Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Real Friendship in a Virtual World

How many friends do your have? And just what IS a friend nowadays, anyway? What with work friends and school friends and neighbor friends now joined by Facebook friends and Followers on Twitter it’s harder than ever to figure this out.

When I was younger I thought everyone I knew was my friend. Remember those days? That’s how you described pretty much everyone in your life; each person was “my friend” from somewhere or something. Do you remember when you figured out that this wasn’t really how it works, that everyone you knew wasn’t really your friend? We all learn this lesson in some version of the “hard way.” My lesson came courtesy of my Dad around the time of an epic hitchhiking trip to the beach to join “my friends”, a trip my Dad was thought was quite a bit less important than I did since the players involved were probably not really friends. It was my first lesson in the difference between friends, friendly acquaintances, and people you’ve met. My Dad was right, of course, when he pointed out that one is quite fortunate to have one or two real friends at any one time. I was meeting up with 15 or 20 people from college during Senior Week. I have been in contact with exactly ONE of those “friends” over the last 25 years or so. I’m still not sure I forgive Dad for being right on this one, but right he was.

I think about this a lot I guess. It doesn’t take much to prompt me to go to this topic. I spent yesterday in the company of true friends, friendly acquaintances, acquaintances, and that growing brand new category of internet “friends and followers.” Crossfit, and my experience at the Crossfit table, has taught me about friends and friendship in this age of uber-connection. Our worlds are like a bullseye with our very few true friends in the middle surrrounded by our friendly acquaintances. This ring is encircled by everyone else we’ve either met or “cyber-met”, and this bullseye is orbited by a (hopefully) small number of enemies we may have acquired over the years, all floating along in the vast sea of those yet unmet.

Lots of research is emerging that suggests that the number and quality of your friendships can actually affect your  health and longevity. People who study this stuff seriously, real psychologists and the pseudo-scientists and pop-psychologists who ride on their coattails, talk about the differences in the way men and woman make and keep friends and friendships. Woman tend to be much more open, especially verbally; they tend to share more about their experiences and their feelings about those experiences. Women tend to be more open to the possibility of making new friends throughout life, and the “verbal” nature of their communication can be fostered over any distance with all of our new ways to communicate (email, IM, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). There’s a nice new book about 11 or 12 women who grew up together in Ames, Iowa, “The Girls from Ames” by Jeffrey Zaslow,  who have managed to stay connected as friends this way while spread out all over the country.

Men, on the other hand, tend to form their friendships through shared experiences. Our best and closest friends usually come from our younger days, those days spent together on some ball field or in some locker room, or in the special case of the  Crossfit community, in some military setting. We deepen our ties by continual, longitudinal exposure, coming together in shared activity perhaps but shared proximity certainly. Our friend-making and friend-keeping depends on physical presence.

In all friendships of all levels of depth and commitment there seems to be a process of development. We meet, or nowadays “meet”, enjoy the interaction, and allow or encourage another one. We are now acquaintances. In time we become friendly, not too very sure that we know all that much about each other but liking pretty much everything we know so far. We are now friendly acquaintances. It is in this fertile garden that we grow our friendships, where we cultivate true friends. The process is dynamic with movement going in all directions.

At 49 and change I guess I’m in mid-life now. This is when men tend to have the most trouble making new friends, and frankly when they tend to have the most trouble keeping old friends, especially if distance has been added to time. Women tend to both circle the wagons and draw their friends closer at this stage, while at the same time welcoming and growing new friendships.

Crossfit is the first “virtual community” that I have known personally. The “Comments” section on the Crossfit.com main page is a virtual gym, a kind of proximity, a new type of shared space. We certainly have shared experiences and shared pain there, too! I watch those first encounters as people introduce themselves, and I know from careful listening that those first public greetings have been followed by more private next steps. I  rejoice that my virtual community is such a fertile garden for the growing of friendships. Here in mid-life Crossfit has become my place to find new friendly acquaintances. You can never have enough friendly acquaintances.

We should remember, though, that ALL friendships, whether it’s between women or men, require at some point REAL proximity. The move from friendly acquaintance to friend requires presence. A real handshake. A physical “full-frontal” hug. “Side-hugs” and virtual high-fives in the cyber-gym are wonderful, but in the end neither Crossfit.com nor Facebook, neither email nor IM, neither @Twitter nor PM can substitute for the real thing. For men OR for women.

For all of the emails, Crossfit.com posts, and Message Board chatter, it was a cramped hotel room at the 2008 Crossfit Games that led to the friendship between bingo, Dale, and Apolloswabbie, three 40+ men from very different walks of life who first met in the cyber-gym that is Crossfit. For all of our communication over a span of 3 or so years, it was a hug and a kiss that cemented the friendship that has grown between bingo, and Greg and Lauren Glassman when they finally met at the base of a dusty hill in Aromas, California. It was the REAL connection that cemented the friendships.

You can never have enough friends.

6 Responses to “Real Friendship in a Virtual World”

  1. June 19th, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Apolloswabbie says:

    I don’t know how cool or not it is to comment on a post in which I have been highly honored – but it is quite an honor and thank you. I am very much looking forward to introducing you to Janet, Arius, Helena, and Rainier. Apollo

  2. June 19th, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    My pleasure, Paul. What a gift to find friends at our age, eh?

  3. June 20th, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Apolloswabbie says:

    Sir, a gift indeed; strangely, until reading this, had not made the connection that it was not only me who was struggling with that issue at ‘our age.’ Paul

  4. June 22nd, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    John Brown says:


    To be certain, I now have a new website to visit and learn from. Darrell I think that you missed one thing with regards to men’s friendships that I have found to be very real; you must learn something from one another. That learning generates respect and that respect in turn becomes admiration and friendship. Thinking back a couple of years in San Diego, I met a man at CFSD while the marine layer was still rolling out. He said he was an eye surgeon, and that he was on his way to the NSWC for a visit. At that point, he was an acquaintance, I would have to say that even considering the distance, that he is more friend than anything else. The difference? The words that that man has put to electronic paper have had a profound effect on my perspective in several areas of life. Again, thanks. I can’t wait to see you guys in a couple of weeks!

  5. June 24th, 2009 at 8:57 am

    darrellwhite says:

    Thanks for those kind words, John. I would only modify your thoughts in that I think a friend is someone from whom you are open to learning, because you trust that they have something to teach you.

    See you in a couple of weeks. Tell your friends about the blog!

  6. December 2nd, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    competitive intelligence says:

    awesome post

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