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Isaac Hagoel
Isaac Hagoel

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The Engineer's Guide to Friendship: A Pragmatic Approach to Social Connections

Have you ever wanted to belong to a group of "cool people" (whatever that means to you) but didn't know how? Have you ever felt lonely and friendless? Have you witnessed seemingly invincible friendships evaporate into thin air at the first change of circumstances, leaving you baffled and disappointed?

I want to suggest that the default way we think about friendship is too amorphous and completely backward. In this post, I will offer a practical, operative mental model for building and maintaining friendships while also attempting to clear up some of the confusion around terms like "good friend" and "close friend."

The Standard Definition of Friendship

When you search for "friendship" in the dictionary, you get:

The emotions or conduct of friends; the state of being friends. A relationship between friends.

And when you look for "friend," you get:

A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.

Both of these definitions describe friendship as a vague, unquantifiable feeling between people. It makes it sound mysterious and, even worse, it is not helpful at all because it fails to capture the underlying schema. To its credit, at least it's short :)

While I agree that a feeling of friendship does exist, I will show you that:

  1. It is merely a result of something else that is not mysterious at all and that you can understand and apply.
  2. It is easy to confuse with other feelings (to a misleading degree), so you are better off not giving that felt aspect of friendship too much weight when reasoning about it.

Remember When We Were Kids?

For better or worse, young kids lack fuzzy abstract thinking. If you eavesdrop in the playground, you might hear a conversation that goes something like this:

Kid A: "Hey, do you want to be my friend?"
Kid B: "Yeah sure."
Kid A and kid B looking at each other for a moment:
"Okay, what can we play together?" 
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A bit later you might hear one of the kids saying to the other:

"I don't want to be your friend anymore."
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This seemingly simple approach to friendship is actually quite pragmatic and smart. We, as adults, can learn from this straightforward method of forming friendships. Let me show you how it can apply in the more densely layered reality of adulthood.

An Operative Definition of Friendship

Consider the following series of statements as a simple and pragmatic way of understanding friendship:

  • Friends are two or more people who choose to spend time together, paying attention to one another via "binding activities" (could be almost any activity really :)) and "binding contexts" (think of it buckets of activities), on a regular basis.
    • E.g [{activity: "talking while eating lunch at work together", "context: work"}, {activity: "hiking in nature together", context: "weekend stuff (or whatever, you get the point :))"}]
  • These activities, which facilitate the voluntary exchange of attention, are the "food" for the friendship (the attention is the actual food but the activities are our proxy).
  • These contexts, or domains of activities, define the types of attention being exchanged and, more importantly, the boundaries of the friendship (like with any other relationship). If we extend the food analogy, contexts are like groups of foods (fruits, vegetables etc.)
  • The more "nutritious" and varied the voluntary activities and contexts, the more regular and well-balanced the feeding cadance, the stronger, healthier the friendship.
  • Without "food", even the strongest friendship would starve (surprisingly quickly). In other words, these activities themselves are a necessary, critical and defining feature of any friendship and the best proxy/metric for it, because they are easy to observe, analyze and design.

I know there are concerns this definition doesn't seem to address. Don't worry, we'll get to that soon. For now, let me show why this is helpful using an example:

Let's say I work with someone that I like and feel a general affinity towards. Even though we enjoy collaborating at work, we are not friends because we are not doing it by choice. We do it because it is required for work. Let's say we start spending our lunch breaks together in some regular cadence. Now we moved one step up on the spectrum of friendship, but we're still limited to one activity in one context. I can extend our friendship easily by offering to take a coffee break together at work (same context - taking a break at work, slightly different activity). But if I offer to go to coffee together outside of work hours, it would be a "moment" because I would be effectively trying to add a new context (taking a break outside of work) to our friendship. Even though it is the exact same activity (drinking coffee and talking) it is not the same, and we will both intuitively feel it if I make such offer.

Using conventional thinking, one might be tempted to conclude that because our friendship grows, we add more activities and contexts, but it is exactly the opposite: because we add activities and contexts, our friendship grows (and we learn to know each other better and see more sides of one another, yada yada).

