Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 21 2024

Fair-Weather Friends

Do you know people in your life who are only around when times are good and are nowhere to be found when time get hard? What is going on here, and what should you do to handle these situations?

This is a tough post because I speak extensively about human behavior and yet, due to being at the top of the autism spectrum (i.e., trouble with eye contact, social interactions, small talk, and human connection), this is one of those “I can’t do it well but understand it well” situations. There are a lot of factors at play here, so let’s go through the important ones in a little bit of detail:

Beneficial Interactions – The first component is the core human incentive: seek growth and avoid harm. People seek positive interactions, which foster relationships through shared experiences, and avoid situations that are harmful or negative. As such, people are looking to get together with friends for food, drinks, social interaction, stories, fun, music, dancing, games, and other pleasurable or beneficial activities. Negative situations, from drama to work to conflict, are undesirable. As a result, people will go toward fun times and move away from what is commonly called “bad vibes” in trendy vernacular.

Bonding – As a result of regular social interactions, humans (and other social animals) build relationships involving trust, respect, fun, love, and mutual benefit. What causes people to bond? There are too many factors to name, but examples include familial relationships, attractiveness, type of shared experience, time spent together, benefits to both parties, shared interests, capabilities, compatible personalities, and similar values. Mechanisms that allow these bonds to form include tickling, small talk, team-building activities, cooperation, icebreakers, games, alcohol, group projects, and even shared traumas like hazing or military engagements. Through these experiences, people learn about their peers, what kind of people they are, and whether they can be trusted or counted on in various situations for various things.

Relationships – As a result of both natural factors and the above mechanisms, relationships form. Familial bonds are biological but then are also formed through a shared environment and a lot of time spent together. Acquaintances are formed through social or business situations involving people outside of someone’s existing social circle. Friends are formed through repeated engagements and more shared experiences. Best friends are formed through trusted partnerships and regular interactions. Additional relationships are formed through life events, such as teachers, bosses, coaches, guardians, and clergy. As relationships form, the type of interactions that are expected and socially appropriate are formed.

Goals – Most bonds are formed through shared goals. Classmates are both learning and trying to have fun along the way. Teammates are trying to win the game. Parents are trying to ensure that the children grow up to be successful adults. Coworkers are trying to get the job done and earn a living. The importance of a shared goal is that it increased the willingness to help others because it helps everyone to attain the ultimate goal.

Need/Effort – Need is a big part of determining whether someone is involved. If someone is capable and self-sufficient, people want to be around them, whether it’s a great football player or a savvy socialite. People flock to success and excellence because they can benefit but also they might need help to be great or not need to be as good to succeed. A less social person might hang around a popular person; a person who likes to cook but not deal with people might start a restaurant and hire servers who can serve but not cook. In that need, however, is the consideration of effort. Hanging out with a popular person isn’t a big ask on the part of the popular person because the social activity is happening, anyway. It’s only when there’s a lot of effort to keep conflict in the group down that would begin to cause someone to reconsider their involvement. When someone becomes needy and requires a lot of effort, those bonds become tested.

Given these factors, the idea of a “fair-weather friend” is hard to determine with precision because there are two subjective sides of the relationship and so one might either like the person more than the other or think the relationship is closer than it is. Sometimes, one person beliefs the other is his or her best friend but the feeling isn’t mutual. Other times, it might be a misunderstanding based on what someone said, such as, “Let me know if you need anything,” when one person thinks they can ask something that they really can’t.

Given that situation, a “fair-weather friend” is usually when a person gains a group of friends in their social circle and are there when the fun, benefit, or goal is there but not when it is not. The truth of the situation is that in an individualist, free society, people will maximize their own benefit and minimize their own cost and effort. Therefore, when work is to be done, people will avoid it, but when an opportunity for pleasure or personal gain comes up, they will flock to it. By default, most people will do this because it is irrational to do something with a lot of cost and no gain.

On the other side of the equation is a parent, best friend, or authority figure. A parent has made an 18+ year commitment to take care of a child, so the parent is the most altruistic of any relationship and will do an overwhelming amount for a child. Best friends usually have such an established bond and long track record of mutual benefit that one helping the other is not a problem at all—often, they can even benefit from the shared experience and so it can have a positive outcome. Authority figures are both paid to and tasked with exerting effort on behalf of the people they oversee and care for, so they will be more likely to help. Acquaintances and friends-of-a-friend become the outside circle where unless there’s a mutual benefit there, it’ll be more difficult to get someone to commit to something.

