What Are the 5 Levels of Friendship?

Most of us go about our friendships on autopilot. We never stop to think about how we move from being strangers to buddies.

But there are five distinct levels of friendships, each with its own rules. Becoming aware of these dynamics will give you a massive advantage in making new friends.

It will also help you fix certain disbalances you might be experiencing in your current friendships.

Learn what happens at every level, why you must not overshare in certain types of friendships, and how many friends you can realistically manage.

1. “Wait, I know this guy” — People You Recognize

These are people you recognize because you see them regularly. They probably recognize you too. In some cases, you might even know their name and where to place them.

But you have never acknowledged each other or talked to each other.

Examples would be people who live in your apartment building but whom you never said “Hi” to. Or people you always see at the gym or at the supermarket.

If you work at a large company, this includes most of your colleagues — people you see in the hallway, at the cafeteria, or in the elevator. You recognize them, they recognize you, but that’s it.

Still, this is one step up from a stranger. You are no longer random faces in a crowd to each other.

According to an NYU study from 2018, the average person can recognize around 5000 faces. Some people can recognize as many as 10,000 faces. So, the size of this group is large.

Your living situation also plays into it. If you live in a remote village, your pool of people will be smaller simply because there aren’t that many people around. But if you live in a densely populated urban area, you could easily max out the aforementioned limit.

2. “So, did you see the game last night?” — Acquaintances

Acquaintances not only recognize each other but also sometimes chit-chat.

This could be a neighbor or a coworker. It could be the doorman at your building or the waitress at that restaurant that you go to. Friends of friends often fall into this category.

For someone to become an acquaintance, a threshold of proximity must be passed. Now it would be more awkward to not talk to 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 if ever is personal information shared.

Acquaintances don’t make plans with each other. They talk when they happen to see each other but that’s the extent of their relationship.

According to this study, the mean size of our personal networks is 611. Assuming only a few of these qualify as close friends, our group of acquaintances would number in the mid-hundreds.

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 wouldn’t normally invite them over to hang out at your home. 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 whom you are currently 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 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 situation requires a higher level of trust.

Casual friendships often develop as a 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 work friends that you sometimes meet up with for a beer.

But as soon as that shared activity or environment 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 ever 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 to. But take away that reason, and we will run out of interesting things to talk about quickly.  

Dunbar’s theory suggests that we can have up to 150 casual friends; that’s around 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 at least talk on the phone).

Also, there is an unspoken agreement to keep each other updated. If something comes up in your life — positive or negative — you will usually 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 probably get your 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 don’t agree with, you will at least hear their side of the story first, before you pass a sentence.

In general, there is much 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.

With close friends, there is a significant overlap in values. We subscribe to many of the same ideas as the other person, for example, political or religious views.

We don’t mind spending time with close friends 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 often enjoy opening up to them in a more intimate setting.

Close friends are the people you spend time 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 still stay in touch.

The number of close friends you have 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 spend socializing, it might take you several years to get to that level of friendship.

It makes sense that when we lose these precious people, we go through a mild period of grief, akin to a breakup.

5. “I would trust you with my life” — Intimate Friends

When it comes to levels of friendships, intimate friends take the top spot.

With such friends, no topics are off-limits. Fears, insecurities, sexual aberrations — you can share anything.

When you are around these select friends, you drop all pretenses. All that is left is yourself — your most vulnerable aspects, as well as the ugly ones. These friends get to see it all.

This level of openness is based on radical acceptance. It is not that they will not criticize you — they will.  But no matter what level you might stoop to, these friends will stand by you.

An intimate friend is one of the few instances in life when we receive unconditional love from somebody. Even most lovers and spouses cannot provide that.

There are three things that 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 highly similar to the other person’s perception of the world. As a result, talking to this other person will feel like coming home. We will finally be recognized.

Second, there must be shared past experiences.

Specifically, you must have gone through one or several crises together. Once the other person has seen you at your absolute lowest, there is nothing left to scare them away. Having seen each other’s cards and continuing the game is the ultimate proof of concept.

Third, a significant amount of time must have passed, as in years and decades. That’s because we keep changing — some people more, some people less. But either way, that change can be offputting to our friends. They might not recognize us anymore.

With intimate friends, even radical changes are being accepted. We give the other person the freedom to become whomever they want to become. And we still continue to love them, even though we are not quite loving the same person anymore.

