What is a ‘friend’? I know that sounds a stupid question on the face of it, but it is bugging me.

We’ve just been having conversations about contemporary culture in Germany and England and the pressures facing (particularly) young people in societies that are changing rapidly. It has been an informed, challenging and stimulating conversation – it always is when you engage with people from a different culture – and I have more questions than answers. But, then I came across the Guardian article about a Japanese guy who runs an agency for providing ‘rent-a-friend’ facilities for lonely Japanese.

FriendsWell, given Japanese culture and some of the factors mentioned in the article, the creation of a false friend agency might not be totally surprising – even if it is somewhat depressing. But this chimed in with something we were talking about during the Communications Conference in Rome last week: why does Facebook tell you you have ‘friends’ when they are nothing of the sort?

At best most of them are virtual acquaintances. And what sort of friendship do we encourage when we use the word ‘friend’ to describe a relationship in which you can simply delete someone who offends or bores you? How does that help grow people to work at relationships, cope with disappointment, learn to forgive and be forgiven, and so on?

I realise this is sounds like miserable nostalgia-seeking. However, I am not against new ways of building communities or getting people to relate to each other. Indeed, I think new media and social networking facilities are opening up all sorts of new possibilities for relating. But I am not sure that diluting notions of friendship by the shallow use of the word ‘friend’ in such fickle contexts is helpful to concepts of healthy relationships.

facebookI guess I am saying that a friend has to be known. And you can’t know someone you don’t know – or can easily dismiss if the relationship ceases to please you.

So, we shouldn’t sneer at the Japanese initiative unless we also address the weaknesses in our own culture.