20 July 2011


In response to a fellow Autistic friend's status on Facebook about the meaning of "friend" or "friendship," I shared my litmus test for friendship. Why do I have such a litmus test? (And you can read it below.) Because I like order, visual and explicit means of understanding abstract concepts, and because there are infinite misunderstands of friends and friendships in the world today.

With the advent of social media like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Gather, and such sites, "adding friends" or "friending" complete strangers has become a normal practice. Probably about 80% or more of my currently 700-odd Facebook "friends" have at least 300 "friends" on their accounts. But about 95% of these people aren't really friends. Why? Because there is no empathetic, trusting, and accepting relationship on the deep, emotional level with the vast majority of them. And yes, we Autistics are not only capable of empathy, but also of having varied emotions, including mutual and reciprocal ones.

In fact, let's take a look at the Iberian Spanish language to help us understand why this is so important. The word "friend" is translated to "amigo" (or "amiga," in the case of a female subject), from the noun "amistad," meaning friendship. It ultimately derives from the Late Latin noun "amicus," meaning a friend or an ally, which itself derives from the Latin verb "amare," which means "to love." Thus, a friend is someone whom you love. (Clearly, this is not meant in the "romantic" or "sexual" type of love, but more in line with the Greek concept of "agape," or complete, selfless love that takes its form in actions.)

On the other hand, there is the word "conocido," (or "conocida," if female) which is the participle form of the verb "conocer." As any good Spanish instructor will teach you, conocer, defined in the dictionary as "to know," is a different verb with highly distinct meanings from "saber," which also means "to know." Conocer is the kind of "by heart" knowledge, or knowledge by way of familiarity (a word that is related to the English "family"), whereas saber is knowledge in terms of cold, hard facts -- where someone or something is, when someone was born, when something happened, what something costs to buy. Used in the simple past tense (the preterite, for grammarians out there), conocer will be translated as "met" or "became acquainted with" in reference to meeting another person. Conocido, conocer's participle, can be used in a compound verb or as a noun. As a noun, it is usually translated as "acquaintance." A strict, literal translation, based on the preterite use of the verb and its normal meaning, would be "one with whom one is familiar."

You don't know a conocido half as well as you know an amigo. You may know this person by name (or face, if not face-blind) or hair color or place where he or she works or goes to class, but you don't know anything about this person's past, personal life, fears, hopes, or dreams. You might as well be reading a police wanted poster; you'd get more information out of such a document than you would from mere conocimiento (the abstract noun formed from the same verb), or acquaintanceship.

It's very easy for people today, Autistic or not, to misunderstand friendship. 95% of your Facebook friends are not true friends; they are conocidos, known only by some shared attribute. Maybe you play on the same sports team, go to the same art class, see each other in the hallway at school or church or temple or masjid, or live on the same block. But how often do you actually talk to these people? Do you really care about their lives, their interests, their passions? Do you even know their most ardent desires? Doubtful.

Friendship is not based on clicking a button that says "Confirm Friend Request."

Nor, however, is it based on that mother of all misconceptions: "You have so much in common; you'll be great friends!" No, actually, having things in common (even, and sometimes especially, some of your most important attributes like religious and political views) does not automatically mean the acquaintanceship between two people is automatically conducive to actual friendship. There are plenty of people with whom I have much in common -- interests, some goals, beliefs about certain things -- whom I dislike entirely or with whom I know I will never be close friends (even if I don't dislike them.) And of my close friends, we don't often share our interests, and sometimes not even (gasp) our religious or political views. My closest friends include a Conservative Jew, a Muslim, and a confirmed Atheist. I'm a very observant Christian. My friends' interests or passions include marine biology, theater, and the Middle Ages, when I have casual to no interest in any of those pursuits. Of my close friends, only half regularly read my writings, and a few have rarely, if ever, read any of my fiction (which is near and dear to my heart.)

At the same time, of my closest friends, a few are Christian, many share most of my political views, and a few share interests of mine like interfaith dialogue, autism, and creative writing. So what does this mean about common interests? They can add to a friendship, or alter its flavor. But they are not the bones of the friendship, or its necessary requirements for existence.

I define a friend by the following litmus test:

1.) This person genuinely cares about you and your well-being, physical, emotional, and mental.

2.) This person accepts you for who you are, and does not criticize any aspect of your identity, or any of your beliefs or characteristics, or seek to change or alter your identity in any way. More than accepting you, this person encourages you to reach your full potential, and celebrates your uniqueness.

3.) This person is there for you when you are depressed, angry, hurt, offended, vilified, or otherwise in a bad situation. This person will actually provide emotional and practical support whenever needed, without complaint, and will do it out of love (not the romantic kind.)

4.) This person trusts you, and you trust them. That doesn't mean social security number and bank PIN, but it does mean an openness and a willingness to share and discuss matters like personal feelings, family situations, workplace gaffes, and yes, politics and religion.

5.) This person does not judge you on the basis of your political (i.e. liberal vs. conservative), religious (i.e. a theist and an atheist), or philosophical (i.e. a virtue ethicist vs. a utilitarian or a deontologist) beliefs. They may disagree, but (see 4) they will be willing to openly discuss the disagreement mutually respectfully, and will (see 2) respect your beliefs without mocking them.

These items can include common interests. They can include people who are younger or older than you as well as people who are your peers in age. They can include people who live close to you or those who live far away from you. But the most important element in this kind of relationship is that agape love, from which springs the mutual trust, encouragement, and acceptance. And those are the qualities that people need to look for in a friend. If you find one friend who passes that litmus test, you are fortunate indeed.


  1. This is the most thoughtful and perhaps comprehensive piece on friendship that I've [ever] read.

    Thanks for this. I didn't have many illusions about most of my online friends not being true friends but rather acquaintances, however, there are many people who may satisfy some but not all of the numbered list, and that makes me think.

    It's also really helpful in the way that I think about how I'm doing or not doing some of the things that could take the acquaintances to friendships. For instance, I keep intimacy and trust from happening by my avoidance of sensitive topics, therefore never really establishing a mutual sense of trust and non-judgment. I know I would not judge them (number 5), but I don't give them a chance to offer me the same.


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