There are a lot of people in the world, and as you go about your day-to-day life there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to meet some of them.
While many of the people you meet will remain acquaintances, some of them will become your friends.
But how do you know the difference?
According to this article from the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), there are four levels of friendship: acquaintanceship, casual friendship, close friendship, and intimate friendship.
It’s important to understand the differences in each of these categories so that you know what is and is not appropriate to ask or tell someone, as well as to help you determine who you can call on in your hour of need.
DTR: Define the Relationship
The “DTR” conversation can be a dreaded obstacle for many people in romantic relationships, but you can rest easy: we’re not asking you to have this discussion with your friends and acquaintances.
But if you’re looking to determine who in your social circle are your true friends versus those who are merely acquaintances, considering the details of your relationships with each of these people is a necessary first step.
According to one study, the difference between friends and acquaintances is your self-presentation. “Self-presentation represents behaviors used in establishing an identity with others; such behaviors may differ across various interpersonal relationships.”1
In other words, your self-presentation is the side of yourself you choose to reveal to a person, or how much of yourself you choose to share with somebody. What you choose to share about yourself, and the ways you choose to share it, will be different with an acquaintance than they will with a true friend.
In fact, the study found that people “engaged in more self-presentation in more established types of relationships.”1 This means that people were more trusting of their friends than their acquaintances and as a result they shared more about themselves and their lives. However, the study also found that people were more likely to try harder to impress acquaintances than closer friends (which is why it’s been 5 years since you’ve worn anything other than sweatpants to your best friend’s house, and vice versa).
Considering these two components can help you determine whether someone is your acquaintance or your true friend:
- How much do I trust this person/how comfortable am I sharing the more personal details of my life with them?
- How concerned am I with impressing this person/how comfortable am I being my true self around them?
Now let’s take a closer look at each of the different categories of friendship and how they play out on a day-to-day basis.
Acquaintances can be people you’ve just met as well as people you’ve known for a while. It isn’t necessarily the amount of time you’ve known a person that makes them an acquaintance (because it’s entirely possible to become close friends with someone very quickly). What makes a person an acquaintance instead of a friend is the amount of time you spend with them.
A person is your acquaintance if you only see them coincidentally instead of making intentional plans to see each other. With an acquaintance, you will say “hello,” ask surface-level questions about life (work, the kids, the weather), and move on. Acquaintances are not people you discuss personal details or serious topics with.
An example of an acquaintance is the friend-of-a-friend who’s always present at your group hang-outs but who you never hang out with unless your mutual friend is also present. This is the person who is close friends with your close friend, but the two of you are not close friends with one another.
Another example is someone you regularly encounter at social events, and although you may have a brief conversation when you see each other, you never make plans to see each other on purpose.
Like we mentioned before, you may feel more of a need to impress your acquaintances than you do with your friends. When you are at this level of friendship with someone, they are still closer to “stranger” than “friend” and you are still trying to make a good impression.
If you don’t know someone very well, you’re probably not going to show up to hang out with them in your pajamas (like you would with a close friend). You’re also probably not going to share your deepest, darkest secrets with them– as an acquaintance, you simply aren’t at that level of closeness with one another and it would likely come across as needy.
Here’s an example using one of my real-life acquaintances:
I like to take my dogs to a local dog park when the weather is nice. I don’t go on the same days or at the same times, I just go whenever I get a chance and feel up to it.
There are many different people at the dog park, but I’ve encountered the same woman on more than one occasion and every time she’s there we end up talking. These conversations are always exclusively about our dogs, the military (since the dog park is on a military base), and events taking place in our city.
We don’t meet up on purpose, we don’t discuss the more personal details of our lives, and we don’t make plans to hang out in the future. But if we happen to run into each other again, that’s great. It would be rude not to speak with acquaintances when you see them, but it is not expected that you make plans to see them intentionally.
If, during the course of my conversation with this woman (let’s call her Joan), I decided that we had so many common interests or had such a good time talking that I’d like to invite her to bring her dog over to my house to play with my dogs, then we would be entering casual friendship.
A casual friend is different than an acquaintance because you make plans to see each other instead of just seeing each other in passing or by chance. However, with a casual friend, your hang-outs may be sporadic and are often related to the same type of event that took place when you met.