I want to leave no room for ambiguity:

  • The activities are the cause, the friendship is the effect. Adding contexts or activities will not happen "naturally"; someone has to initiate it (some friendships will stay "stuck" in one context forever because no one initiates anything).
  • If it were socially acceptable for all parties involved to agree (or not) to try to be friends up front like kids do, the world would have been a simpler, better place :)
  • Participating in such activities and gradually adding activities and contexts will inevitably result in friendship and everything that goes with it (caring for each other, that warm and fuzzy feeling, etc.), even if the parties involved only realize it in retrospect. Hollywood movies use this trope so much that it's almost a cliché. Two people reluctantly agree to work towards a common goal, get involved in each other's personal lives in various ways (add contexts), and are surprised to discover that they have become friends (despite them being in denial about it) at some moment of truth when the relationship is tested.

Going back to the example with me and my friend from work, whom I now meet for coffee in the afternoon and sometimes go on hikes with over the weekend. Let's imagine that one of us moves to a different city. Will we remain friends? That solely depends on whether we'll be able to find a new activity (or activities) that would be able to keep feeding the relationship. The friendship will settle on a new equilibrium point, which can be measured by the time we manage to spend together, participating in these new attention-sharing facilitating activities.

The same is true if only some of the activities or contexts are taken away. In my own life, I took part in ridiculous activities when subconsciously attempting to maintain friendships. For example, when my high school friends and I all joined the army (it's compulsory in Israel, my home country) and could only see each other on Friday nights (and some of Saturdays), we started going to nightclubs together. We were dead tired (they don't let you sleep much in the army), and many times some of us would go and take a nap in the car after an hour or two in the club. We never once hooked up with random girls on these nights. It made zero sense for us as a recreational activity, but we would still religiously go. I didn't understand it at the time, but now I know we kept doing it because it gave us a sensible excuse to do everything around it, which was the real activity: Meeting ahead of time and talking while waiting for everyone to show up, going to the club in the same car (we used to pick clubs that were far away), joking about how this or that person got drunk, etc.

This mental model of friendship gives you a very powerful lens. Now you know what it takes in order to build and maintain friendships.
It also allows you to quantify how solid a friendship is, map its boundaries (the shared activities and contexts), and know what would threaten it.
Like any model, when trying to reason about a friendship-related situation, it allows you to ask and answer the question: "What would the model say about this?"

For example, before I had this mental model, my wife and I sent our daughter to a scouts club that had a lot of Israeli kids in it, thinking that she would acquire Israeli friends with whom she could speak Hebrew and preserve the language. We currently live in Australia, in an area that has little to no other Israelis in it, so that seemed like a sensible thing to do. It didn't work, and now I understand that it had no chance of succeeding in the first place. The scouts club was almost a 30 minutes drive from where we live (so a 1-hour round trip), and that reduced the ability or likelihood for my daughter to add conventional activities and contexts (e.g., meet in the afternoon) in any meaningful capacity, to almost zero. Without applying some outside-of-the-box thinking (which we didn't do), she didn't stand a chance. If I were to attempt it again now, knowing what I know, I would try to initiate regular Zoom calls or online gaming sessions or something like that with some of the kids. I'm not sure that it could work, but at least it is a viable strategy. It's funny how it seems obvious in retrospect, but in real-time, we were disappointed and for some reason assumed that friendships would just emerge as a result of her attending the weekly scouts' gatherings.

Another thing that's worth pointing out is that this model also gives you a clear way for getting out of undesired friendships - starve them until they are gone (again, I wish it were socially acceptable to do what the kids do and simply tell someone you don't want to be their friend anymore :)).

Groups of Friends and Social Circles

This model applies to groups and social circles as well.
If you desire to join a social circle, this model offers two basic strategies. I think most people kind of know these strategies at some intuitive level, yet since it is not happening at a conscious level, most fail to use this knowing analytically.

