Snap and Protein Agency Examined What Drives Friendships Around the World

The average social circle consists of 4.3 best friends, 7.2 good friends and 20.4 acquaintances

U.K. photographer Antonio Olmos captures a series of portraits of subjects before and after speaking to their friends Antonio Olmos courtesy of Snap Inc. and Protein Agency

Friendship is the backbone of social networking platforms, and Snap Inc. teamed up with insights agency Protein Agency to discover more about how culture, age and technology influence friendships around the world.

Snap Inc.—Snapchat’s parent company—and the agency polled 10,000 people ages 13-75 in Australia, France, Germany, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., the United Arab Emirates and the U.S., and their findings were shared in The Friendship Report, which was released today.

“Snapchat was designed from the outset as a platform to enable self-expression and deeper relationships with your real friends, which has driven our interest in the complexities around friendship and differences across cultures,” said Snap head of consumer insights Amy Moussavi in a statement. “While friendship looks very different across the world, we know it plays a central role in our happiness, and we remain deeply committed to finding new ways to celebrate and elevate it through Snapchat.”

Across all markets they surveyed, Snap and Protein found that the average social circle consisted of 4.3 best friends, 7.2 good friends and 20.4 acquaintances.

This varied by region, as respondents in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia claimed roughly three times more best friends than those in Europe, the U.S. and Australia. The highest average came from Saudi Arabia, at 6.6, while the U.K. posted the lowest (2.6), and the U.S. was second-lowest, with 3.1.

“The big thing that differentiates friendships from other relationships is the fact that they’re voluntary,” said Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and doctorate candidate in clinical psychology specializing in interpersonal relationships, in the report. “We continuously need to choose to invest in our friendships, to remain involved in each other’s lives—to show up. … This is because we see that our friends are showing up and that they’re invested in our lives, even though they don’t have to be.”

Snap and Protein found that having friends who are “intelligent and cultured” is more valued in the regions with higher average best friend totals, while being “non-judgmental” was more important in those with lower averages.

Respondents in India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia were also four times more likely to cite a “large social network” as an essential quality for a best friend, but globally, that was actually the least important quality.

The average age when most respondents met their life-long best friends was 21.

“Boomers are less dependent on being online, and their usage is shallower and a little more detached, in a way that is unimaginable for millennials and [Generation] Z,” said Kate Leaver, journalist and author of The Friendship Cure, in the report.

Globally, 88% of respondents enjoy talking with their friends online, with the most popular reason why (at 32%) being the ability to talk with them faster and more easily.

By age group, just 7% of Gen Z and 6% of millennials said they don’t enjoy talking with friends online, while those numbers rise to 13% for Generation X and 26% for baby boomers.

Millennials were also the age group most likely to share issues publicly and to seek as many friends as possible, while Gen Z appears to be taking the opposite approach, valuing intimacy in their friendships and open and honest relationships.

Baby boomers were the most conservative in terms of sharing, with 45% saying they would not discuss their love lives with their best friends, 40% saying so for mental health and 39% for money concerns. Those figures for millennials were 16%, 21% and 23%, respectively.

“Millennials are the Facebook and MySpace generation. Their connection to the emergence of social media was with those platforms, and those platforms are all about networks,” journalist Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives, said in the study. “It was exhilarating for them to be able to spread out far and connect with this vast network of people via their immediate circle. If you think about Snapchat or TikTok, they’re not about a vast network—they’re more about you and what you want to focus on.”

The three most reported emotions associated with interacting with friends online were happy, loved and supported, with women more likely to report feeling those emotions than men.

By platform, Snapchat users had the highest numbers of best friends and close friends, and the fewest acquaintances, while Facebook users had the fewest best friends and Instagram users had the most acquaintances.

Visual communication was a key factor for respondents, as 61% of them believed videos and photos helped them express themselves better than words.

“The trouble with online conversations is that a lot of subtlety gets lost, especially when it relates to emotion and intent,” said Kirmayer. “However, there’s some fascinating research coming out showing that we can use emojis and punctuation to our advantage to facilitate closeness, strengthen our message and minimize misunderstandings. Emojis can convey emotions, non-verbal behaviors and even a sense of collaboration or solidarity.”

Finally, Snap and Protein found that the ways that men and women approach friendships are more similar than traditional gender norms might indicate.

Snap Inc./Protein Agency

Bill Rawlins, professor of interpersonal communication at Ohio University, said in the report, “Gender differences have been so significant when looking at friendship, and they still give us some important clues, but gender expectations are getting more and more fluid, which is changing the dynamics of friendship between genders.”

Added Kirmayer, “One of the shifts we are seeing is that men are becoming more aware of, and comfortable with, their need for social connection and intimacy within their friendships. In many cases, it is also increasingly common for men to seek out emotional and physical closeness in their platonic friendships.”

Amit Desai, lecturer in anthropology at the London School of Economics and co-author of The Ways of Friendship, noted in the study that “men can now conceive of a woman being their best friend and vice versa, which did not happen before, and we now have friendship groups of men and women mixing, going out and dating, where previously they were segregated.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.