In Praise of ‘Casual’ Friendship

By Ben Davies

Academics, especially early in our careers, move around quite a lot. Having done my PhD in London, I have also lived or worked in Leeds, Liverpool, Oxford, and rural Pennsylvania; I am far from the most well-travelled academic I know. In many cases, when we arrive at a new job, we know that it is likely to only last a short period, perhaps less than a year.

This blog post isn’t about how hard it is to be an academic (though there are plenty of real problems that arise from the precarity in which many early career researchers find themselves). Instead, I want to consider something which all this moving around necessitates: casual friendship.

As with so many topics in philosophy, the go-to authority on friendship is still Aristotle. The mainstream interpretation of Aristotle is that he distinguishes between three kinds of friendship: those of pleasure, those of utility, and those of virtue. Predictably, the friendship centred on virtue is the one with the real value. Indeed, Bennett Helm suggests that “most contemporary accounts, by focusing their attention on the non-deficient forms of friendship, ignore pleasure and utility friendships”. Much writing on friendship, then, is what we might call ‘high-minded’. It focuses on friendships that involve a deep and lasting intimacy and commitment.

When you move cities for a new academic job, and know that you are likely to be moving on again in a year or two, you face a number of needs. You need to find somewhere to live, which means dealing with new bills and landlords. You need to settle into a new institution and new role, meeting colleagues and students. But you also need to find a way to live a life outside of work, temporarily, and with one eye on moving on in the near future. That might involve joining clubs or groups which engage in activities you enjoy, and/or hanging out with colleagues, some of whom will be in the same boat as you: new, and likely to be leaving soon.

The connections you build through either of these routes, or others, are of considerable value. If your new role is far away from where you lived before, you might not know anyone in your new city, and might not have much chance to visit more established friends or have them visit you. At least, in many cases your social life cannot consist of such visits. What’s more, there’s clearly some value to establishing social, as well as professional, connections with the people you work with.

Sometimes such friendships are deep and lifelong. But at other times, they are sustained largely by proximity and convenience; it’s good to have someone to spend time with, to grab a drink with after work, or coffee during the day. And often, there may be a tacit understanding that the friendship will fade once one or both of you moves on.

If we stick with Aristotle’s three-way distinction, such friendships fall somewhere between friendships of utility and pleasure, and fit neither category all that well. On Aristotle’s view, the utility motive seems barely worth calling friendship: it involves a largely instrumental valuing of the other, for some good you can get out of them. For friendships of pleasure, Aristotle offers the example of enjoying the company of someone witty: you aren’t valuing the person themselves, but the pleasure they provide you through being entertaining.

Clearly, the short-term friendships thrown up by academia can involve both these things. Yet I want to suggest that there is an important good that such friendships can realise. This good is such that it would be unfair to characterise even short-term friendships as purely based on utility or superficial pleasure; yet it is not sufficient to make those friendships the kind of long-term, deep commitments presumed by much discussion.

The good in question is companionship. Feeling a sense of companionship with another person is not merely a way of valuing them instrumentally, as friendships of both utility and pleasure seem to involve. As I understand it, companionship differs from ‘company’. To provide someone company is simply to be with them. Companionship involves genuinely valuing the other person and their character, not merely what they can provide for you. And a friendship based on short-term companionship may involve many of the goods a long-term friendship provides: it may involve shared interests and conversation; helping one another out simply because you want to (rather than because of an expected quid pro quo); and caring about the other person’s welfare. Yet all this is consistent, in my view, with recognising that the relationship will end, or at least fade considerably, for largely accidental reasons (i.e., when your geographical relationship changes); on Aristotle’s view, this is an essential feature of the less perfect forms of friendship.

I’ll finish by forestalling an obvious complaint. The first is that my description seems cold-hearted in a way inconsistent with friendship. To respond, let me clarify my comments about the end of a short-term friendship. The way I’ve described things so far, one might think that the casual friends are psychologically unrealistic: having considerable concern and affection for one another one day, and forgetting about each other the next. That’s not quite right: it’s not that, when one or both casual friends move on, they instantly forget about one another. Rather, it’s that the particular value they had for one another’s life is (hopefully) gradually filled by others. That needn’t mean casual friends instantly forget one another, or lose any mutual interest. It’s just that the strength of relationship you have with a casual friend is not such that you are motivated to pursue the relationship across the inconveniences of geography. And, importantly, both parties recognise this at the start of the casual friendship; this isn’t one individual taking advantage of and then abandoning another.

As I’ve suggested, what begins as a casual friendship might evolve into something more, perhaps even the friendship of virtue. Yet I think that we should recognise the value in the friendship that remains casual, and not see it as (necessarily) involving two people who are interested only in what they can get out of one another.

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