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'You know the sort of thing you fantasise about when you are standing having a . . .?" Thus began an opening sally in a recent conversation. Such a beginning reveals a thoroughly satisfying degree of intimacy, acceptance, self-disclosure and a very easy familiarity.

We found it extremely heart-warming to be its recipients, as we both were recently from a (clearly) close friend. It set me wondering about friendship, and closeness, and nurturance, and, as usual, the meaning of life in general.

Singer/humourist Greg Tamblyn put it nicely: "Friends are people who know you really well and like you anyway." A dictionary type of definition of friendship runs something like 'Friendship is a relationship of mutual affection' and liking between two (or more) people." And plenty of work has been done on the topic by researchers who might well have begun with puzzlement about their own friendship patterns.

What is important, as was definitely demonstrated by our friend, is self-disclosure. But there has to be some reciprocity here. If I tell a potential friend about my unsightly and ill-positioned warts or my liking for kippers and jam I expect some similarly horrifying self-disclosure in return. Beyond self-disclosure and reciprocity there comes a swag of characteristics that one would like to see in a written reference (preferably about oneself). Unconditional support, acceptance, loyalty and trust and all of this to be expressed openly.

At this point you might well be thinking that true friendship is a bit hard to come by. It gets worse. Researchers have shown that absolutely crucial in the development of friendship is that the potential friend supports what they call one's social identity.

Roughly speaking this means that we like our friends to confirm how we see ourselves (tall, handsome, even-handed, mellow etc rather than the reality of a short somewhat indifferent appearance, biased and a touch grumpy).

This support of what might well be our deluded view of self is thought to boost our self-esteem. It might also be leading us even further up the garden path, so the occasional cold shower of social reality could be useful. However, more research has demonstrated that there are four ways to maintain a bond of friendship once it has been made. More self-disclosure, more supportiveness, a fair amount of contact and a relatively unfailing positivity. All of which takes a bit of doing.

Some interesting questions have not yet been answered by those who study friendship rather than courting it. To put the perennial late-night-after-a-few-drinks question - can there be cross-gender friendships without sex? The jury remains out on this, but it is perhaps something that becomes less problematic with age. Which reminds me of what I intended to be the main point here and that is that we become better at the whole business of friendship in later years.

We become more picky and tend to have fewer but deeper friendships that we can count on. Much of the mere acquaintanceship of earlier years disappears in favour of an increase in all of those sterling qualities already described. However, the clever Oliver Burkeman, in his Guardian column recently drew attention to a problem of friendship in the modern world; namely, the number of friends.

It used to be that with developments in qualifications, jobs, marriage and so on people would change communities, leave old friends behind and make new ones, probably keeping the overall number reasonably constant. Modern communication means that we can easily keep all of our friends, new ones simply adding to the number.

So, our friends might be less densely linked these days. And that is not so good, because friends that are physically close to us will probably talk about us more often, something which Burkeman believes strengthens the general social fabric. I can think of instances in which it might well weaken it.

In spite of all this musing, it might be better not to think too much about how to make friends. A title of a popular book years ago was How to make friends and influence people. That's the problem; think about these things too much and it all seems to be a bit contrived and manipulative and that changes everything.

George Carlin put it very well. "One good reason to only maintain a small circle of friends is the three out of every four murders are committed by people who know the victim."

Thinking of which, Jim Hayes suggested that "A good friend will help you move. But a best friend will help you move a body."

Garry Shandling should have the final word though, with "My friends tell me that I have an intimacy problem. But they don't really know me."

Do you agree with these thoughts?

Written by Ken Strongman. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.

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