Friendship has been a subject for philosophical thought since there has been philosophical thought. This only makes sense since friendship is such an important part of human life. As with much of philosophy, Plato discussed the topic, but Aristotle’s views are what dominate the landscape. Aristotle saw three different types of friendship. There are friendships based on pleasure. Basically, these are people who are friends because they entertain each other. There are friendships based on utility. These are people who are friends because they can help each other. Then, there are friendships based on virtue. These are cases where people recognize the inherent goodness in each other and become friends.
Of the three types of friendships, the third is obviously the ideal. Some even argue that friendship based on virtue is the only true friendship. That doesn’t seem right, though. There are two problems with this view. The first is that friendship would be too rare. Friendship is an integral part of most people’s lives. Redefining friendship in a restrictive way eliminates all of those friendships. The second is that it is ideal rather than real. The separate categories serve a function. They allow discussions and help to illuminate different features of friendship. But, all real life friendships are a mixture of different categories. To define only one as real misses what actual friendships are.
Failure to see friendships of pleasure and friendships of utility as true friendships also misses the way actual people experience friendship. When it comes to utility or pleasure, if the experience is fungible, it is not a friendship. If any carpenter can do a job, there is no friendship between the carpenter and the client. If there’s only one carpenter that can do the job, because she is trustworthy, skilled, and clever, then the carpenter and client are on the way to becoming friends. If the carpenter turns around and uses the client’s gardening service, rather than any other, because the client is also trustworthy, skilled, and clever, then they have a real friendship.
There are several things that all friendships have in common. Some of these are shared experiences, common interests, intimacy, reciprocity, and caring. These are needed to see the difference between friends and non-friends, especially with the pleasure and utility categories. For example, many people are entertained by Steve Martin, but very few of those people are friends with Steve Martin¹. The simple reason is that the relationship is completely one sided. People have experiences with Steve Martin, they have common interests with Steve Martin, they care about Steve Martin, but they don’t share these things with him. And there is no reciprocity or intimacy.
Work friends do not fit into any of the three basic categories, at least not necessarily. The phrase “work friends” sounds like it would fit into the category of utility, but that is wrong. Depending on the place of business, co-workers often cannot do anything to help each other. They might work in different departments or with different products. Work friendships are also not built on pleasure. If a person spent her time entertaining her co-workers, she probably wouldn’t last very long in the job. Work friends are the people that meet the basic criteria of friendship, but with a twist. That twist is that the only reason for the friendship is a shared job. This twist is enough of a change to make work friendships an entirely new category of friendship.
Work friends have all of the basic criteria of friendship. They have shared experiences, often 40 hours a week worth. They have common interests, these can be anything from the actual work they do to NCAA sports. There is an intimacy that develops just from spending time around another person. And if their relationship goes beyond co-workers to work friends, there is reciprocity and caring. Also, work friendships are not fungible. If a person leaves a business and a replacement is hired, there is no guarantee that the replacement will have the same work friends as his predecessor. There are two ways that work friends are different than all of the other types of friendship. The first is that the work friends’ relationship takes place solely at work. Otherwise they would just be friends. The second is that the relationship is between people who would never have had a relationship if not for work.
With most friendships, it is obvious why the people are friends. They are roughly the same age, speak the same language, live in the same place, participate in the same leisure activities. Work brings together people of all ages, cultures, languages, and economic situations. Work can create friendships between 18 year olds fresh out of high school and 65 year olds counting the days until retirement. It can create friendships between single mothers trying to put food on the table and trust fund kids trying to pad their resumes. This isn’t to say that all co-workers eventually become friends. However, the 18 year old and 65 year old would never meet without work. The single mother and trust fund kid would never discover a common interest without work. Like utility and pleasure, work is a facilitator of genuine friendships.
Work as it is thought of today is relatively recent. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people did not go to a place of work with complete strangers. Most people worked on farms or in small village centers with family and people they had known all of their lives. It is this change that has given rise to a new category of friendship. It is sad if a work friend leaves. It is happy if a work friend has a child. These feelings are the result of an actual connection, a genuine interest in the other person. Work friends help make day to day drudgery tolerable. Since most people spend most of their time at work, it is good that this new category developed.
Barbara Roth was a work friend who died earlier this week. I am sure we would have never connected if not for work. I am closer to her kids’ ages than her age. She’s New York through and through while I’m adamant that Connecticut is part of New England. The things that we had in common were that we were both tutors and both had a strong interest in philosophy. I literally never saw her outside of the Academic Success Center at Capital Community College. Yet, we were friends. Writing a philosophical essay justifying that feeling is the best way I could think of to pay tribute to our friendship.
¹If anyone reading this is actually friends with Steve Martin, please give him my best and please suggest he contact Oteil Burbridge about a banjo album. It would be amazing.