Why You Should Invest in “Big Friendships”, According to the Experts Who Wrote the Book on It

published Aug 18, 2020
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Credit: Left to right: Simon & Schuster, cover design by Elizabeth Spiridakis Olson; Describe the Fauna

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have been best friends for over a decade. That’s not quite right—they’ve been big friends for almost a decade. Big friendship is a specific, new term that the pair came up with and then centered their new book around. The friendship memoir (yes, that’s a thing), “Big Friendship,” discusses the rewards and struggles of an enduring, healthy, often long-distance friendship, elevating this relationship in a way not many books or researchers often do. 

At the beginning of this pandemic, there were plenty of articles about maintaining relationships with romantic partners, keeping things working smoothly with colleagues, but very little about how to stay in touch with and prioritize our friendships, which often nourish us in ways that other relationships can’t (hence why they’re often called “chosen family.” The “chosen” piece is powerful.) Luckily for us, Sow and Friedman’s new book came out at the perfect time—a time when many friends are isolated from each other, a time when we may be personally exhausted and sacrifice the time and care these friendships deserve to flourish—and offers expert advice as well as a multitude of personal anecdotes, Gchat records, and shared memories of their long-lasting friendship. 

We spoke about “Big Friendship,” how to stay connected online without getting complacent, and a way you might examine and archive your own big friendships (without taking on an entire book project). The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Apartment Therapy: In this book you’re coining the term, “big friendship.” You’re also known for coining Shine Theory, and your friends have created the idea of “Body’s Choice.” New words and phrases are invented to address some kind of gap in our current language—what kind of gap are you addressing with these phrases, particularly “big friendship?”

Aminatou Sow: The phenomena of groups of friends having their own language for the experience of their friendship is not unique to us. But I think that you are correct in identifying that part of what we were trying to do here is put a stake in the ground with some precise vocabulary and precise definitions. The word “friend” itself is so nebulous, it really can mean anything: from someone that your parents introduced you to in-utero to someone that you’re intensely close to today, with the middle ground of people you just know on Facebook that you don’t quite remember how you added them. So being really precise with what we mean when we talk about the kind of friendship we are talking about was really important. We are talking about a friendship that is hearty, a friendship that is mature, a friendship that is rooted in the future, and a friendship that is very, very, very active.

AT: Saying “rooted in the future” is such an interesting term to use right now when no one knows what future is. Is there anything you would have added to the book had you been able to anticipate the moment the world would be in during its release?

Ann Friedman: We do write about the fact that we are in a long-distance friendship, which was a transition that was pretty easy for us to make. Maybe if we would have anticipated this moment we would have done a little bit more to unpack what was required of each of us to transition our friendship to not seeing each other every day. 

We also had a good question in one of our events from someone who was asking about mental illness and self-isolation, and how both parties can stay friends through a challenge like that. We touch on chronic illness in the book—but [mental illness] is something coming up for a lot of people as well.

AT: I keep describing this to people as a friendship memoir—does that label feel accurate? Was this the structure you set out to write, or were you hoping to lean more personal or more researched?

AS: I am happy to report that this is the book that we sold. A memoir with some research and expert interviews woven in. Anyone who listens to our podcast or knows us personally will recognize that this is how we talk to each other. We knew that obviously in order to tell any kind of story about friendship successfully, we really had to be specific about our own friendship. That specificity in the narrative was a thing that would drive the story. Calling on the research and the expert interviews really expands out the possibilities.

What we are really trying to get at is there is not a ton of social support for how you do friendship. Part of that is giving examples in our own story but a lot of that is also pointing to the research, and really the dearth of research that is there.

AT: You’ve said in other interviews that you wish you could take this microscope to all of your relationships. For friends who are long distance right now, who might not have time for a book-level project on their relationship, is there an exercise you both did while researching your personal friendship for the book that you would recommend to long distance friends who are looking to reflect and examine their relationship?

AF: You’re right about the time-consuming part of this! One thing we had to do over and over again that people could choose to do once is have a conversation about a time in your friendship that’s pretty far in the past—be it around how you met, or a different moment, or a time that you were not in great communication with each other. Go back to your records of that time. We’re lucky our friendship is so old that there are a lot of Gchat records from our early days, which makes it easy to search in your email. But, there might be a way to search your text archive as well, and say, okay, what were we actually saying to each other at that point in time? 

One thing that we didn’t fully remember about how we met—we knew we were both invited to our friend Dayo’s house, but we had forgotten that there was this whole exchange that Dayo and I had planning it. Part of the planning was us being so excited that Aminatou was coming! Little details like that are really fun to re-encounter. So maybe picking a point in time and both doing a search and comparing notes could be a really fun exercise.

AT: You both talk about being social initiators as way you derive joy, connect with friends, and even play friend matchmaker for others—what does social initiation look like for you during a pandemic?

AS: Before the pandemic, Ann and I are the kinds of people who would always get an extra ticket to a thing that we wanted to do or always get one more place on your reservation just in case you invited someone— and that is holding very true for me in the pandemic. I am so struck by how lonely I feel and how upsetting it is to be alone, and so any chance I get to be invited to a thing or join someone else’s Zoom—again, trying to make room for one more person—is the thing that is keeping me going because so many other people in my life have done that for me. Remember that every awful feeling that you can have is a feeling that someone else might be having in real time. It’s so humbling and so concrete at the same time. I think that we are definitely not going to be having dinner parties for a long time but the spirit of the dinner party—inviting interesting people in your life—is something that can definitely live online.

