Most of us go about our friendships on autopilot. We never consider how we move from being strangers to best buddies.
However, there are five distinct levels of friendships, each with its own rules. Understanding these levels will give you a massive advantage in making new friends.
Learn about the specifics of each level, how to move from one level to the next, and what number of friends you can realistically manage.
1. “Wait, I know this guy” — People You Recognize
These are the people you recognize because you see them regularly. They probably recognize you, too. Sometimes, you might even know their name and where to place them.
But you have never had a conversation.
An example would be someone who lives in the same apartment building as you or that person you always see at the gym.
If you work at a large company, this includes most of your colleagues — the people you meet every day in the hallway or at the cafeteria. You recognize them, they recognize you, but that’s it.
Still, this is one step up from being strangers. You are no longer random faces to each other.
This category constitutes by far the largest group of people in your life. According to an NYU study, the average person can distinguish around 5000 faces. Some people can recognize as many as 10,000 faces.
2. “So, did you see the game last night?” — Acquaintances
Acquaintances not only recognize each other but also chit-chat.
This could be your next-door neighbor, a coworker, or the waitress at your favorite restaurant. Friends of friends often fall into this category.
With acquaintances, a certain threshold of proximity has been passed. Now, it would be more awkward not to acknowledge each other. So, we make small talk to release the tension.
These conversations tend to be superficial. They focus on external events, like the weather or the game last night. Rarely is personal information shared.
Acquaintances don’t make plans with each other. When they happen to see each other, they will talk. But that’s the extent of their relationship.
According to this study, the average size of our social network is 611 people. Assuming we have about 100 casual friends and maybe a handful of close friends, our group of acquaintances would amount to a little bit less than 500 people.
3. “What’s been going on with you?” — Casual Friends
Casual friends sometimes make plans to see each other (or call each other).
Typically, these meetings take place in public, e.g., in a coffee shop. You typically wouldn’t invite them over to hang out at your home. But if you do invite them over, it’s usually for a group activity like a BBQ.
With casual friends, you can share semi-personal information. For example, you might mention who you are dating or where you plan to vacation next.
But you still withhold a lot. You won’t get into “touchy” subjects like your boss threatening to let you go or your bedroom problems.
In essence, you only present the best version of yourself.
This also influences your timing. You will meet with a casual friend when you are in a good mood, but not when you are having a crisis. That scenario requires a higher level of trust.
Casual friendships are often the result of shared activities or environments. You might become casual friends with some of the guys at your BJJ gym. Or you have a few colleagues that you sometimes meet up with for a beer after work.
But as soon as that denominator ceases to exist, you drift apart. For example, you probably had tons of casual friends back in college with whom you haven’t had contact since.
The problem is there is no internal overlap. The other person is fun enough to hang out with if there is an external reason. But take away that reason, and we will run out of things to talk about quickly.
Dunbar’s theory suggests that we can have up to 150 (casual) friends; that’s the number at which we reach our cognitive limit. Beyond that, it becomes impossible to keep track.
4. “You just get me” — Close Friends
With close friends, there is a mutual expectation to regularly spend time together (or talk on the phone).
We don’t mind doing so one-on-one, e.g., inviting them over to our homes. There is enough common ground between us for such a situation not to turn awkward. On the contrary, we enjoy opening up to them in a more intimate setting.
That’s because there is a significant overlap in values. We subscribe to many of the same ideas, for example, political or religious views.
Close friends are people you hang out with on principle, not just because you share a common environment. Even if they leave that common environment, e.g., because someone moves cities, you stay in touch.
There is an unspoken agreement to keep each other updated. If something comes up in your life — positive or negative — you will let your close friends know about it.
You will actively ask each other for advice. For example, if you are thinking about switching careers, you would get your close friend’s input.
You can also expect a certain level of emotional support. If you tell your close friend that you are about to get fired, they will spend some time consoling you.
Close friends are supposed to hold off on judgment. When your friend is doing something you disagree with, you will at least hear their side of the story first before you denounce them.
There is less of a filter with close friends. You can act relatively uninhibited around them.
However, when you do share negative stuff, you must cap that. Too much shared negativity and a close friendship will become strained. At the very least, you must make sure to leave the interaction on a positive note.
That’s one of the main differences between a close friend and an intimate friend (the next friendship level) — the degree to which we moderate negativity.
The number of close friends you can maintain will be relatively low. For most people, it’s in the range of 5–10 people.
Part of that is the time investment. This study found that it takes approximately 200 hours to become close friends with somebody. Depending on how much time you have for socializing, it might be years before you get to that level of friendship.
Consequently, when we lose these people, we go through a mild period of grief akin to a breakup. Our emotional investment was significant enough for the loss to feel painful.
