How To Tell Who Your Real Friends Are, Beyond Social Media

It’s harder than ever to tell who your real friends are. That’s not just because a recent study revealed that most of the people you consider friends don’t even like you that much (the truth hurts, but it will set you free!) but because Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and SnapChat make it so easy to connect and see the intimate details of other people’s lives. Which, of course, makes it hard to divorce yourself from the fact that most of the people you refer to as “friends” on your timeline are people you wouldn’t recognize in real life (or just added because they were hot — no shame, we all do it.)

So what is a friend? How many are you, a well-adjusted individual in this modern age, supposed to have? Is the person who’s constantly liking your Facebook statuses someone who actually cares about you? Does your friendship of 15 years still count if your bestie didn’t wish you a happy birthday on Facebook (to make it official)? And is it possible to be truly close friends with someone you haven’t ever actually met, even though you converse via text, email, and social media on the daily?

In Kate Murphy’s above mentioned New York Times Article (which you should read in full), she explored the ways in which you can tell whether someone’s an actual friend or just that MVP who likes all your lame tweets. And, in the spirit of making your birthday parties and get-togethers easier to plan, we’ve put together a primer on how to tell whether the people you worry about returning your texts are really worth it.

Friends are an added value to your life.

Here’s something to consider the next time you’re analyzing your relationships: Which people in your life — aside from the ones you’re related to and would feel too guilty cutting off — add something to your daily experience that makes you feel happy? And which people are out there giving you more drama than you imagined any adult over the age of 20 ought to have?

The reality is that friendship is really important can have a real influence on your life. A 2006 book written by Tom Rath, the founder and former director of Gallup, revealed that people whose best friends have good health habits are five times as likely to pick up those same habits, that people who make friends at work feel more connected to their jobs (especially if they have a “best friend” on the job), and that even marriages are more successful if both partners feel that there’s a sense of friendship between them, regardless of physical intimacy. So find people that are there for you and recognize how much of an impact they’ll have on your everyday life. Rath suggests doing a “friendship audit” to make sure that you’re getting what you need from the people you spend the most time with and then “sharpening each friendship to its strength.”

We know that may sound sort of icky — after all, you shouldn’t be keeping a pokedex of your nearest and dearest — but it’s really not as bad as it sounds. It’s true that not all your friends will be all things, so recognizing what each of them brings to the table and then adjusting your own ideas of that friendship will make it easier and more enjoyable for each person to remain close. It’s also a good idea for saving a bit of your own sanity. When you know which friends to go to when you want to vent, and which friends to go to when you need some tough advice, you’re going to have a much better time.

Something else to think about: In her piece, Murphy points out that true friends are the type that are just there for the relationship and not to gain something. Of course, this is highly debated (after all, leveraging your connections into opportunities isn’t a crime), but it makes sense to reason that the people you’re close to on a deep and emotional level shouldn’t always be trying to get something from you. Advice? Sure. Support? Absolutely! But if they’re only calling you up when they heard you got a promotion or received an invite to some media-studded soiree (read: an event hosted by one of the lesser Kardashians), they’re probably not the kind of people you want around.

You’re able to be vulnerable with them and they’re able to be vulnerable right back.

One of the most difficult things in the world is to let someone see the real you — the one you’re certain literally no one really wants to be friends with. Real friends — even if they’re ones you mainly see on-line — know that you’re not perfect. And they’re pretty cool with it (until they have to drop some real talk, which always comes from a caring place). It’s a myth that you’ll never annoy or argue with your true friends. Trust us — you will. And they’ll drive you a little crazy, too. But that doesn’t mean that your friendship isn’t real. In fact, it might actually be a testament to how strong your bond is (as long as both people are able to be vulnerable with each other).

Think about this: How open are you able to be with the people closest to you? Are you the one always sharing? If so, that’s a good sign you’re in an imbalanced friendship. And if it’s the other way around, what are you getting out of that relationship? The real magic happens when you and the other person are able to be real with each other without (too much) judging.

They’re one of the five people you actively want to spend your time with.