Strategy 1: Entering Via a Public Context

  1. Figure out which core activities the group does as a group, and are "open to the public" or "permissionless". Do they go to tech meetups? Do they hang out in a specific place? Do they all go to the same dance or Jiu Jitsu class? Are they present on some Discord server? In many cases, you and the group members already have at least one public context you all inhabit (e.g. school, workplace), which should make this step easier because you could find activities within this context.
  2. Be in this place. Regularly. Learn its rules.
  3. Become part of the activity with the group in a way that draws their attention. If it is a meetup, ask smart follow-up questions after something one of them said during the meetup and/or try to join their conversation afterward. If they are playing basketball and you are there just shooting hoops by yourself, they might be missing a player at some point and will let you join their game if you ask. Remember, this DOES NOT make you friends. Not yet. Don't get over-excited when this first step takes place.
  4. Once you establish yourself as part of that context, your goal is to get the group to initiate contact with you. Maybe they will offer to give you a call next time they are playing basketball or ask you to join again. That still does not make you friends. This needs to become something that happens regularly. If it just happened once it doesn't count.
  5. Now your goal is to add more activities and contexts. The thing is that now you have access to non-public activities as well and you can work your way deeper and deeper into the group as you add activities and contexts. Note: In most cases, you don't have to be particularly good at the activity in question. Your level of competence might affect your position in the group's hierarchy, but it is not a requirement for belonging unless it prevents you are below the minimal threshold for participating in the first place (don't try to swim with olympic swimmers but you can be a BJJ white belt hanging out with bunch of blue belts).

Strategy 2: Entering Via Befriending a Group Member

Another way in is via "friend brings friends". This is useful when there is no publicly available activity you can use as entry point. Here, you will befriend one of the group members and they will eventually invite you to group activities and introduce you to the other group members.
We already covered how to form a friendship with someone, but I want to add a word of warning. Do not try to use this person as leverage. Find someone that you would be happy to be friends with regardless of their social circles. If they pull you into their social circle, that's a bonus; if not, you still have a cool friend. Don't treat people as a means to an end.

Beware of Fuzzy Feelings and Wishful Thinking

The main issue with judging relationships in general and friendships in particular based on feelings rather than observable actions and quantifiable metrics (as I suggested above) is that it is easy to mistake one feeling for another, and it's easy to get lazy and fall into wishful thinking. For example, maybe you really like someone and they are being nice to you when you interact. That might make you conclude that you are friends, but if you are not engaging in shared activities and contexts by choice on a regular basis, then it is not really a friendship; it is just "acting in a friendly manner". You could easily be mistaking the feeling of affection or admiration for friendship.

Likewise, you might feel a strong sense of camaraderie with someone because you share common interests, hobbies, or a similar sense of humor, but if you don't actively spend time together and engage in those shared activities, then it is not friendship. It is essential to be aware of these distinctions and not let your feelings cloud your judgment.

It could work the other way around too - maybe there is a person in your life that is unpleasant and you tell yourself that you are not friends, but you still choose to spend time with them every week riding your bikes or arguing over the phone. Guess what: you are friends (more on toxic relationships below).

Bottom line - Do not rely on fuzzy feelings or stories you tell yourself. Remember that actions speak louder than words (or thoughts or feelings).

Concerns and Nuance

While discussing this topic with my own friends, here are some valid concerns that came up and my responses to them.

Motivations and intentions

Some people would say that a relationship could be considered a friendship only when there are no ulterior motives, only when the sole goal of all parties involved is the relationship itself and the other participants' best interests. As much as I wish it was true, I don't think that it is actually the case. Obviously, if one party is trying to manipulate or take advantage of another, that's a toxic relationship (in our case, a toxic friendship), but that does not mean it is not still a friendship. I never said all friendships are good or desired. Didn't your parents ever tell you that one of your friends is a bad influence or taking advantage of you? Realistically, I think most friendships, even the best, most pure ones, include some extra motivations and incentives - even something as innocent as a cure for loneliness or the other person's ability to make you laugh. Like most things in life, it's a spectrum, and there is nothing wrong with "give and take" relationships that are mutually beneficial and consensual. "That's what friends are for".

