Life

In praise of being the background friend

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
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In praise of being a background friend

A viral Twitter thread has revealed that there are many of us who feel like background friends.

From the groups at the centre of shows like Friends and Sex and the City to Taylor Swift’s girl gang, it can seem that #squadgoals is the ultimate, well, the ultimate goal when it comes to friendship.

Fiction and celebrities have taught us that large groups of friends are key to a happy life, and are in the fact the best way to live. Television, films, books and celebrities always show friendship as something where a big group of people throw the greatest parties, are always there for each other at every key moment and always give equal prominence to all members of the group, all while looking fabulous.

But we can’t all live life like we’re in a glossy American TV show, and in reality we all fulfil different functions within a friendship group, as demonstrated by a vrial Twitter thread about friends.

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When Twitter user @bitchangeI asked what kind of friend people were, there were plenty of answers, from the humourous – @SitaLeota’s “the “I will be there in 10 minutes” but is probably still sleeping friend” – to the heartbreaking – @itstarekali’s “the one everyone asks for advice and never thinks to ask if im okay because I always ‘have it together’ tbh”. [sic]

But it was Twitter user @queentrashcan’s answer which struck a chord with a lot of people.

“I think I’m a background friend,” they wrote. “I don’t fit in with any particular group of friends, they are all closer with each other and I sometimes link on but am permanent with no one. I think about all these people constantly but I don’t think I cross their minds often.”

She continued: “And to clarify I have maybe 3 or 4 friends who consistently check up, but they’re individuals, I don’t have a “squad” or a group of homies to kick it with. I have me and that’s practically it.”

The tweets may as well have called me out by name, so perfectly did they capture how I often feel about the friendship groups in my life.

I have a lot of friends: school, university and the many jobs I’ve had in life have seen to that. Then there’s the fact that, partially because of work and partially because I love being a fan of things, I spend a lot of my time online, and have made friends that way as well.

In my mind, I have a number of distinct groups of friends. There are, of course, my school friends, who I have known for decades; we see each other as a group only a few times a year but every time we do it’s like we’ve never been apart. My university friends are scattered across the country, and our main method of contact is a WhatsApp group. I have never seen my fandom friends (we bonded over a love of Marvel, particularly Captain America, and books) in a complete group because of geography; we get together in twos and threes and fours, but keep in constant contact via a Twitter DM group. And finally there are work friends, both former and current colleagues as well as people I’ve met through work.

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All of my friendship groups bring different things to my life, but one thing they all have in common is that I often feel like I’m the background friend in them. I’m aware that in most of the groups I’m part of, I don’t have a best friend (or to put it another way, I’m not the person someone considers their best friend), and that I often enter conversations that have started elsewhere mid-way through. In my life I’ve often also been the only person of colour in a friendship group, which can be difficult to navigate even if no one else realises it.

Being a background friend used to make me feel one of two ways, and both were negative. Firstly, I’d feel like I was being a bad friend. After all, if I was good at friendship, I wouldn’t be a background friend, would I? I’d be a foreground friend. And secondly, I’d feel like I wasn’t appreciated, like my friends also saw me as the background friend and didn’t really care about me. The thought that they just tolerated me used to give me huge amounts of anxiety, and it actually meant that I’d be nervous to send someone a text to say hi because we hadn’t been in touch for a while, and I’d think they wouldn’t want to hear from me.

But I’ve now come to accept that being a background friend is no bad thing, and can actually be a positive. 

Friendship is something to be treasured, whether it’s with someone you knew for one summer while travelling or someone you’ve known for decades and shared everything with. All friendships bring something into our lives (occasionally bad, but even those friendships teach us something), and being a background friend is no different.

I’ve learnt that you don’t have to be at the centre of every friendship group in your life, and that it’s ok to be on the periphery of some stuff. Can you imagine the stress and pressure if you had to respond to every message, go to every dinner and party, and be constantly on? That’s not what friendship is about; what it’s about is being allowed to be the background friend and that be okay. I like knowing that it’s fine if I don’t turn up to a reunion, and I’m old enough now to know that real friends won’t judge me for that.

It’s clear from the way that @queentrashcan’s tweet went viral that background friends are more common than you think. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that someone else you know thinks THEY’RE the background friend in a certain group, not you. Knowing you’re not alone in feeling like a background friend definitely helps.

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I grew up reading a lot, and my diet during my tweens mainly consisted of The Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High. The latter was problematic, but the former (I’ll write another time about how I think The Baby-Sitter’s Club books are feminist classics), taught me about how groups are made up of individuals, and that’s what makes them great. Yes, the characters in The Baby-Sitters Club novels were part of a group (it’s in the name), but they all had varying degrees of friendship with each other, and with people outside the group.

Friendships, as The Baby-Sitters Club taught me, are about quantity, not quality. Just because you’re a background friend doesn’t mean your love, advice and interactions aren’t valuable. Everyone brings something different to a group, and that includes the background friend. And of course, just because you’re a background friend in a group doesn’t mean you don’t have a best friend; two of my best friends aren’t really part of any of my friendship groups, although they have friendship groups I’m not part of.

Life is complicated enough without adding in the pressure of being a certain type of friend. The joy of friendship is that you’re accepted for who you are, and not for the friend someone thinks you should be; friendship isn’t a tickbox exercise. With that mind, here’s to all the background friends: we’re valued, we’re loved, and we’re not alone.

Image: Getty

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Sarah Shaffi

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