Despite what you learned in high school, even the most popular people only have two or three friends and then just a whole mess of acquaintances. That may sound a little sad (#squadgoals and all that) but it’s actually a blessing that we can’t turn all the people we like into the lifelong friends we’d like them to be. Not only would it suck to walk around like an emotional sponge 24/7, but the reality that there are really only a few people you call on a regular basis is comforting because it blows the lid off the myth that the best and coolest people have more friends than they can count. You can’t!

There really is some evidence that you can have too many friends: It’s called “Dunbar’s number,” and it comes from British researcher and anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who studied the connection between “brain size and social relationships” and found that our puny brains only have space for 150 people at most. As Dunbar drilled deeper into how we process these connections, he found that you only have room for 5 people in your most inner circle, 10 people in the layer outside of that, and approximately 35 people in the next layer. Everyone else is lumped into the last 100 people on the outermost layer. So can you be popular? Sure. But you’re kidding yourself if you think that you can feel that strongly about all 150 people and that they can hold that same feeling for you. As we’ve already learned, friendship is very lopsided and considering that half of the people you consider friends may not regard you in the same way, it should actually be comforting to know that you don’t have to worry that much about the people outside of your iron-clad circle of trust.

This number is also important because you’ve got to take into account the effort you need to put forth in order to maintain an equitable friendship with someone. It’s not just boys’ nights out and baseball games, but an emotional investment that both parties take seriously. And if we’re so limited on who we spend energy on, then it’s probably best to reshuffle some people back into the acquaintance category — one study suggests that you can tell whether someone is a friend or not based on important cues such as mutual knowledge, intimacy of self-disclosure, and relaxation — and try to build a relationship with someone who’ll be there for you when the going gets tough.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should just limit your social circle to five people. But don’t beat yourself up about chilling with all those people you totally mean to hang with and just can’t find the right time to get together. They’re probably hating themselves for the same thing. Show us one person who’s not regularly regretting not following up on that dinner they were supposed to have with someone they really like but don’t see enough of, and we’ll show you a stone cold liar.

You know their life outside of status updates.

Look, having your friend request approved doesn’t make you an actual friend. That may sound obvious, but you have no idea how many people just add whomever and then like their status updates because their new friend is making a real effort to keep everyone informed of what they had for lunch. But would you come up to that person in public and mention that status update? Would you even be able to recognize the person in the street? It’s easy to imagine you’re much closer to your online friends than you thought — especially when they retweet you! — but just because they’re giving you curated highlights of their life doesn’t mean you know anything about them. No one lives their actual lives on Facebook. (Although a new study does suggest that having a strong presence on social media could help you live longer.)

Ironically, as one commenter on The New York Times piece pointed out, Facebook has diluted the whole meaning of friendship, making it hard to connect with people when likes and shares are the main currency of closeness. If you’re finding that there are people you really want to connect with, you need to make a real effort to do so, and be prepared for rejection because, yes, people do think it’s weird when you try to deepen your relationship from a casual “like” situation into an actual friendship where you eat dinner together and don’t spend the entire time instagramming.

Their Honesty Makes You The Best Version Of Yourself

You know what really sucks? People who take pride in being “brutally honest” and are constantly saying things that make you want to jump out of a window because a) that’s not how honesty works, and b) being honest doesn’t mean being a tactless monster who completely disregards the feelings of others. Even when you need some of those truth bombs dropped on you, a true friend is one whose honestly will come from a place of compassion rather than the excitement of being right about something.

Have you got one of those friends that’s always telling you things about yourself that you didn’t know when you didn’t even ask? That’s not someone who’s being honest for your benefit. Someone who really cares (and wants to keep you as part of their top five) will not lie to you, but will tell you the things you need to hear without shaming or hating. Instead, they’ll be focusing on making sure that what you’re hearing will make you the good/better/best person they know that you are. And that goes both ways.

Feeling like your honesty (about yourself and your friend) is both appreciated and reciprocated is one of the truest signs that your friendship is on the right track. After all, what’s the point of hanging out all the time if you can’t ever admit that you really liked Suicide Squad despite the fact that everyone else hates it and you understood absolutely nothing the entire time?