What's a Good Friend? What's a Close Friend?

Similarly to the previous point, in this model, there is no such thing as a "good friend"; there is only being friends with a good person vs. being friends with a not-so-good person. A good person will always try to help people they care about in times of need, offer support, and be willing to act unselfishly. If you befriend good people, you will have good friends (and good people will tend to want to help you even if you are not friends). On the other hand, if you befriend a liar for example - you know what's gonna happen, don't you?

To what extent someone is your "close friend" should not be hard to roughly quantify - look at how wide (number of activities and contexts you share) and how deep (how much time you choose to spend together and how much of this time translates to exchanges of attention) the friendship is. Do you actually choose to spend time together? Is the friendship "well-fed"? Ignoring these concrete criteria just creates confusion and unrealistic expectations. Your best friend from high school, whom you haven't met for five years, is not your close friend anymore. It doesn't mean you don't have a relationship anymore; it's just that it's not friendship but something else (maybe "a person you share history with and still care about and reach out to occasionally" or just "ex-friend").

Trust vs. Friendship

But what about how much I trust someone? Doesn't that have to do with the degree of friendship? Ideally, you should be able to trust your friends. Otherwise, why do you choose to spend time with them? With that said, trust is orthogonal to friendship. Do you trust your doctor? Is the doctor your friend (if your doctor happens to also your friend choose a different example or a different doctor :))?
Most of the time, trust has to do with believing that the other person's incentives are aligned with yours and believing that they are competent. In other words, in order to trust someone, you need to perceive them as predictable - in a good way (a.k.a "reliable"). Spending a lot of time with someone definitely would help you map out their incentives and areas of competency, but we all have a friend we know we can't trust to show up on time (or maybe we trust them to be late, I'm not sure :)) and some friends that we know couldn't keep a secret even if their lives depended on it.

Similarity and common interests

One of my old friends pointed out to me that friendships are based on common interests and personality traits. While I generally agree that you and your friends have to be able to enjoy each other's company and find activities you agree to partake together, I think that not only is this point overemphasized, but in many cases, it is a bug rather than a feature. If you only have friends that are very similar to you, you might all have the same problems, biases, and blind spots, as well as the same inability to remedy them (so all you can do is offer each other an unhelpful sense of comfort). Be on guard for that. Try to be friends with people you want to be more like (at least in some aspects) and have something to learn from, rather than with people you are already like. They are the ones who can call you out when needed, ground you, and provide a fresh perspective when you're stuck.

The Importance (or lack thereof) of Verbal Communication

How important is it to be able to openly and honestly communicate with someone in order for them to be considered a friend? Like with the previous points, while I agree that in general open and honest communication is desirable in any personal relationship (just like trust), I don't believe it is a prerequisite for friendship. I can think of many friendships in which fully transparent communication is totally out of bound (the proper friendship context has not been established) and that doesn't make them not-friendship. Also, some friends can have a "quiet understanding" and build strong relationships that are not based on sharing every detail about each other's personal lives or about how they feel towards each other. For example, I remember a trip to Europe that I took with one of my closest friends at the time. When I came back, almost two weeks later, my wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) asked me if my friend and I bonded in a deep way. I thought about it and the answer was definitely yes, but we barely communicated at all beyond surface-level stuff like where we were going to eat lunch. We didn't have any philosophical conversations into the night. We didn't share any dark secrets with one another. We mainly had fun, shared our impression of our immediate environment as we traveled between cities and countries, and goofed around. We strengthened our friendship via doing and being rather than talking.


By adopting a practical, operative mental model for building and maintaining friendships, you can make the process less mysterious and more manageable. For me, it completely changed how I think about friendships and social circles. It empowered me to be much more methodical and systematic about how I build and maintain relationships. It enabled me to identify when a friendship is at risk and understand what would be required in order to maintain or strengthen it. Remember, friendships are not based on fuzzy feelings but on the active choice to engage with one another. The more you participate in shared activities and contexts, the stronger your friendships will become. So, get out there, find your people, be strategic, and start creating lasting connections!

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