Friendships are an interesting part of being a functional human being, and they're something I've always struggled to define. In my normal day to day I'll interact with dozens of people. Some of those people are new - fresh, untainted, never before interacted hot-off-the-presses other human beings. Strangers in the elevators, delivery personnel, cashiers and other service workers, people in the aisle at the grocery store looking at the same cuts of meat. Some of those people are regular. Coworkers, receptionists, clients, the barista at your favorite coffee shop, the people you sit next to in class. Some of those people are ever-present over long periods of time. Your family, the people you knew from high school, the people who share your hobbies and interest and adventures. Some of those people know you really well. Those who you trust, who you confide in, who advise you. Which of them are friends? Where is the line drawn?
There's an old quote I don't know the attribution for - a stranger's just a friend you haven't met. To me, this implies that the opportunity for friendship is endless and bountiful. Any stranger can become a friend, this is without question. What's the trigger event? Is it a continuum? If I drew a line between two points - one one end, stranger, on the other, friend - what sequence of events or descriptive qualifiers could I place on the line where it swung from one to the other? Well, let me give it a shot.
First, I take what I know and I define it in certain terms. A stranger is someone I haven't met before. If I meet them once, they were a stranger. If I meet them again, they're a stranger no longer. I leave the apartment for work in the morning and some strange woman is accompanying her dog to the bathroom on the lawn. "Good morning", I say in passing. Smiles are exchanged. No name, no life history, no context, no friendship. The next day, the same woman accompanies her dog to the bathroom on the lawn. Mustn't be a stranger at this point; now it's a neighbor. "Cute dog. What's their name?" Smalltalk ensues. If this happens frequently enough, that person fits squarely in the acquaintance category.
OK, so stranger is defined - a transient category that breaks the moment a subsequent encounter occurs. Acquaintance, then. This is someone that I interact with regularly. I probably know their name, I may know bits and pieces of their lives, we likely talk briefly about rapport-establishing topics and maybe even talk in depth about a limited number of things now and again. These are people I may see every day, but typically I only see them in a single context. Coworkers getting coffee at breakfast. Other customers at the cafe on similar days. When I worked as a barista, this category would encompass the regular customers I chatted with. Even though we'd interact frequently, discuss a myriad of topics, and inquire about happenings in each others' lives, I'd still bucket this as an acquaintance. I think, then, that acquaintances are people with whom you've established a decent rapport, but only interact with in limited contexts - only at work, for example.
Friends are the next logical step, I think, and this is where it gets fuzzy. Say the neighbor asks me out for coffee some time while her dog uses the grass next to me as a toilet. We shift contexts - now we're building a communicative history, sharing experiences, and developing interpersonal intimacy. As we do more things together in other contexts we get more entangled in each other's lives. I invite a coworker out on a bike ride - we ride, we chat, we get to know each other outside of work. This grows into a friendship as well. Right? Well...
Then there's people who you share experiences with, build intimacy with, learn, grow with, understand, support, share inside jokes, struggle, have conflicts, resolve them, and enjoy silence together. This is the category that I would typically ascribe to friends, but they're so incredibly rare and require so much investment in time and energy to build. In this category I may have anywhere from one to a small handful of people. These relationships are so incredibly valuable that they become a pillar of support and encouragement in one's life. These are most certainly friends by any account.
The fuzzy areas, then, are: what draws the boundary between friends and best friends, and what happens when one is flush with acquaintances and friend poor? For the dozens of people I interact with on a day to day, the bulk of them are acquaintances, certainly. Maybe one of them is a friend, or, a friend by the absurdly high standard that my mind has previously held for the title. In this, I think that friends, or, the potential thereof, are in abundance. Any number of these acquaintances has the potential to become a friend and even a best friend, given the time, energy, and wherewithal to grow. Not all friendships need to reach the intimacy that a best friend requires. Most friendships, I think, are acquaintances that shift between contexts. The best friend, that level of intimacy, is something special. Something rare. A title that needn't be held by everyone, but an opportunity available to anyone given the time.
So, what then defines the boundary between stranger and friend? Well, if we've interacted on numerous occasions, you're definitely not a stranger. If we interact regularly in the same context, you're definitely an acquaintance. If we interact in different context, sharing experiences and developing interpersonal intimacy, we're probably friends. And, if that grows into vulnerability, trust, advice, and confiding, it's likely that you're one of the ones that's going to stick around.