Friends add so much humor, excitement, compassion, guidance, and encouragement in our lives that it can be hard to imagine ever having to be without them. They cheer us up when we’re down, see the good in us when we can’t, and carry our hearts through some of the most difficult times in our lives. For a lot of us, our friends become our found family and friendship is a wonderful gift that never stops giving. But have you ever wondered how friendships develop? Do you want to know how someone goes from being a stranger to a best friend?
While there’s no widely accepted theory about the formation of friendships in social psychology just yet, there is a natural progression to it that’s easy to see. You meet someone you’d like to get to know better, you introduce yourself, start talking and hanging out, hit it off, and before you know it, you’ll have found a true and loyal friend (Fehr, 1996).
On that note, here are the 5 most distinct and most universal stages of friendship we all go through when making friends:
1. Strangers (“I know of you”)
First and foremost, before you become friends with anyone, you start out as strangers to each other. And while you certainly know of each other, like what their name is or what they look like, the relationship is still very superficial and lacks a deeper awareness of one another. Maybe you see them pass by you in the hallways or run into them on your way home, but you never say hi or greet them with a smile because you’re still yet to introduce yourself.
At the earliest stage of a friendship, because there’s not much going on between you, what matters most at this point is the impression you make (Rawlins, 2017). When you make a good enough impression on someone, you’ll pique their curiosity and they’ll become interested in getting to know you better. And with continued interaction and good first impressions, it won’t take long for you to go from being strangers to acquaintances.
2. Acquaintances (“I know you”)
Most acquaintances meet because of mutual friends or shared social groups. Maybe you go to the same school, are part of the same club/organization, work in the same building, or live in the same neighborhood. Whatever the reason may be, an acquaintance is someone you only know to a slight degree. You might exchange names and contact information with them, but you only ever reach out for important, usually work-related reasons.
You become acquaintances with someone for the convenience of it, because you enjoy having someone to make small talk with in class or at work. Interactions at this stage are occasional, friendly, and polite. And sometimes, people become acquaintances for years without ever developing a friendship (Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990). Acquaintancesbecome friends only when they start to grow closer and spend time with one another outside of work/school – which brings us to our next point!
3. Casual Friends (“I like you”)
A lot of us strive to build connections and make as many friends as we can, but we’re often more selective of our close friends than we are of our casual friends. That’s because casual friends are people we only talk to on a semi-regular basis. We’re friendly with them and we like them enough to invite them to parties or get-togethers, but we’re not too invested in the relationship yet.
Casual friendships are defined by exploration; at this point, you’re willing to share more about yourself to this person, but you’re only presenting them with the best version of who you are (Berndt, 2002).The connection you feel with them is still tentative and so you often keep them at an emotional distance. You’re happy to see them and spend time with them when you’re in a good mood, but you don’t feel comfortable letting them see you lose control or break down and cry.
You see them every once in a while, go out and have fun with them, but you’d never call them up after a break up or go out of your way just to see them. No, with casual friends, it’s all about shared interests, fun activities, and enjoying each other’s company.
4. Close Friends (“I understand you”)
Next comes close friends, which is a step above casual friends. When you’re good friends with someone, it means you’ve already accepted them as a part of your inner circle. A strong bond of mutual trust, commitment, and a comfortable sense of familiarity needs to be cultivated, which is why it sometimes takes a long time for people to reach this stage.
Most of us don’t have a lot of close friends because we’re very careful about who we let into our lives and who we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with. Some people become good friends over time or because of certain experiences, but whatever the reason may be, you can always count on a close friend to be there for you when you need them the most. They’re there for all your birthdays and celebrations; they cheer you on at all your events and listen to your day-to-day rants; they’re part of a lot of your weekend plans and you’d gladly spend most summers with them by your side.
And while not all close friends end up becoming life-long best friends, the friendship you share with a good friend is still worth cherishing.
5. Intimate Friends (“I connect with you”)
Last but certainly not the least, the highest level of friendship anyone can achieve is intimate or deep friendship (Spencer & Pahl, 2006). Having a deep friendship with someone means you’re best friends, usually for the rest of your lives. Casual friends may come and go, and close friends sometimes drift apart, but a best friend stays with you forever. A best friend is the one person in the world you trust the most, the one who has stood by your side since the very beginning, the one whose happiness is just as important to you as your own.
The main difference between close friends and intimate friends is that the latter has a deeper level of connection than the former. Most people have a handful of close friends but only one best friend. Not only do you understand and empathize with one another, but you also feel bonded to them in a way only time, history, and deep platonic love could ever allow. They keep all your deepest, darkest secrets and know things about you no one else does. You’re not afraid to speak your mind around them because you feel like you have nothing to hide. You’re comfortable letting them see you at your rawest and most vulnerable most.