How To Identify Your True Friends


Chances are, you’re a giver.

In most of your relationships, you give more than you ask for. You always care a little more, do a little extra, take the detour to pick up a surprise.

As a result, people turn to you. They trust you. They’ll think of you first when something comes to mind.

Generally, this is a good thing. It attracts new people into your life and makes it easy for them to like you.

But being a giver is not without cost. It can get exhausting. At first, people are grateful for your kindness. Then, they build expectations around it. “What do you mean, you don’t have time? You always used to help me.” Well…

What do we do when that happens? And why does it in the first place?

The Best Kind Of Friendship

Analyzing Aristotle’s three kinds of friendship, Zat Rana suggests the third type, which isn’t based on some form of exchange, is the most desirable:

“Rather than utility or pleasure, this kind of relationship is based on a mutual appreciation of the virtues the other person holds dear.”

It makes sense. A business partner may be necessary, a drinking buddy lots of fun, but if nothing beyond the subject matter connects the two of you, the relationship will carry an expiration date. Not so with virtues.

Friendships based on values are mirrors we can reflect ourselves in. That’s timeless. We can do it again and again. As long as the base pool of values doesn’t change too much, we’ll always enjoy that person’s company.

Of course, such relationships are much harder to form. They require going beyond the initial benefit of utility or pleasure.

That often doesn’t happen without an external stressor. The military is a good example. Men who serve in war together have a good chance of remaining lifelong friends. It’s a transformative, often traumatic experience, you have to survive together. Eventually, the deep stuff bubbles to the surface.

Friendships of virtue also take time. We need to get a feel for what the other values. With each leg of additional education, my resulting friendships have gotten a little weaker. That’s because high school ran longer than my Bachelor’s and that took longer than grad school.

When you take a moment to think about the various friendships you have, the ones based on usefulness or gratification will be easy to spot. But those based on values? Not so much. You’ll feel they’re “different,” yet have a hard time pinning down what exactly it is that makes them special.

And for some, you won’t be sure at all. That’s where being a giver comes in.

The Self-Serving Nature Of Leading Values

Lately, I’ve been questioning some friendships. I find myself scrolling through WhatsApp, confirming that, yes, for the fifth time in a row, I’m the one reaching out. But then I stop and start to wonder.

Does it matter? Shouldn’t I value these people beyond such petty things? Who cares who bought the last pizza, got the last round, made the last call?

And then it hit me: I do. Because being a giver is a leading value.

Generosity, initiative, kindness, these are virtues like many others, but if we choose to value them — and many of us do — they take precedence in our relationships. They both invite and test reciprocity.

When you’re a giver yourself, you naturally value people who also show kindness when it’s unexpected. Humans are simple creatures. We do little that doesn’t somehow serve ourselves. Including being overly generous.

First, it affords you the status of being generous, which is worth a lot on its own. It feels good. Beyond that, being a giver almost always carries the secret hope that, someday, sooner or later, someone will return the favor. And, most importantly, it’s one of many signals we can send to find people like us.

All of these are somewhat self-serving, but that’s not so much a bad thing as it is a useful filter for our relationships. If only we recognize it in time.

At some point, the best of our connections reach this threshold. Fair-weather friendships never make it this far. However, those who do will either pass with flying colors — or not at all. It is a strange marker, this inflection point.

When reciprocity runs low, it is a great time to ask: what kind of relationship is this?

Like our values, which we discover with time, the answer is rarely obvious.

An Alternative We Don’t See

When a relationship hits this reciprocity bump, this make-or-break moment, the deciding turn, there are two ways the giver can react.

The first is to pull the emergency brake, to file the relationship under utility or pleasure and settle future interactions accordingly. That’s a protection mechanism and it can serve us well. After all, givers are always at risk of abuse. However, it might also clip the relationship’s wings at the wrong time.

The second is to wait. To not necessarily give a lot more, but to hold on a little longer. Let time tell the rest of this story as you watch how it unfolds. In many cases, this is a smart move. Humans are simple creatures. Often, whatever blockade has formed in your friend’s life will eventually resolve itself. Maybe, with just a little patience, your relationship will flourish.

Of course, there’s also the option to overinvest, but at this point, that’s what you’ve done already and it’ll likely feel neither good nor healthy. But, as in Aristotle’s categorization of friendship, there’s a third alternative. One we rarely consider at all.

What if we’re not the giver this time?

Different Roles At Different Times

Right now, you can probably think of five people whose turn it is to call you. You’re right. They really should pick up the phone. At the same time, there are five people out there who’d be more than right to demand the same of you.

Even crazier, a single person can fall into both categories. Because while you kept initiating contact, they always ended up listening to you. Or while you paid for the pizza, they made the evening fun.

Humans are simple creatures. The sum of our relationships, however, isn’t. It’s a complex web made of millions of details. It’s easy for them to go amiss. Even if you’re a giver most of the time, sometimes, you’re the one who takes.

No one plays only one role in this life. Don’t let your main gig deceive you.

Reciprocity can help us identify friendships of the best kind. It’s not just a self-serving mechanism, but a filter our strongest relationships run through. And while we have different modes of reacting at this critical stage, we must first ask if it’s on us to do the filtering.

Giver or taker, convenience or values, to wait or to stop, at the end of the day, only one thing is sure: our relationships never live in a vacuum. They’re living, breathing, evolving things. Let’s treat them this way. After all…

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” — Aristotle