AT: You talk a lot in your book about how we show up for each other—in our day-to-day friendships as well as during a crisis in a friend’s life. Right now, as many of us are experiencing personal crises, we’re not at 100%. So what does “showing up” for a friend look like for you on your worst day? 

AF: I don’t know! It looks different depending on the circumstances and the friendship. Sometimes for me the minimum is a text that is the equivalent of a wave, like “Hey, still here! Still thinking about you!” Maybe I don’t have the time or the means to have this be something deeper than a brief hello, but hey I’m waving at you. For me, that’s a minimum. It’s quick and easy and it’s acknowledging a desire for more time, more energy, more connection even if it’s not happening in that moment.

Credit: Milan Zrnic

AT: You both talk about a lot of big friendships each of you have in your lives, yet your friendship is at the center of this book. What makes your particular big friendship the right one to examine so deeply here? Could you have written this book with a different big friendship at the center?

AF: In terms of the actual work required to write a book, the two of us had a lot of experience collaborating on other things that laid the groundwork for us to undertake the huge collaboration that is a book. From a pure “how do you work with someone in order to do this?”— this is the only friendship that’s equipped for that kind of burden and that kind of collaboration.

The question of would it be fascinating and probably beneficial to explore another friendship or several other friendships in my life with this level of attention—I think that those friendships could hold up to the scrutiny and really benefit from it. It’s just that, maybe it couldn’t be put into a book quite the same way that we were able to translate this friendship.

AT: You include a lot of research and expert interviews throughout the book—is there one piece of research or information that changed the way that you see your friendships or the way you’ll make friendships in the future?

AS: One piece of research that I’d always suspected but became more concrete for me was this factoid of how people were using social media specifically. And the people who reported the happiest use of social were people who were following their friends versus following strangers. I have cut back a lot on following people whose lives I don’t know at all, and it has been a real joy. That is one tiny thing.

AT: Aminatou, a few weeks ago you shared this beautiful Toni Morrison quote: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” You both talk in the book about loving each other’s brains. What does it feel like to fall in love with a friend’s brain, and why is that so important? 

AS: I love that quote. Ann and I are both such innately curious people, that anyone who taps into any area of curiosity for us is someone whose brain we want to explore more. I’m so aware of how little I know in the world, and so when I meet other people who open up that area of possibility for me, I’m always attracted to them.

AF: For me it’s a feeling. You know how sometimes you just feel smarter around people? When I hear the part about organizing the pieces of your brain and handing them back to you, that’s really what I think about. That feeling of, “I’m making a lot of sense right now!” but in fact, it’s because you’re in conversation with this specific person.

AT: Your podcast’s catchphrase of “See you on the Internet” is kind of perfect for right now. How do you bring intentionality to your internet relationships?

AS: Almost everyone is in a long distance relationship right now. [We’re] forgetting that the internet, despite the platforms’ best efforts, offers a real gift to be able to communicate with people that you just can’t see. It’s actual magic. We really take it for granted. I think that [we need to] really curate spaces online—whether its in your group chats or in your email or on your social media—where you treat those spaces like you would treat your home. Places where you invite people, places where you set intentions, places where you want people to feel welcome, and their best—this is something that is within all of our grasps. 

I am really trying hard to think of the internet right now as a place of gathering and a place where a kind of special gathering is possible. All of the same rules that apply offline apply here! Invite people. Be kind to them. Have appointments. Follow through with people. Give them things to look forward to. The same feeling we feel when someone writes you an actual letter and you open your mailbox and it’s not just a thousand pieces of junk—that is also possible online. I know it sounds very naïve and romantic and taxing but I think that for anyone who has been online as long as I have, we can all recall a time where that really facilitated a positive kind of interaction for us and I think that it is possible to do that for each other and keep that moving forward.

AF: I love that.

AT: Was the book always going to be dedicated to each other? 

AS: There was no way we were going to write this book together and not dedicate it to each other. That would’ve been really funny: Ann dedicating it to her family and I’m dedicating it to her.

The dedication is the one part of the book that we did not write together. And it was very pleasant to see them side by side. There was no one else this book was going to be dedicated to.

Speed Round

I tried to get Sow and Friedman to answer a few quick questions about how they’re staying connected to friends from a distance. As you might expect from their conversations about specificity and intentionality, the answer is almost always, “depends on the friend!” But we tried.

AT: Video call or phone call?

AS: Depends on the friend depends on the day.

AF: I am defaulting to phone more and more these days, but I have routines with friends that are phone and video. 

AT: Letter or email?

AF: It truly varies based on the friend, although I have been defaulting to old fashioned mail more often during this pandemic.

AS: I prefer to receive both of those things, but I would rather send out a long email.

AT: Start the same show or read the same book?

AF: I always love finding out a friend has read a book I have recently read. I don’t do book clubs—I don’t do very well committing to reading the same thing as a friend in advance and then doing it. I love when it serendipitously happens and we then talk about it.