10 ways to be a great friend

By Caitlin Kelly

montreal 4

Spend time with them — face to face!


Friendship is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It’s also, as we get older and leave behind the built-in possibilities of making friends in high school, university or graduate school, sometimes much harder to grow and sustain.

People become consumed by work, family obligations, long commutes. They move away and change jobs or careers, weakening easy access and shared interests.

But it’s also been medically proven that having a strong network of people who truly care about you improves our health and longevity.


1) Listen

Sometimes all we really need is a safe place to vent our feelings — whether joyful or angry. It takes time and energy to really pay close and undivided attention, but it’s the greatest gift we can offer.



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2) Show up in person

Because so much of our lives now are lived on-screen and only through texts and emails, some people think that’s plenty.

It’s not.

People really need us to be there with them in person, for a hug, a smile, a hand to hold. I skipped a friend’s pricey Jamaica destination wedding but went with her for chemo and the day she had her eggs extracted in case they were damaged by her cancer treatment. (She had traveled 40 minutes by train to my town, and trudged up a steep hill in a blizzard at 6:00 a.m. to accompany me to surgery.)

Weddings and parties are fun and easy — hospital bedsides, wakes and funerals less so. Go for the hard times too.


3) Call

Some people hate and avoid using the telephone. But texts and emojis are useless when someone needs to be heard. We miss a lot if our only communication is through a screen.




4) Send flowers

I know you mustn’t send flowers to a Jewish funeral. Other cultures have issues with the number, type or color of a bouquet. But, if they’re culturally and religiously appropriate, they can be a welcome and cheerful addition to someone’s desk or bedside.

5) Mail a card or letter

On paper, with a stamp. Twenty years from now no one will lovingly cherish an email as much as a beautiful card or a long, chatty letter.

6) Stay in touch

It’s so easy to be “too busy” and, if you’re parenting multiple small children and/or care-giving and/or working, yes. But it’s really not a heavy lift (especially with Skype or FaceTime) to check in with people you care for, even every few weeks or months.


We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

7) Entertain

I know some people hate to entertain, and come up with every possible excuse not to do it. You can always do a potluck or order in, but gathering a group of friends is a great way to make introductions, expanding your circle and theirs. I often hear stories in a group that I’d never heard before one-on-one.


8) Reciprocate

This is a biggie for me, and has ended some of my friendships. If your friend(s) are always the first to extend an invitation and you never reciprocate, what’s up with that? A strong friendship is a two-way street.


9) Remember their special occasions

Birthdays and anniversaries are obvious, but we’ve all got others.

Only one friend (and it meant a great deal to me) sent a hand-made condolence card when my dog died. It might be your friend’s wedding anniversary or the anniversary of the death of someone they loved dearly and dread facing every year. Let them know you know and are thinking of them that day.

And if you know someone who’s about to become a published author, find out their publication date — it’s a very big deal and one they’ll remember forever.


10) Be honest

One of my oldest friends said a few difficult words to me recently. I didn’t enjoy hearing them, but we both knew she was right. She said them lovingly, not in anger, and I appreciated that.

Honesty is crucial to any friendship worth keeping. If all you do is tippytoe around someone’s sore spots or are too scared to confront a pattern that’s destroying your love or respect for them, how intimate is the relationship? Why are you hanging onto it? The deepest friendships can not only withstand loving candor, they rely on it.

What are some other ways to show that we care?

20 thoughts on “10 ways to be a great friend

  1. Your post really resonated with me, and thank you. With the recent death of my Mother, we had what is sometimes thought of as the unenviable task of going through all of her earthly possessions, and we were delighted when we found that she had kept every greeting card, letter, and personal note that anybody had ever given her dating back to the early 1940’s. Just knowing what receiving these meant to her, and then with us her family finding them all these years later, was so very special. As you said, a collection of e-mails would have never been nearly as personal … thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks!

      I have a friend who recently lost her mother, and I have a card (on my personal stationery) going out this week to her. I’ve kept my mother’s old typewritten letters and cards. They mean a lot to me, now that we are estranged.

  2. I’ve been tinkering with the concept of a bit called “Can’t we just not be friends?” which would, if I was to post it today, look a lot like I was knocking off #10. You make a really good point and, since I consider you to be an exceptionally discerning, insightful person; I feel sort of validated for thinking about it before I read this. So thanks for posting this so I didn’t have to.

  3. this is a wonderful list and all so true. both sides have to make the effort, or the balance falls off, and the friendship does as well. your effort, however you choose to show it, must be sincere and from the heart, and in doing so, you show your friend that they matter to you and they are worth it. as i’ve gotten older, friends have meant so much to me, in a very different way from when i was younger.

    1. Thanks!

      I see this as well.

      As we age, we get clearer (I think) about what matters most. I need friends like oxygen, in addition to my lovely husband. I love the longevity of some of my friendships, people who “knew me when.”

  4. Love this … I feel like some of the biggest things we’ve had to teach our kids is all about ‘showing up’ – being there in person, calling, actually writing a letter, doing something that shows that you care, and so on.

    People like to trash youth for being so electronic-dependent … but as kids, we simply didn’t have the option.

    This past week was my birthday, and aside from my wife and kids making it an awesome day, a good friend at work took me to lunch. Now due to time and location constraints, that meant the little lunch area at the deli of the local grocery story half way between our offices … but so what, it *mattered*, and was great.

    1. Thanks!

      I bet it’s a real challenge now to explain that a text is much less persuasive (at least to some people) than one more text or emoji.

      I also think it’s essential to learn to be fully present and compassionate when others are scared or anxious or grieving — and that can’t be done in any meaningful way through a screen. Yes, it’s difficult. Intimacy can be challenging!

      So glad your friend took you out. I make “play dates” with my friends it means a great deal to me to spend time with them, face to face. It doesn’t really matter where or when. It’s still a gift.

      Happy birthday! 🙂

    1. Thanks!

      We’re making the (ugh) 10 h drive north to Toronto next week, mostly to visit with dear friends we miss. I get back there usually twice a year, still, to keep those ties strong…esp. if we move back in retirement, even part-time.

  5. These reminders are always welcome, and of course they bounce back and benefit us maybe even more than the intended :). I recently had a vintage fountain pen cleaned, and started writing notes and letters again. I love paper ephemera, and so that’s is my first choice to maintain my friendships, but all of these resonate.

  6. See, this post makes me feel kinda bad. I’ve become a crappy friend since Isla, and then we all moved to the boonies. I miss my friends and easy access to them, desperately. But I’m trying. I miss being the friend that everyone seeks out for advice or beer or ice-cream. Facebook helps, but it also highlights what I/we are missing, and makes me feel worse. Can’t eat the scenery or talk to the trees. I have tried to reach out to the parents of Isla’s friends, with varying success.

    1. Making new friends is not that easy, for sure.

      We just spent 5 days in Toronto visiting old friends (I moved away in 86!) but I go back 1 to 2x every year and stay in touch by phone and social media. These are my oldest friends and I am glad they still want to see me. It’s very comforting.

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