In life, we come across many people we calls friends: childhood friends, school friends, friends from work, friends from church, friends of friends, boyfriends or girlfriends …  Sometimes we find ourselves surrounded by friends, and other times we are lucky if there are only a few stuck around, which begs the question: what makes a true friend?

I believe friends can be divided into the following groups:

1)     Hallway friends.  They say ‘hi’ to you when you run into each other or even have a chat about work or kids.  They don’t seek you out and only wonder about your wellbeing when you haven’t been around for a while.  Some of your neighbors, people you work with and most people from church fall into this category.

2)     Passive friends.  They are only your friends because you maintain the friendship by connecting with them regularly.  They rarely take the initiative to connect with you.  I used to have a list of people I called regularly when I belonged to a Chinese Church.  I asked them how they were doing and encouraged them to continue going to church or fellowship gatherings.  Every once in a while, the conversation got deeper and more personal.  After I left the church and stopped calling, the friendship was weakened to the point of non-existent.

3)     Friends by need.  These friends only come to you when they have a particular need or crisis.  You spend a lot of intense time with them during the crisis, but they disappear when the need no longer exists.

4)  Friends who always have to be right.  They have to have the last word on everything.  You are with them or against them.

5)     Friends of competitive spirit.  These can be your sports buddies.  But it can also be people who typically know you very well and have certain expectations of their and your places in life.  You can tell it is a competitive friendship when no matter what you say, they turn the focus back to themselves or the things they are interested in.  Even though they claim to be your best friends, they can’t be really happy for you and your achievements.

6)     Friends who can only see themselves as givers.  They are your friends as long as you are the weaker party.  They will never share with you their vulnerabilities and will push you away if the table turns.  To them receiving is a sign of weakness.

7)     Fair-weather friends.  They are only around when there is something to boast about in their lives.  They’ll shut you out when hardship hits in the name of not wanting to burden you and reemerge after the storm passes.  These so-called friends are typically not in sight when you need help.

8)     Friends for fun.  You can go shopping or do other fun things with them.  You don’t get together very often, just once in a while.  My husband Joe has a group of friends from high school that fits the description.  He gets together with them every time he is in Shanghai.  They always start off by having dinner together at a fine restaurant, during which they’ll plan an overnight road trip to somewhere at the outskirts of Shanghai.  The focus of the gatherings is always food, entertainment and reliving the memories of youth.

9)     Friends by common interest.  If you start playing golf, you’ll find people who enjoy the same sport.  If you develop an interest in writing, you like to be associated with other writers.  Common interest is a powerful bond that can evolve into long-lasting and meaningful friendship.  The flip side is when the common interest dissolves, you bond is likely to weaken as a result.

10)  Friends who listen.  They may not understand you or agree with you, but they are there to listen and show support.  Friends of this type are invaluable.

11)     Friends who have your back.  They may be a quiet and distant presence in you life.  But you know they’ll be there for you if you ever need them.  When Joe was unemployed after 9/11 and trying to build his own business, he contacted one of his college classmates who he hadn’t talked to for years.  This classmate runs his own high-tech business in Delaware.  He went out of his way to help Joe by providing the initial development funds and taking the laser device Joe designed to China for marketing presentation.  Because of the tightened security alertness after 9/11, the laser device got him into trouble at the airport.  He was interrogated and had to cancel his business trip as a result.

12)  Friends for life.  They are an integral and important part of your life.  They stick with you through thick and thin.  Friends for life  understand you and cares about you deeply.  They’ll tell you the truth even though it may hurt.  You are lucky if you have even one friend like that in your life.  Hold on to them at all cost.

What kind of a friend are you?  Mostly likely, you are a different kind to different people.  To connect with others in meaningful ways requires time, energy and compassion.  Human nature, sinful or not, programs us to look after our own needs first and foremost and keep others at a distance.  We have to make a conscious decision to sincerely care for and be compassionate about others’ needs if we desire to be a true friend to someone else.  In the same way muscles are built up through exercise, we can become more benevolent and caring through practicing and giving.  Your friends for life may be right under your nose in your home.  So be kind to your family and everyone else whose path crosses yours.  Pick up the phone and encourage someone who is struggling or write a thank-you note to those who have shown kindness to you.  By continuously flexing your muscle of compassion, you’ll find your life enriched and expanded beyond your own mere existence.