The Rules of Friendship

While doing some research recently on relationships, I came across an old but classic scholarly paper entitled “The Rules of Friendship” by Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson (Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Vol. 1 (1984), pp. 211-237). Using populations from Britain, Italy, Hong Kong, and Japan, the authors studied several related topics:

  1. What are the most important “rules of engagement” for friendship?
  2. Which rules determine whether the friendship remains ordinary or becomes close?
  3. Which rules determine whether the friendship survives or lapses?

Their findings were consistent with common sense but quite interesting.

On the first topic, they identified three general rules that apply to all friendships (in addition to basic things that Aristotle and others identified 2000+ years ago, such as “spend time with your friends”):

  • Repay each other’s debts and favors
  • Tolerate each other’s friends
  • Don’t nag each other

On the second topic, they identified six rules that determine whether the friendship advances from ordinary to close:

  • Share news of each other’s successess
  • Strive to make each other happy when together
  • Stand up for each other when apart
  • Volunteer to help each other in times of need
  • Support each other emotionally
  • Trust and confide in each other

On the third topic, they identified four rules that, if violated, tend to break up the friendship: 

  • Don’t criticize each other in public
  • Keep each other’s confidences
  • Don’t be jealous or critical of each other’s relationships
  • Respect each other’s privacy

There’s more in the paper itself, including the results for 11 distinct hypotheses proposed by the authors. I’m also curious to see if this study has been replicated or extended in more recent psychological literature. However, this brief summary is already long enough, so I’ll need to post about friendship again some other time.

3 thoughts on “The Rules of Friendship

  1. I recall this quote from my youth, “A friend is someone who knows you really well, but loves you anyway”! Indeed, I can think of some people who know me well, warts and all, yet still call me friend. The converse is also true.

    I submit that your post is especially important these days with the poison of politics infecting relationships so profoundly.


    1. Thanks, Eric. I even know a few long-running marriages that have been torn asunder by disagreements over politics in the last few years. Incredibly sad.


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