This is the fourth entry in a series of posts on friendship. To find the others once they’ve been published, find the menu button in the upper right corner of the blog and see “Summer Friendship Series.”
As a writer, you could say that I think about words a lot. Part of both the joy and frustration of writing is being able to find just the right word to express exactly the sort of sentiment you want to convey. For the most part, the English language usually does a pretty good job of supplying words that have the proper nuance, but something that I’ve been thinking about recently is how sometimes we don’t have enough words to capture the depth of some things that we consider to be so basic. Friendship is one of those things.
In English, our single word ‘friend’ encompasses such a wide range of meanings that other languages might divide into different words in order to convey the proper amount of nuance behind them. I mean, I think it’s a little strange that we use the same word to describe people that we’re connected to on Facebook, many of whom we might not even talk to or interact with on a regular basis, as well as people that we share our souls with and can call late at night to cry with. It seems almost disrespectful to use the same word for both of those kinds of relationships. After all, many people call their spouses or their siblings their best friends, and yet we’ll still use the same word to talk about that person we might’ve shared a class with freshman year of college or high school and haven’t talked to since.
That’s one of the things I loved most about being a linguistics major. By at least rudimentarily studying several other languages, you gain a broader understanding of how other people express different ideas across different languages, and the subtle nuances that those untranslatable words and phrases carry tell you quite a bit about how that language or culture thinks about and treats various aspects of life. With friendship, I think the contrast between English and other languages is quite striking.
Friend || English
We’ll start with the English word for friend, because I think that this word carries a lot of underlying connotations that we perhaps don’t consciously think about when we use it in our daily lives. Personally, in observing and thinking about the ways that the majority of people around me use the word ‘friend,’ I’ve realized that this word tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that other languages’ terms for the same type of relationship don’t necessarily. In English, a friend can span anything from an acquaintance that you’ve met and small talked with to someone you’ve known for years and years and knows some of the most intimate parts of your life. Again, it’s peculiar that English uses the same words for both of those kinds of relationships.
The English word for friendship tends to carry notions of casualness and complacency that the same words in other languages don't.
The complacency and looseness of the term ‘friend’ comes into play when you start comparing friendship to other kinds of relationships. In American society specifically, I think that we tend to use a hierarchical system when it comes to how we mentally organize the different types of relationships in our lives. The pyramid is structured a little differently for everyone, but what I’ve noticed is that, especially in American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top, while simultaneously associating friendship with a slightly lower tier, as if friendships are inherently less valuable or desirable than romantic relationships. I don’t think many of us would admit it in those specific words, but I do think that this is how we tend to act when we really think about prioritizing relationships a lot of the time. I know that I’ve definitely chosen to do this before, giving someone that I might’ve been even vaguely interested in priority over my friends or family. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, because it might not be in every circumstance, but I think it’s definitely something to think about, whether we realize that we might be doing that and whether that’s something we want to continue doing consciously.
In American Christian culture, we tend to place romantic and marriage relationships at the top of the pyramid while simultaneously associating friendship with a lower tier.
Nakama/Shinyuu || Japanese
Japanese has a number of different words and expressions that are used for friendship depending on what part of the country you happen to be from, and these two are ones that I’ve heard the most frequently in shows and other media when characters are talking about especially close friends. Where we have the word ‘friend’ in English, Japanese would use [tomodachi], which is loosely used to refer to schoolmates or casual friends and acquaintances, people that you enjoy spending time with and doing certain activities with, but whom you’d probably still address using slightly more formal language, which is often a sign of closeness in Japanese culture. This seems roughly equivalent to the way that we usually use the word ‘friend’ in English, but then Japanese has [shinyuu] and [nakama], which express slightly different but similar ideas.
[shinyuu] refers to your best friend or your confidant, which is fairly commonplace understanding in English. It’s that person who knows your secrets, and obviously, you know theirs as well. In Japanese culture, these two people might refer to each other using just their given names or with diminutive honorifics, which usually implies a high degree of closeness, especially since honorifics and respectful speech are typically used as a means of social distancing for respect purposes in Japanese culture. For this reason, most people typically address each other by their last names accompanied by an appropriate honorific, or a little linguistic tag that denotes their status in relation to each other. That’s why the very act of being able to address someone by just their given name signals that closeness in Japanese culture, and thus goes to show the level of friendship between two people meant to be understood by the use of this word.