Remember how I invited Joan’s dog to come play with my dog? It makes sense, because we met at the dog park and have dogs as a mutual interest. At this stage, I’m not going to plan regular dog play-dates or invite Joan’s family to come to dinner with my family.
A casual friend may be someone from work with whom you occasionally eat lunch or attend work-related conferences. You probably wouldn’t call on a casual friend to help you change a flat tire or pick you up at the airport.
Now, if Joan and I were to occasionally hang out while our dogs played, and continue to see each other in passing at the dog park, we may discover that we both love Mexican food. We may decide to go get dinner one night, and while having dinner we may begin to open up more about the details of our jobs, our families, and our personal histories. We would then begin making intentional plans to spend time together more regularly.
At this point, Joan and I would be entering the stage of close friendship.
In a close friendship, you spend time together regularly and the things you do together do not revolve solely around the event where you first met. Just like Joan and I would begin to do things that don’t involve our dogs, a close friend is someone you would hang out with outside of work or school, doing non-work and school related activities.
A close friend is someone who makes an effort to help when you need it, and can be depended upon to keep their word.
In close friendships, you are comfortable discussing the things that go on in your day-to-day life, both good and bad. You share your secrets, commiserate with one another on the bad days, and celebrate with one another on the good days.
The last and deepest level of friendship is the intimate friend. This is a best friend– the type of friend who knows everything about you and you about them. No matter how far apart you may ever live, the intimate friendship is one that lasts a lifetime.
In the intimate friendship, there are few topics that are ever off-limits. The intimate friend is one who can point out your flaws and offer suggestions for improvement, and while it may be difficult to hear, it isn’t offensive because you understand how deeply they care for you (and you’re willing to do the same for them).
The difference between a close friendship and an intimate friendship is primarily time. A close friendship that withstands the ups and downs of life over an extended period of time is considered an intimate friendship.
From Acquaintance to Close Friend
After reading through the descriptions of each type of friendship, you may have realized you have more acquaintances than you think. While it’s perfectly normal for your acquaintances to outnumber your close friends (quality over quantity, after all), what should you do if you’d like to turn some of those acquaintances into closer friends?
First, check out our guide on small talk and conversation. This guide will teach you how to begin with small talk and gradually make your way into deeper conversation with someone. Moving from superficial small talk topics to more personal conversations (in a natural, comfortable way) is the first step in turning an acquaintance into a close friend.
Having a successful conversation with someone (that isn’t small talk) creates a natural opportunity for you to plan a time to hang out with them. Like we explained before, making plans to spend time with someone moves you from “acquaintance” to “casual friend.” Here’s an example of what you can say:
“I really enjoyed talking with you. We should [go see that movie we talked about/go shopping at that place you mentioned/hang out and play that game together/get coffee and talk more about that] sometime! Are you free _________?”
Once you’ve hung out with someone once, it’s important to continue planning to spend time together if you wish to develop a true close friendship. Make sure that you aren’t pushy when you initiate hang-outs; your social outings don’t need to be back-to-back, and you don’t have to plan another time to hang out immediately after finishing your last hang-out. Ideally, the other person will also initiate some of your plans to spend time together– this is an important hallmark of a two-way friendship.
When you are hanging out together, continue having quality conversations like we teach you in this guide. The more you talk and find things in common, the more comfortable you will become around one another. As a result, you will begin to open up more to one another and your conversations will naturally become deeper and more personal. When this happens, you will find that your former acquaintance is now your close friend.
Can My Friendships Regress?
Now that you know about each type of friendship and what you can do to move from acquaintance to close friend with someone, you may be wondering if your friendships can move in the opposite direction.
The answer is yes!
Because your friendships progress when you begin spending more time with someone, it stands to reason that they will regress when you stop spending as much time with someone. While this is not always the case (like in long distance friendships), the inability to spend time with a friend does present new challenges when it comes to remaining close.
So if you notice that someone seems a little more distant than normal, ask yourself how much time you’ve spent with them recently to help you determine whether this could be causing your friendship to move backwards.
Friendships are a necessary part of your mental and emotional health, but it’s important to know who your real friends are. If you’re struggling to make friends, check out this article.
In what category do most of your friendships fall? Share in the comments below!
- Overup, C. S. & Neighbors, C. 2016. Self-presentation as a function of perceived closeness and trust with romantic partners, friends, and acquaintances. Journal of Social Psychology, 156(6). 630-637.