think of myself as being friendly and accessible” is almost certainly and rightly being perceived as ruling out being friends and tacitly warning staff against expecting or trying to accomplish that. Nonetheless, knowing that you are dealing with someone professing or perceived to be “friendly” can be very confusing and raise false expectations of “friendship”.

Misunderstood warning shots can take another commonplace form (in or outside the workplace): Despite the ominous overtones of “just friends”, said to the jilted or otherwise rejected, it still sounds like some kind of achievement and encouragement—that, in being misunderstood, can raise false hopes and cause serious missteps.

The challenge in all these cases is to distinguish the merely friendly sheep from the true friend goat, if confusion, embarrassment, disappointment and possible serious trouble are to be prevented. As for “friendly friends”, somehow that notion makes sense only when describing how one’s friends behave with non-friend third-parties.

The (Office) Politics of Friendship

The political correlate of “friend” is “ally”. Is an ally best understood as a nation that “likes” you as a “friend”, or merely one that will collaborate and cooperate to achieve some shared or private objective (often ultimately or secretly not your goal)? Even and especially in politics, “friendly and frank meetings” suggests alignment of self-serving strategic and tactical interests more than friendship. Nothing is more frustrating and dangerous than to go to war expecting your allies to back you, only to discover that they were friendly, but not friends.

In the professional arena, coworkers and the workplace itself are supposed to be “friendly”. It’s considered nice to have and to try to become “friends” at work. In the world of social media, being “friended” on Facebook is, by the naïve, taken to be the pinnacle of social success and existential validation. But how many of these “friends” actually care about you or are prepared to actually offer help when it’s needed?

The dictionary explanation that a friend is

“1. a person whom one knows well and is fond of; intimate associate; close acquaintance

2. a person on the same side in a struggle; one who is not an enemy or foe; ally” (Merriam Webster)

is too weak, since neither of these definitions suggests helpfulness, willingness to sacrifice on one’s behalf or deep concern about one’s well being. As a substitute for these, “fond of” is rather anemic.  I can be fond of you, but unwilling to make any sacrifice for you. Consider the dowager Victorian aunt, in an equally Victorian novel, who says to her wastrel nephew looking for a handout, “I am very fond of you dear boy, but….”

As for the second definition, it sounds too much like Dubbya: “You’re either with us or you are with the terrorists.” It rules out (friendly) neutrality of action.

“Conversationships” and the Irish

The temptation to think that, just because you blather with friendly people online, you have friendships with them must be resisted. These are, in many cases, merely what I call “conversationships” (which despite their multifarious engaging functions, such as boasting, complaining, comparing, confessing, rationalizing, information mining and reassurance, are mostly friendly talk, rather than soul-melding proof of deep friendship).

Then there are the national reputations: “Canadians (the Irish, the Chinese, Americans, the Nepalese,….) are so friendly!” Those who travel say and hear it all the time, yet, strangely, on reflection acknowledge that, all too often, it’s a case of “always friendly, never friends”. (Equally odd is the selective use of “the” when praising some countries and their people: Americans will never say “the Canadians are friendly”, preferring “Canadians are friendly”. Is it because “the” suggests “all of them”, which is, at best, a friendly overstatement? On the other hand, nobody says “Irish are friendly”. It’s always “The Irish are friendly”—perhaps because it is widely believed that all of them are? (Note: The Scots really are friendly [too].)

The Concept of Being “Friendish”

So, how can we demarcate those who are merely friendly from those who are friends, in order to avoid overstepping those lines of expectation and behavior?

One useful criterion is very easy to state: A friend is someone who will actually offer you a nice day, instead of just wishing you one. (The wish is valid evidence of friendliness, not friendship.) The problem with this is that despite its clarity and conciseness, it is not as widely applied as it should be. Hence, the common mistake of assuming that friendly people want to be friends, e.g., invite you to come over and toss a shrimp on the barbie, and the inevitable disappointment in discovering that most have absolutely no interest in or intention of becoming friends.

To the extent that the concept of being friendly is misinterpreted and over-extended to erroneously forecast friendship, it may be advisable to replace it with another concept that more clearly connotes “always friendly, never friends”. My proposal is to coin and use my term for this: “friendish”.

One advantage of “friendish” over “friendly” and “friends” is that, in being an unfamiliar concept, it forces us to pause and think about what we really mean—something that “friendly” (in part because of its familiarity, in part because of wishful thinking) does not.

A second advantage is that it sounds like “Irish”, which, of course, sounds….

…very friendly, without any presumed promise of more than that.



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