With the growth of social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, all of which revolve around the idea of "friends", I have to wonder what the word really means now. Apart from my "friends" on such sites (both in my capacity as Tom and as my alter ego - all of whom I am very happy to have) I also have a number of Second Life "friends." One or two of them might not deserve those quotation marks, even though I have only virtually clapped eyes on them.
Can one really have so many friends? I don't know about the rest of the world, but the Anglo-Saxons/Celts already use the word more freely than Germans, Poles or Russians. There's a big difference between a freund, a sportfreund and a geschäftsfreund in German for example. You might play squash or do business with someone you would never dream of bringing into your home. The word for "friend" in Polish is quite rare. An Englishman might think that's because przyjaciel is so hard to say, but it trips readily enough off a Polish tongue. Use the female variant carelessly and you may imply rather more than intended. Someone a Brit or American would cheerfully call a friend is more likely - to a Pole - to be a znajomy (literally someone known, i.e. an acquaintance). Many a dobry znajomy or "good acquaintance" probably feels closer than many Anglosphere "friends".
It seems to me that in other cultures, the obligations of friendship are taken more seriously and therefore not given or accepted lightly. When I read that Tony Blair's son had been left drunk in a London gutter by his "friends" years ago, I thought them unworthy of the word. No Russian friend would have done that. He would have seen the unfortunate chap home as, ahem, I can vouch for from personal experience.
The English language is able to make all these important distinctions of course, but from a social point of view it's difficult to do so politely. I did not know whether an Austrian client was a friend or not for years, because his cheery bonhomie in English was so indiscriminate. Only when he described me to someone else in German as his "very good business friend," did I understand my true position. In the Anglosphere, the situation is blurring further as social mores change. My instinct to frost a young salesperson who uses not only my first name, but the chummy abbreviated form, is no longer understood when I visit Britain. I still do it, mind. I suppose they think I am a crusty old sod. I have never bought anything from anyone who does it, which is adequate vengeance for now. Soon though, I shall be unable to shop in person.
When, as I do, one works across cultures, all this can be a cause of confusion. It's perfectly possible, in a recession, for an Englishman to find himself firing someone he has called a friend. Whether the friendship will survive is, admittedly, another matter. In other cultures, it would be simply unthinkable.
I have heard "friend" defined as someone who would come to your funeral, even if it was raining. I am not sure that's a good definition either. I have gone to the funerals of employees who were not my personal friends, to show my firm's respect and gratitude. I know elderly people who go to funerals merely for the social possibilities; a rather maudlin analogue Facebook. Funerals are a poor test.
If a friend is someone who will be there for you if you are in trouble; someone on whose shoulder you could cry if the need arose, how many friends do we really have? Certainly not the large number leaving chirpy messages on Facebook.
How, dear reader, would you define a friend?