A woman sits in a chair with a laptop on her knees. Behind her is a collage of colorful silhouettes of friends.
Wenjia Tang

The Six Forces That Fuel Friendship

I’ve spent more than three years interviewing friends for “The Friendship Files.” Here’s what I’ve learned.

The Friendship Files,” my series of interviews with friends about their friendships, began with an idle thought. Having written a lot about both friendship and dating apps, I was curious about Bumble BFF. Did it work? Did it feel like dating? What do you do on a friend date anyway? So I interviewed two young women who became best friends after using the app. It was intended as a onetime article, but the conversation was so fun, genuine, and sometimes vulnerable that I wanted to do it again.

That was more than three years ago. Since then, I have done 100 interviews. The 100th—which features a French woman and an American woman whose families were connected by an act of courage during World War II—published today. It will be the final installment.

Saying goodbye to this series is bittersweet. These conversations have felt different from any other interviews I’ve done. In them, I’ve not only heard about friendships, but witnessed them in real time—how the friends talk and joke together, how they remind each other of their shared history. I never did a single interview that I didn’t publish; every friendship has a story. I’m so grateful to the hundreds of people who have welcomed me into their relationships. Being trusted with your stories has been one of the greatest honors of my life.

When this project launched, I wrote, “People are at their most generous, their funniest, and their most fascinating when talking with and about their friends.” The interviews that followed only reinforced that belief. I could continue this for the rest of my life and only scratch the surface of the infinite ways friendship shapes our lives, but I’ve done my best to pull out the recurring themes I’ve observed from these 100 conversations. Though every bond evolves in its own way, I have come to believe that there are six forces that help form friendships and maintain them through the years: accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace.

Accumulation

The simplest and most obvious force that forms and sustains friendships is time spent together. One study estimates that it takes spending 40 to 60 hours together within the first six weeks of meeting to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend, and about 80 to 100 hours to become more than that. So friendships unsurprisingly tend to form in places where people spend a lot of their time anyway: work, school, church, extracurricular activities.

Sometimes that time builds up slowly, as it did for two neighbors who have lived across the hall from each other for 20 years. They’ve checked in on each other when they were sick, and split a subscription to People magazine. That gradual accumulation of shared moments added up to an important friendship during the early days of the pandemic, when they were trapped inside. They opened their doors to talk across the hallway and each felt less alone.

In other circumstances, those hours get put in really quickly. For instance, in March 2020, a group of teens from the Netherlands were trapped on a ship. They were doing a study-at-sea program, and were supposed to fly home from Cuba. But when COVID-19 started shutting things down, they couldn’t get a flight, and had to sail home across the Atlantic instead. I spoke with four kids who forged a bond on that sailing trip that felt different from their relationships with any of their other friends. “Being around someone 24 hours a day, you tell them everything,” one of the friends said. “You don’t do [that] when you are home.”

Attention

Making friends can be hard—but there may be more opportunities than we think. Doing these interviews has taught me that connection can come from anywhere, at any time, if both parties are open to it. As one woman, who stayed close with her ex-boyfriend’s mom for more than 30 years, told me: “You have to look for friendship in places you would never expect it.” A new friend could be waiting in the comments section of an article you’re reading, on the other side of a Google Doc, or in an elevator. The person you’re arguing with on Facebook could become a friend, and so could your ex’s new spouse, or even your ex themselves.

Paying attention goes a long way when forging these unexpected friendships—noticing when you click with someone, being open to chance encounters. It helps to step out of our habits and into the moment. Because as much as we may feel like our social networks are set and settled, it’s never too late to meet someone who will be important to you for the rest of your life. I spoke with more than one group who was surprised and grateful to have found one another in middle age, a period when work and family responsibilities tend to peak and keeping up with friends is not always easy. “I never thought that in my late 40s I’d make friends for the rest of my life,” one man, who found a tight-knit community at fantasy baseball camp, told me. “This was such a special thing to come into my life at this age.”

Intention

Attention only gets you so far without action. When opportunity arises, you have to put yourself out there, and that requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to let things be awkward.

One of my favorite origin stories from “The Friendship Files” came from Abhinav and Fernando. Abhinav was learning to play tennis, and wanted a partner who was also a beginner. Across the court he spotted Fernando, “and I instantly found my equally sucking tennis partner.” A couple of weeks later, he approached Fernando at a party and invited him to play tennis. “What impressed me about that moment,” Fernando said, “was that it was kind of a date, in the sense that you sought me out. You had that intentionality. In between when you saw me sucking and the mixer, passed weeks. But you still had the plan, and you pursued me.”