This last one is the hardest. Many romantic relationships perish because of this dynamic. But a few intimate friendships manage, and even thrive because of it.

An intimate friendship is not dependent on shared environments or activities. You can be at the other end of the world, and still, you will create opportunities to communicate with each other.

It also becomes apparent when you see your intimate friend again after many years of physical distance. After a short phase of initial excitement, it feels like they never left.

Intimate friendships often last for a lifetime. It’s simply more efficient if they do. The number of people we can have these kinds of friendships with is limited; we will only come across them a few times in our lives. Hence, our tendency to hold onto them at all costs.

Maybe 1–5 people at one time fit this category. The investment in time and attention is so large, anything beyond that won’t be sustainable. If you want to add a new intimate friend, it will mean fading another friendship out.

Why Does It Matter?

What’s the point of learning about the different levels of friendship?

Usually, we don’t need to think about how we classify our friendships. We manage these things instinctively; they are hard-coded into our DNA.

However, there are certain scenarios when our friendship networks become dysfunctional. The three most common scenarios are:

  1. An extreme level of introversion
  2. An extreme level of extraversion
  3. A mobile lifestyle

If you understand how friendships are supposed to work, it becomes easier to fix whatever is out of whack.

Let’s have a look at these three complications.

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 extreme introvert 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 crowd of acquaintances whose expertise he could tap into or that he could ask for a job.

Also, he has few sexual opportunities. For him, it’s either “Until death do us part,” or nothing. There are no “friends with benefits” in his life.

Also, he is at risk with his high-level friendships too. Every close or intimate friend once started out as an acquaintance. If you have no acquaintances, that poses a recruitment problem.

What Is the Solution?

The extreme introvert usually 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 in the most incremental way. Don’t just tell an extreme introvert to go talk to people — it will never work. Rather, come up with a sequence of baby steps.

For example, start them on being in the same room as other people for a limited amount of time. Then slowly increase that time. Then have them make eye contact a few times. Then have them occasionally nod or say “Hi” to strangers in passing. And so forth and so on.

It is crucial to find a coach that can help you with this process. It is not so much about laying out the sequence of steps as it is about cheering you on. To walk this scary path, the extreme introvert needs to feel like they have someone in their corner.

2. An Extreme Level of Extraversion

With hardcore extroverts, it’s the opposite extreme. They know millions of people and are loose friends with most of them.

But these friendships lack any depth. They have no close friends, not to mention intimate friends. As a result, the hardcore extrovert has nobody they can call on in moments of crisis.

I have a close family member who is like this. That person is buddy-buddy with everybody. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t make a new friend. As soon as he leaves the house, it’s on.

But that same person, ironically, also strikes me as one of the loneliest people I have ever met. In the past, when disaster hit, that person had nobody. He was so bad at establishing a deep connection, even his own family wouldn’t come to his rescue.

What Is the Solution?

Obviously, as an extreme extrovert, you should try to cultivate existing relationships.

That is easier said than done, though. Extreme extroverts can’t just simply change their ways. They are so hyper, sitting down with the same person for an hour and actually listening to them will be virtually impossible.

Therapy or coaching can be a solution. There is a deep-rooted reason why the extreme extrovert cannot pay attention to the other person, e.g. because their primal caregivers never build a deep relationship with them. They lack role models.

The relationship with the therapist/coach in itself can be therapeutic. By being forced to regularly convene with the same contact person, the extreme extrovert can practice zooming in on just one relationship.

3. A Mobile Lifestyle

Remote work is all the hype. What started out as a weird niche phenomenon — a handful of digital nomads working from their laptops at the beach in Thailand — 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. Yet, unlike with the hardcore extrovert, the problem is not due to your personality, but your lifestyle choices.

This is a problem I struggle with myself. Ever since I started traveling full-time, I have noticed how tricky it is to deeply connect with people if you are only around for a few months. Naturally, they will be hesitant to commit.

Also, the deep friendships you had up until now will start to fizzle out. The more time that goes by, the more your old friends back home will move on to new friends.

What Is the Solution?

One solution is to befriend other digital nomads. They will be more aware of the problem. They will also go to greater lengths to make it work long-distance. Finally, they are flexible enough to meet up with you all over the world.

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. In the same way, you can make sure to regularly visit your old friends to keep the connection alive.

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