Q: Is there a language of friendship?
A: We all know that friendship is about give and take, trusting and confiding in others, and sharing interests and past times. However, why are some people better at making and keeping friends than others? Is there a “language of friendship” that you can learn to maintain stronger and healthier relationships?
The American poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once wrote, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” Perhaps, what Thoreau meant was that it is not the literal meaning of the words, but rather the unvoiced communication that goes with it. For instance, if you accidentally bumped into someone on the street and she said, “Excuse me,” depending on her tone of voice and facial expression, her meaning could change. She could have quietly and sincerely said, “Excuse me” or she could have loudly and forcibly dragged out the statement, “Excuuuse me!” Though the same words were said, their meanings are drastically different.
Of course, this chance encounter on the street has almost nothing to do with friendship, but the ability to understand a person’s intention is extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. People who pay attention to language alone and ignore non-verbal cues will often misinterpret a friend’s meaning.
Many times, people might have the ability to make friends, but fail to maintain them because they lack the skills to translate the subtleties of language. In his book, It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping Children With Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, Richard Lavoie writes that special-needs children tend to “misinterpret the verbal and non-verbal language of others, causing the relationship to have an unnecessary – and often explosive – conclusion.” Janet Giler, PhD, a California therapist and author, cites children’s inability to understand the ‘language of friendship.’ Often, they misread playful joking and teasing and overreact to statements or gestures that were not intended to be hurtful or negative.
Therefore, the answer to the question “is there a language of friendship” is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Perhaps it is correct to say that there are two layers of the language. In any relationship, the words that people say are extremely significant, but it is the unspoken language of friendship that truly allows relationships to flourish and grow. Learning how to interpret tone, gesture, facial expressions, and body language of the people around you is of the utmost importance in order to maintain relationships.
How can you learn to read non-verbal cues? For children, Todd Parr has a wonderful set of illustrated “Feelings Flashcards.” These flashcards contain pictures of different people’s expressions and body language when they experience a specific emotion. Going over these colorful flashcards can help sensitize children to non-verbal communication. For teenagers and adults, working in small groups with other people who lack these skills can help, as they learn from their mistakes as well as the miscues of others.
We’re all aware that friendships are hard work and it takes time and effort to maintain them, but perhaps understanding the dual aspects of the language of friendship can help make things just a bit simpler.