Friendship: A Taxonomy

The ones I see in real life, the ones I only text, the ones I wish could have been at my wedding

Susan Orlean
4 min readApr 20, 2021


Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

One of my hobbies is thinking about friendship. I marvel at how complex they can be, how many gradations of relationships can exist that can still dwell comfortably in a general category of “friend”. To me, romantic relationships are simpler: You’re either in it or you’re not. Friendship feels infinitely nuanced and more undefinable.

Technology has complicated this even further. It used to be that you had a friend, full-stop. You talked to them on the phone and saw them in person. I suppose there were the occasional penpals, and the summer camp friends who you reunited with for six weeks a year, but that was it. Now I have:

  • Friends I see frequently, in real life
  • Friends I don’t see that often but I text frequently
  • Friends I talk to on the phone
  • Friends I “see”, via Zoom or FaceTime
  • Friends I email but rarely text or call
  • Friends I communicate with via social media, by way of comments and replies on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter; and the smaller subset, friends I communicate with privately through Facebook Messenger or Twitter direct messages

I could go on, but I won’t, because it’s like fine-slicing a piece of cheese. And that’s just the means of communication. This doesn’t even address the nature of the communication, whether a friend is the sort who you’d call to let your dog out if you’re stuck at work and can’t get home on time, versus the sort of friend you enjoy being seated next to at a dinner party and talking about the topics of the day. And of course, there are those situational friends. By that I mean neighbors; parents of your kid’s friends; colleagues; the kinds of people who you enjoy and who know a lot about your life, but when the situation that brought you together changes, you might never see them again and their place in your life is immediately filled up by a new set of situational friends. Sometimes, one of them will persist beyond the circumstances that brought you together, but more often, they don’t.



Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)