Assuming that most people understand this system, where does the stigma of a “fair-weather friend” come from? Well, it’s the disconnect between the perception that’s the main problem. The “I thought we were friends!” reaction is where the disconnect reveals itself: one person thought that they could count on someone else and found out that they couldn’t. A missed appointment, a no-show to an event, or a turndown of an ask are examples of a friend not really being the kind that would be open to helping. It is possible that there is an optimism bias and that people are nice during social events and say nice things but then when actually asked their “happy to help” pleasantries turn into “ooo, I’m busy then” responses.

So there is a component where people who need help misread the relationship. In that case, it might be “unfair” to call someone a fair-weather friend if someone just met them. It might be that an ask—like spending a day volunteering or lending money—might be way too much given the relationship as it exists. As such, it’s not a fair-weather friend but rather being asked too much by someone the person doesn’t know very well that is the issue. It can also be that many friends are made at parties or other social events and so the expectation of that relationship is that it remain in social situations only; many think about relationships that way and so just because you hang out every week at parties does not mean that the relationship has left the scope of that environment where activities outside of that venue are expected.

But, finally, it can be that there is a person who is, in fact, a fair-weather friend: you help them, but they don’t help you. You show up to their events, but they don’t show up to yours. The line is roughly drawn where either reciprocity is to be reasonably expected—as in doing favors or helping and, therefore, expecting help—or a close enough bond is established and help could or should be provided at that point. It’s this line that is not clear and, therefore, is open to subjectivity by the parties involved. The worst factor is the Attribution Bias, where people tend to attribute things to effort when good things happen to them, luck when bad things happen to them, and the opposite for when good or bad things happen to others (good = luck, bad = their fault). As a result, someone might say, “Hey, I needed that help; you got yourself into trouble and want me to bail you out,” as an excuse to get out of a reciprocal favor.

The question for you is whether you should help if asked or expect to be helped if you ask someone you know. Well, it all comes down to the people and the situation. Again, if you helped someone in the past, reciprocity is reasonable to expect to an equivalent or less extent. If you simply hang out a lot through a mutual friend, it might be that you are just casual friends and the other person only sees it as such.

Do fair-weather friends exist? Of course they do. Are people called that more often than justified? A little. The line exists where someone asks for more than is appropriate given their relationship vs. someone not contributing or reciprocating as much as they should given their relationship. When those don’t match up, the fair-weather friend will become a label applied.

So how do you avoid facing one or becoming one? To avoid becoming one, do your best to count when people are there for you and respond with gratitude or the willingness to return the favor. Yes, the “don’t keep score” rule applies to avoiding guilt or resentment, but at the same time you do have to remember and recognize moments of help so that you don’t take it for granted or become a fair-weather friend. To avoid facing one, there are three things you can do: learn when someone is genuine or just being polite, build bonds through shared experiences, and simply give people a chance and, if they show themselves to be one, disassociate. The “bond” part is the difficult one because bonding can come from a variety of subtle things like eye contact and simply feeling good about someone, but it’s also one where you can tell based on how they treat you and the words they use how they feel. Physical touch, body language, eye contact, real words vs. clichés, and other elements can be used to determine whether someone’s relationship with you is genuine or superficial.

A fair-weather friend might be used as an insult, but in reality most people are “fair-weather friends” in the sense that they will be happy to socialize with you in group settings but won’t take that relationship outside of them. The difference between an acquaintance—someone you cannot necessarily expect much from—and a fair-weather friend—where it would be reasonable to expect something and they disappoint you—is subtle. The best you can do is to be the best person you can at bonding and then be willing to give and receive help. If others are not willing to help, then they weren’t really your friend and you will have to accept that. All you can do is be the best friend that you can and, through experience, know who your friends are. Just note that your assumption that everyone you socialize with is your friend might be incorrect; in that case, make sure you improve your ability to detect when someone is or is not your friend so you can treat them appropriately both in terms of giving and receiving help.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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