The limits of modern friendship

A few days ago, I rang a friend whose recent emails had suggested that he was in low spirits. There had been health problems, a career disappointment. After a couple of minutes of small talk, he asked politely: “To what do I owe this pleasure?” Rather than admit that I was merely calling for a chat, I pretended I needed his advice on something.

With the launch this week of the UK branch of Rent a Friend, it is time to recognise that friendship has become a tricky business. There was a time when it could be taken for granted; family was difficult, love was perilous, but friends were relatively straightforward. Agony aunts were rarely required to dispense advice about serious companionship issues. That has all changed. The whole business of friendship has become commodified and laden with anxiety. Thanks to the new technology, friends (some of whom you may only have met online) are part of any modern, evolved person’s self-image. Their popularity can be measured by the number of names on their social network sites, by the calls on their mobile phone. Friendship is everywhere, yet seems to mean less.

Rent a Friend is a logical part of the process. It has already been successful in America and Canada, where a database of 218,000 men and women are available to provide chat and company (but not sex) at a rate of $10 an hour. Around 2,000 people pay a monthly premium to have access to this pool of professional friends. In Japan, renting friends is a commonplace solution to those tricky social situations when a person would prefer not to be seen alone. One agency exists to provide fake relatives for weddings and funerals; another provides stand-in husbands for women about to get married and wishing to become habituated to married life. “Mothers” are available to those who want to discuss intimate problems in their lives. It all sounds thoroughly practical. The trends shows “technology starting to repair and fix the problems we have with social inhibitions”, according to one British psychologist.

There is a problem with this theory. If we are socially inhibited (and there is little sign of it), then it may well be that technology has played its part – the easier it becomes to communicate through a screen, the more fraught with embarrassment and danger real life can seem.

The instantly rentable and expendable friend provides a rather sad little insight into our busy, self-centred culture. For all the buzz and rush of chat-room, emails and mobiles, people are increasingly lonely. Unable to manage the real thing, they ring an agency for the non-sexual equivalent of a one-night stand. The day of the good, dull friend, of the person whose company one enjoys without quite understanding why, is gone. In a fretful, competitive world, those who take up time, thought, a place in the address book are expected to earn their keep. The kind of question which used to be asked of big relationships are now asked of small ones. Am I being used? Do I deserve better? Am I putting into this thing more than I am getting out? Is it time to move on? No wonder the quick bunk-up approach to friendship has appeal. The great anxiety today is of boredom – of missing out on a good time. Friends are now expected to keep their place in our affections with chat, gossip, intelligence, jokes. Once they become too needy, or rather the balance of need shifts within the relationship, they can be de-friended as easily in life as on Facebook.

Perhaps it is inevitable and healthy, this removal of dead wood from our social lives, but somehow it feels like an old skill is being lost – a talent for the kind of real, unconditional friendship, which may be battered and frayed at the edges, but which has stood the test of time. Beyond the gains and losses in the friendship business, many people are feeling more lonely, not less, in the buzz and noise of our fidgety, restless culture.

For further reading: The Meaning of Friendship, by Mark Vernon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Independent, Tuesday, 20 July 2010