A friend to all is a friend to none. I have two interpretations of the saying.
I know a guy from my office who has a way of making people feel special, by his words, gestures and all his behavior. Even if one is meeting him for the first time, he would behave as if they have known each other a long time and make one feel safe and secure to open up to him. When I initially begun interacting with him I didn’t know him that well and I felt hugely respected when talking to him. I thought he saw through me to understand that I was a good, intelligent person and hence respected me. When he told me that I can, as a friend, walk up to his office any time without hesitation in case I needed anything, I felt appreciated, even mildly flattered. But I soon learned that he treated everybody in the same way. He didn’t actually know me any more than he did the next person he greeted. This guy is a corporate trainer for soft-skills and communication. No wonder he knows how to use his people skills most effectively.
Should I be carried away by his good behavior towards me? If he was being good particularly to me then that would mean he valued certain qualities (thoughts, mannerisms, intelligence,..) that I possessed. In that case I can consider him a friend and count on his friendship. But if he is equally good to everybody regardless of their qualities and character then that doesn’t tell anything about his value system. How do I know if he is being good to me for he values the qualities I possess or because that’s the way he always behaves with everybody? And if he doesn’t value my qualities any more than another person’s who is a lot different from me, on what basis should I count on his friendship? He may live up to his word, that I can always walk up to him, in his professional capacity, but I doubt his use of the phrase “as a friend” is reliable.
I am not implying that he is not a nice person. Even if he is a nice person, him showing niceness is not the only thing that should make me think of him as friend. In fact, show of niceness is not necessarily a part of the equation in friendship, even. One’s best friend may not be the nicest treating person in the world.
Friendship is about understanding and respect. A friend is he who sees your qualities, understands you, and values and respects you for the particular person that you are. He who is being friend to everybody in across-the-board fashion isn’t really a friend to anyone. This is the first interpretation of the saying.
The second interpretation is derived from what I call a-friend-to-all-is-a-friend-to-none effect. We all have limited time and mental space. Back in time when life was simple, without Internet and social networking websites, we used to have fewer friends. I think most people would even be able to count the number of friends they had. Not so today. Today we have hundreds of friends through various channels. You may say that all are not equally important, and all are certainly not friends. Still the fact is that a like-minded person you friend on Facebook today may outweigh your other friends in importance in matter of days, because s/he is like-minded. Back in time we had limited choice. Whether or not one’s neighbors or classmates had similar thoughts and interests as oneself, if one had to hang out then those were likely the only people in one’s vicinity, so one had to choose one’s friends from among them. And it worked most of the time since we were a lot more adjustable than we are today.
Now we have choices. One can always find someone better, someone more suited, a better match. We go on making new friends. Soon we would have more “connections” than we have time and mental space for. Earlier people had, I think, on the whole, relatively longer lasting friendships, because the friendships were bound by fixed routines. Meeting friends meant meeting a fixed set of people, because one’s world was limited. Now relatively more often we are meeting different sets of people when we are meeting friends. Back in time being neighbors or classmates often would have sufficed for two people to be good friends. One’s accessible pool of people to choose friends from was limited. Today it’s virtually without bounds. As a result, our standards and expectations also tend to rise without limit. New people are added into our lives much more frequently, and so is the rate of friends being forgotten. This is important. As better matches are friended, some have to take a back seat, before gradually being completely forgotten. Because, as I said above, we have limited time and mental space. This phenomenon makes friendships fickle and short-lived.
Not that people don’t want to be friends, but they just can’t. It may be quality of friendship or duration that suffers. This I view as a-friend-to-all-is-a-friend-to-none effect taking place in the modern-day friendship arena. In pursuit of countless friends we may inadvertently end up eroding the meaning and essence of friendship.
At some point one has to point to oneself a few people who are one’s friends, and remain true to them, no matter how many options one has of finding better suited people. Easier said than done though.