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LIFE HONESTLY

When did “acquaintance” become a dirty word?

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“Friends” have become the new “acquaintances” - and we’re not better for it, says Yomi Adegoke

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By Yomi Adegoke on

“There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends,” the eternally wise Maya Angelou once said. “Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person; and your values coincide.”

While the profundity of her words still rings true, it’s a sentiment that in and of itself feels increasingly dated. In the age of social media, the goalposts have long shifted; we now have “friends” in lieu of acquaintances and “deep and serious friends” who were once simply filed under “friends”. Acquaintances, it feels, have been retired altogether, causing everyone to superficially move up a tier in our lives, for no real reason bar semantics.

Perhaps people we don’t dislike, but aren’t mates with, were once easier to distinguish because, once upon a time, you only really did get to know the “spirit” of your friends. Now, while you may not quite get to know the “spirits” of those who sit on the periphery of your inner and even outer circle, you get to know a filtered, cropped, 280-character version of it – along with what they had for breakfast, how they spend their weekends, who they voted for and what they look like during the most intimate moments of their lives – engagement, marriage, pregnancy. You watch their children's first steps and are virtual attendees of every BBQ and birthday. Understandably, it feels almost rude to refer to people we don’t dislike but aren’t mates with as mere “acquaintances” – though that’s exactly what they are. You know their likes and dislikes in the most literal sense – relationships with a natural life expectancy of mere weeks are on eternal life support through the vehicle of Facebook, where you can still like the pictures of the bartender you met on a 2011 trip to Malaga. Video killed the radio star, the internet killed the video star and Facebook well and truly killed the acquaintance. And I’m in mourning.

It’s impossible to eulogise the death of the acquaintance without discussing one of the many suspects in its murder. Facebook’s choice in filing anyone you connect with as a “friend” as opposed to a “contact” or “connection” is at least somewhat responsible. In the 14 years since it launched, acquaintance has become something of a dirty word. When Facebook introduced its Acquaintance list in 2012, for individuals that users wanted to show up less in their news feed, being added to it was considered the ultimate slight. “Quiet Down Facebook Friends You Don’t Care About With Acquaintance List Suggestions Box” ran one headline. “Facebook tool demotes 'Friends' to just being 'acquaintances'” said another. The assumption was that it was a tool for wiping out friends we didn’t like, not that they were not friends in the first place. The only thing more brutal was unfriending altogether – the idea of removing someone whose updates simply don’t interest you was no longer an admittance of a lack of common ground, but an act of aggression.

Acquaintances are what the majority of us are to each other and 'not friends with' does not always – or even usually – mean 'dislike'

Alongside Facebook’s Acquaintance list, there is a Restricted list for friends who can only see posts and profile info you make public, who frankly don’t sound like friends at all. It’s akin to muting someone on Twitter, which means you follow the person in question but cannot see their tweets. It’s fair to argue that, if you don’t want someone to see your posts and you don’t want to read their tweets, it’s probably best to unfriend or unfollow them. But when everyone is your friend, everyone is within their rights to feel hurt by this. These tools in themselves are probably proof that many of our friends aren’t our friends at all – it’s what we revert to when we fear causing offence, sometimes to those we have never actually met or, at least, don’t have the level of familiarity with that would allow us to be honest about how irritating their posts are.

Though Facebook is considered responsible for the shift, even less friend-focused sites like Instagram and Twitter (which categorise contacts as followers) have similarly blurred the lines. Unfollowing is an act of denouncement – when Tristan Thompson was caught cheating on his fiancée Khloe Kardashian, the whole Kardashian-Jenner clan unfollowed him on Instagram. If they had done it because they simply no longer wanted to see his pictures, instead of to proclaim that their friendship with Tristan had ended, it would have been seen as downright insensitive.

Now more than ever, the lines between friendship and acquaintanceship are increasingly blurred. In a 2016 study, researchers asked 84 undergraduates in a class to score how well they knew other people in the class. They asked each participant to score every other participant on a 0–5 scale, where 0 means “I do not know this person”, 3 means “friend” and 5 means “one of my best friends”. The participants were then asked to predict how other people would score them. All assumed that those they had ranked as friends would also rank them as such – yet almost half of all the friendships reported in the survey weren’t reciprocal, with only one of the two people considering the other a friend. The results made me wonder – how many fallouts based on behaviour that falls short of a friend have occurred because only one person in the relationship considers the other just that?

While I’m not quite as committed to the “no new friends” mantra as Drake is, my resistance to calling anyone a friend who isn’t has at times left me feeling like I’m bordering on rude. To me, friendship goes far beyond the epithet and, like the word “love”, isn’t something to be thrown around lightly. It comes with expectations we in reality owe very few, despite how many people we award the label. But the continued blurring often leaves both parties feeling slighted by things they probably shouldn’t be and obliged to do what they’re probably not.  

Angelou (as always) was right. Most people really don’t become friends at all, but even fewer of us now feel comfortable admitting it. Acquaintances are what the majority of us are to each other and “not friends with” does not always – or even usually – mean “dislike”. It’s about time we embraced the space between total indifference and meaningful ties in which most of us reside.

@yomiadegoke

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