Most friendships require a bit of courtship to get going. And even when they do seemingly fall in our lap—say, you get stuck on a sailboat in the Atlantic with nothing to do but socialize with your fellow sailors—they won’t grow without intention. This is the hardest part of friendship. It takes energy and thought, and our mental and physical resources are often spread thin. In other words, friendships take work. But I have never liked framing our friendships as labor. Showing up for our friends takes effort, yes, but it shouldn’t be drudgery. It should be a joy.

Ritual

One thing that seems to make keeping up with friends easier is ritual. I personally find that the effort of coordinating hangs (or even phone calls) is the biggest barrier to seeing my friends. It’s much easier when something is baked into my schedule, and all I have to do is show up. For instance, while working from home during the pandemic, I’ve gotten lunch every Friday with my friend who lives around the corner (when it’s been safe to do so).

Many of those I’ve interviewed also have rituals like these. Some have organized a book club, a monthly hike, or a regular dinner party. Others have committed to a group chat that runs all day every day, or a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that’s lasted for 30 years. In addition to keeping groups close, these traditions can fuel a friendship and give it a shared culture. The Dungeons & Dragons group has a shorthand with references stretching back decades.

The power of a ritual was particularly evident in the story of two friends, Gabe and Andy, who, for more than six years, have walked 30 minutes to give each other a high five. But then Gabe got sick, and lost his memory. He didn’t remember the high five, although he remembered Andy. In the hospital, Andy asked Gabe to give him a high five on the walk from the bathroom. They had a particular way of doing it—a clap, a snap, and then a high five.

“I started walking toward him,” Andy told me, “and then right before the high five, he did the clap, and the snap, and I just started crying.”

“That’s one of the things I love about the routine,” Gabe said. “Not just the mechanics of it, but the friendship part of it is so burned into my body memory that that’s what came out.”

Imagination

Society has a place for friendships, and it’s on the sidelines. They’re supposed to play a supporting role to work, family, and romance. It takes imagination not to default to this norm, and to design your life so that friendship plays the role you really want it to.

I’m inspired by the people I’ve spoken with who imagined something different for themselves: the friends who bought a house together, who went to therapy together, who have raised their children together, who committed to an “arranged friendship,” whose friendship has fueled their fight for justice. The man who gave his friend a kidney and the woman who gave birth to her best friend’s quadruplets remind me that there are friends who choose to love each other radically every day. Their love does not stand on the sidelines.

Quieter ways of showing your friends love can still be radical. The beauty and the challenge of friendship is its diversity. A friendship can be whatever you want it to. Each one is a canvas whose only limit is our imagination.

Grace

All of the forces I’ve mentioned so far—accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, and imagination—are ideals. They’re impossible to fully live up to. Life often gets in the way.

As a reporter who’s covered friendship for many years, I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome in my own friendships. Who am I to be dispensing advice when I can’t even text my friends back promptly? Sometimes, people have assumed that I must be a really great friend, given how much time I’ve spent thinking about this. And I’m not. I try to be, but I tend to retreat too much into myself and my romantic relationship and don’t prioritize my friends as much as I’d like to.

I’ve written before about how friendship is flexible, and bends to fit the shape our lives need it to. But during the pandemic, I saw just how elastic it can be, how it can stretch to allow long silences, how it can snap back into place when you least expect. Inspired by a “Friendship Files” interview, I spent many Saturdays during the pandemic having “PowerPoint parties” on Zoom with friends who live across the country. I saw them more during those months than I had in years. It was unexpected, and special. And it couldn’t have happened if we were angry or resented one another for all those years of limited contact.

Many of the people I spoke with—who, in many cases, love each other so much that they nominated themselves to be interviewed about their friendship—told me that they don’t see each other that often, or that they don’t talk as much as they would like. I’ve come to believe that friendship doesn’t always have to be about presence; it can also be about love that can weather absence.

But absence doesn’t have to last forever. “The Friendship Files” includes many stories of second chances and rekindlings. There are the elementary-school friends who started hanging out with former classmates again after their 50-year reunion, the Vietnam veterans who fell out of touch after the war until one of them wrote a letter and brought them back together, and even the high-school best friends who reconnected after one decided to return a sweatshirt he’d borrowed 20 years earlier. After that last interview was published, they told me that a lot of their other high-school friends had reached out to them, and they’d all gotten together for a reunion.

I’m not religious, but I do love the concept of grace, of a gift so profound that it could never be earned or deserved. And so when I cite grace here as the final and most important force in friendships, I mean it in two ways. One is the forgiveness that we offer each other when we fall short. The other is the space that creates for connections—and reconnections—that feel nothing short of miraculous.