On the other hand, [nakama] refers to friends that you almost no longer consider to be friends at all. When someone is [nakama], it means that person or those people have essentially become family to you, a person who will stand by you no matter what, which is even more significant in Japanese culture than it might seem to us Americans. In the United States, it’s more or less common to know people who consider each other to be family even if they aren’t related by blood. Perhaps they grew up together, or their parents are close, which led to them being close by default. That’s part of what [nakama] means, but it just barely scratches the surface, because family is so much more significant to someone’s identify and social construction in Japanese culture.
In Japan, the family is the first social unit that a person is born into and remains the main social unit for the rest of your life. There are a lot of stereotypical ideas about Japanese, or perhaps Asian honor culture in general, floating around the United States, and that’s what this plays into. Family is your biggest priority in Japanese culture, and a large part of your identify comes from how you interact and relate to your family. Anything that you might do will reflect back on your family and the same goes for anything that your family members might do in relation to you. It’s hard to properly describe how significant family is in Japanese culture, being a collective culture, rather than an individual culture like what exists in the United States, but it goes without saying that for a friend to become family in Japanese culture means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friends to be in American culture.
In Japanese culture, for a friend to become family inherently means for that relationship to be on a level above what we would normally consider friendship in American culture.
I’m not sure that I have any true [nakama] in my life quite yet, but I would say that my friend Sheridan is pretty freaking close. We don’t quite reflect on each other in the same way that family members would reflect on each other in Japanese culture, but most people that know us also automatically know the other, or have at least heard of the other. But we definitely will stand by each other no matter what. She knows my secrets (provided that we’ve had time to actually catch up, considering that we’ve found ourselves living across countries or oceans from each other recently), she’s one of the first people that I want to tell when I have news, and she’s my first choice as a roommate once we decide to start trying to adult. She makes me want to listen to better music, eat healthier (and trendier, haha) food, and she’ll call me out on my BS without really caring if I’ll like it or not (because eventually, I’ll come around and realize that I was doing something stupid). She’s one of very few of my friends who I’ve cried with (and loudly at that) in person, and to top it all off, we actually technically weren’t friends for a grand total of three months at one point in time (again, because a certain person was being stupid – read – me), so if that’s not “standing by you no matter what,” then I’m not really sure what is.
She’s good for me in more ways than I have time to write about here, but I think one specific thing I will always love about her is that she has an uncanny sense of discernment that I haven’t seen in anybody else in my life. She can get a read on any situation and see through whatever other kinds of mess are floating around in a heartbeat.
Now, I’m definitely not the kind of person to overspiritualize everything, but last winter I was going through a pretty dark, suicidal period in life, which most people are familiar with, and she was the first person to point out to me that perhaps part of that cloud of darkness was a form of spiritual attack. It was something that hadn’t even been on my radar before she mentioned it, and frankly, I was a caught a little off guard by that assessment, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. That was the crack in the door I needed to be able to see the light on the other side, and that kind of discernment isn’t something that everyone has.
I’m not sure if the two of us will ever quite fit the exact definition of [nakama], just because American culture doesn’t work the same way, but if there was ever an American equivalent, Sheridan would definitely be [nakama] to me.
Maybe the reason we have such a low view of friendship in American culture is because we don't have adequate words to fully explain and define what those relationships mean to us.
These kinds of distinctions and nuances in how other languages talk about friendship consistently blow my mind, and I’m certain that they help me better understand what friendship really is, because our American view of friendship is so narrow and limited. In linguistics and probably also in psychology, we learn that the way we talk about things influences the way that we then perceive things and treat them. Maybe the reason that we have such a low view of friendship in American and American Christian culture is because we don’t have adequate words to fully explain what those relationships mean to us, and maybe we need to start borrowing some of this friendship vocabulary in order to free us from the cultural chains that bind our preconceived notions of what friendship is so that we can really, truly understand it in all of its beauty.
Coming up in this series on friendship: the second half of this discussion on friendship in linguistic terms, covenant friendship and intimacy between friends, reviving friendship by untangling romanticism and sexuality, and some thoughts on a culture that tells us not to really love our friends, among other topics. Subscribe to the blog to get email notifications of new posts and like ‘Jonah Venegas’ on Facebook in order to get updates as posts come out, and let me know in the comments or on social media what you’re thinking about all of this stuff.