5. “I would trust you with my life” — Intimate Friends
In the hierarchy of friendships, intimate friends take the top spot.
With such friends, no topics are off-limits. Fears, insecurities, sexual perversions — you can share anything.
This level of openness is based on radical acceptance. It is not that they will not criticize you — they will. But no matter what they might learn, these friends will stand by you.
An intimate friend is one of the few times in life when we receive unconditional love. Even lovers and spouses can usually not provide that.
Three things need to come together to become intimate friends with somebody.
First, there needs to be a significant overlap in values.
Our way of interpreting the world must be similar to the other person’s perception of the world. When we talk to them, it should feel like coming home.
Second, there must be shared experiences. Specifically, you must have gone through a real crisis together. If they have seen you at your absolute lowest and still stick around, then a special connection is forged.
Third, we must have been friends for several years. That’s because we keep changing, and that change can be offputting to others. We stop living up to their expectations.
But with intimate friends, even radical changes are accepted. We give the other person the freedom to become whomever they want to become. We keep loving them.
An intimate friendship is not dependent on shared environments or activities. You can be at the other end of the world, and you will still create opportunities to communicate with each other.
Also, when you see an intimate friend again after many years of physical distance, it will soon feel like they never left.
Intimate friendships often last for a lifetime. And they better. The number of people we can have these kinds of friendships with is limited; we will only come across them a few times.
Maybe 1–3 people at one time fit this category. The investment in time and attention is so big that anything beyond that wouldn’t be sustainable.
Why Does It Matter?
Usually, we don’t think about how to classify our friendships. We manage these relationships instinctively.
However, certain factors can make it hard to make new friends:
- An extreme level of introversion
- An extreme level of extraversion
- A mobile lifestyle
By understanding the mechanics of friendships, you can fix these. Let’s see how.
1. An Extreme Level of Introversion
Hardcore introverts tend to have great high-level friendships, i.e., close friends and intimate friends. But they lack low-level friendships.
This comes with serious consequences.
For example, I have an extremely introverted friend who has several lifelong close friends, but other than that, his social network is almost nonexistent.
As a result, he has always had a hard time career-wise. There is no large professional network he could tap into. Nobody will recommend him or do him a favor.
Also, he has few sexual opportunities. For him, it’s either “Till death do us part” or nothing. There are no flings or casual sexual relationships in his life.
What Is the Solution?
The extreme introvert typically suffers from social anxiety. For them, reaching out to a stranger is hell.
You can untrain this behavior, though. The key is to go about it incrementally. Come up with a sequence of baby steps.
For example, start by attending social gatherings. Then, make eye contact with strangers. Then, occasionally nod or say “Hi” to others. And so forth and so on.
This way, you will gradually desensitize yourself. At some point, reaching out and making new friends will become pain-free.
2. An Extreme Level of Extraversion
With hardcore extroverts, it’s the opposite. They are friends with everybody.
But these friendships lack depth. They have no close friends, not to mention intimate friends. They have nobody they can call on in moments of crisis.
I have a family member who is like this. That person is buddy-buddy with everybody. He can’t leave the house without meeting someone new.
But at the same time, that person is very lonely. In the past, when disaster hit, he was by himself. Nobody would come to his rescue, not even his own family.
What Is the Solution?
As an extreme extrovert, you must foster some of your existing relationships. You must grow them into something more.
That is easier said than done, though. Extreme extroverts can’t just change their ways. They are so hyper that just sitting down with someone for an hour will feel like torture to them.
Therapy or coaching can help. There is usually a deeply rooted reason why the extreme extrovert cannot pay attention to the other person. Often, it is because their parents never built a deep relationship with them.
The relationship with the therapist/coach in itself can be therapeutic. By being forced to regularly convene with the same person, the extreme extrovert can practice zooming in on one relationship.
3. A Mobile Lifestyle
Digital nomadism is all the hype. What started out as a niche phenomenon has now become a mass movement. The pandemic made sure of that.
However, this affects our social networks. If you are constantly changing locations, it becomes difficult to establish deep friendships.
This is a problem I have encountered myself. Ever since I started traveling full-time, I have noticed how tricky it is to connect with new people. If you are only around for a few months at most, they will hesitate to commit.
In addition, the deep friendships you have built until now will start to fizzle out. The more time passes, the more your old friends back home will move on to new friends that are actually around.
What Is the Solution?
One solution is to befriend other digital nomads. They understand what it is like. They will also go to greater lengths to make it work long-distance. Last but not least, they are flexible enough to meet up with you worldwide.
The other solution is to have several home bases. If you keep traveling to the same few cities each year, it will become easier to build deep connections with people who live there year-round. You can also visit your old friends back home regularly to keep the connection alive.