Woe and lamentation are the appropriate responses to news that the word “unfriended” has been added to the New Oxford American Dictionary. In the same way the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan alliteratively raised concerns about “dumbing deviancy down,” so too should we guardians of language and culture be alarmed by depreciation of the idea of friendship as it is associated with a superficial, digital registry of acquaintances. As Diana Schaub recently opined in The Claremont Review of Books, “When the language of friendship is in transition, you can be pretty sure that the experience of friendship is also.”
Take a look at the biographies in the new Forbes 400 edition. These are people who have made their ways in the company of real friends, not those they’ve friended. Sure, David Rockefeller has collected a refrigerator-size tumbler of what were once called Rolodex cards, but only as a meticulous record of thousands of intimate interactions with people for whom he has cared, and who have cared about him. Granted, he started with an ancestral advantage, but he prospered his birthright through the careful cultivation of authentic friendships, not just the compilation of records and connections.
Successful people have real friends. Schaub further observes that for centuries, “… befriending another was a morally demanding commitment that might entail risks and sacrifice, and certainly entailed action on behalf of someone else.” Were we to ask the Millennial Generation to define a “friend,” could they distinguish one from an “acquaintance,” or worse, a “link” to someone else via some new gadget?
No, I suspect were we to survey these four hundred Forbes titans, we would learn that friendship was as valuable and essential to their personal prosperity as all the other forms of capital at their mastery, combined.
Indeed, the friendship that grew between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and the conjoined philanthropy that blossomed on its stem in the form of the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — and their so-called “Billionaires’ Challenge” that already has prompted nearly 10 percent of the Forbes 400 to commit at least half their wealth to charity — may represent the greatest private humanitarian effort in history.
All among friends.
At the end of the 1988 presidential campaign, it was observed that the victorious George H. W. Bush was a man who had spent decades tending an extensive garden of friends he had nurtured. He had “worked the phone,” incessantly staying in touch for years. He sent tens of thousands of handwritten notes acknowledging the simplest of courtesies. I know. I have such a note of gratitude sent to me for having once driven him from the airport to downtown Columbus, Ohio. Of the vanquished Michael Dukakis, it was said that no one could even identify the name of his best friend.
Bill Clinton, we’ve read, still plays cards with his Arkansan high school chums, whenever he returns home. The litmus test of a candidacy is often “With which one would you rather drink a beer?”
Real friendship is more about intimacy than technological enablement. In a great new edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, translators Bartlett and Collins render VIII.1155a5 as “… it is most necessary with a view to life: without friends, no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods.”
Friendship is not a utility of life. It is a condition of the good life; a matter of virtue, not efficiency; more about loving than about exhibitionism or its equally perverse cousin, voyeurism.
Our marketing world today is replete with pseudo-intimacy; so many 1:1 and CRM enablements that confuse easier direct contact with human relevance. I’ve made a purchase at Amazon.com nearly every week since it launched, and still it seems to base its recommendations on only the last few purchases I’ve made. I have patronized a London hotel, part of a prominent global chain, repeatedly over the last four years. Every time I come to the counter, the desk clerk feverishly taps her keyboard making a record of my check-in. Always she asks, “Have you stayed with us before?”
Politely, I nod, “Yes.” In my thoughts I plead, “I know your name, Natasha! How come you don’t know mine?” To how many companies have I surrendered my date of birth? Might just one ever send a note acknowledging my birthday?
Successful people and companies pay attention to people. They extend themselves. The original language around the word “friend” involved caring. The Forbes 400, unlike so many Hollywood stereotypes of the successful, became thusly listed because, along the way, they most certainly did.
by Rick Segal
President Worldwide and Chief Practice Officer
Follow Rick on Twitter @MrBtoB
Cross-posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network