What does it mean to be a best friend?

Daniel A. Cox June 8, 2021

American friendships have come under considerable stress over the past year, but even in the wake of a global pandemic, most Americans still have at least one close friend. In fact, 87 percent of Americans have one or more close friends. These close friendships are critical to our wellbeing. Americans who have a close friendship have “lower social anxiety, increased sense of self-worth, and fewer symptoms of depression.” But not all close friends are created equal.

A new survey by the Survey Center on American Life reveals significantly fewer Americans (59 percent to be exact) have a single person they consider to be their best friend. This raises an important question: How are these relationships different? How do Americans distinguish their best friend from all the other assorted friends in their life?

To better understand the nature of these unique relationships, the survey prompted respondents to share, in their own words, what it was that made someone their best friend. Responses are illustrated in a word cloud generated by wordart.com, in which larger words indicate more frequent mentions.[i]

Although best friends come in innumerable varieties, there are several common features that emerge from the open-end responses. First, the word “always” is mentioned by respondents more often than any other word, suggesting that best friends may be defined by their permanence. A 55-year-old woman explains her relationship with her best friend in terms of their steadfastness in their commitment. Her best friend is someone who is “always there when I need them.” In fact, the phrase “always there” was mentioned more frequently than any other expression.

But this is not the only aspect of the best friend relationship that matters. Words such as “known,” and “year” are also frequently used by respondents, indicating that the duration of the friendship is an important factor. A 28-year-old man talks about his best friend exclusively in terms of how long they have known each other. “I've known her for as long as I've had memories. I was 2 and she was 1 when we moved next to each other and have known each other since—over 25 years now. She's been the only person outside of my close family that talks to me.”

Finally, communication is an important aspect of these relationships. The word “talk,” and to a lesser extent, “share,” and “listen,” are used frequently by respondents in discussing their best friends. A 53-year-old woman says this about her best friend: “I feel like I can talk with them about anything and they will listen.” It’s notable that Americans with best friends talk to their friends far more often—whether by phone, email or text—than those who do not have a best friend.

These responses suggest that the constancy, dependability and perhaps durability of these friendships are what define them. Best friends are always there—a permanent and unalterable feature of our relationship landscape. We talk to them openly, if not often, and expect them to be around for a long time, in some cases a lifetime.

[i] To provide a clearer illustration of the range and frequency of responses, commonly-used words are not shown.

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