I still remember when I made my first ever friend, at school. It was very simple: I was 5 years old and my teacher assigned me a seat next to this girl in my class. By lunch break we were friends. Or at least, whatever friendship is at that age.
As I grew older, the connections I forged with people who would go on to be my closest friends became more concrete. The relationships were deeper and stronger. I had their backs and I knew they had mine.
Growing up in a desi family, I was raised on the notion that no personal relationship is transactional. If your friend or family member asks you for help, you try your best to help them in any way you can without expecting anything in return. If you’re out to dinner or just grabbing a drink, you wouldn’t hesitate to buy a round or foot the bill (provided you have the financial capacity to do so).
I grew up watching family members and relatives race to grab the cheque as soon as it was set on the table, refusing to let guests pay. This is the mentality of many Asian households. Small gestures that show you've got their backs, with no expectation of anything in return.
That is what friendship is at its core: being there for each other and having no transactional expectation in return. Or however the Friends theme song goes. That also means accommodating each other at times when one of you can’t afford it.
Lately I’ve noticed that these bonds have started to become a lot more transactional, with people seeing each other less as true connections and more as resources. This is particularly focused on financial interactions. "Venmo culture" has become a big thing in the US (Venmo is a mobile payment service used in the US, similar to PayPal). People on Twitter have been talking about how friends now nickel and dime each other for the smallest transactions. User Regina Dennis is typical in pointing out, "Someone once Venmo’d me for buying them a $2 bottle of water and I wanted to scream."
Joe, another Twitter user, had an even wilder experience: "I have a friend who has counted how many mozzarella sticks I had compared to what he had and divided [the] $10 appetiser according[ly]. It’s insane."
This kind of behaviour isn’t reserved for the US. I believe more people from everywhere are starting to see the shift towards a more transactional approach to their friendships.
"A friend of mine was working on a group project with her friends and colleagues at university. And her friend on the project made the entire group split the cost for an eraser that cost 5 rupees (roughly 10p), down to the last penny," recalls Shivang Bhargav, an electrical engineering student based in India.
This shift towards a more businesslike approach to friendships and relationships isn’t random. The impact of the COVID pandemic on how we interact has been huge, from shifting many relationships online to an increased sense of loneliness to the very real impact of the last three years on people’s finances.
I’ve noticed this firsthand as people in my life are starting to cut back on things they would normally happily spend on such as movie tickets, nights out, socials and dates. The online shift in relationships means that the actual exchange of favours — money in particular — is now recorded instead of the more casual verbal agreement, "I’ll get you back later".
"Since the pandemic, many relationships have shifted predominantly online. When friendships move digitally, we can sometimes lose a depth of connection and intimacy in a relationship that we may have had in person. Friendships may begin to lack the nuanced understanding and natural connection that an in-person relationship can deliver and instead begin to take on a more detached character. In these circumstances, transactional-style friendships are more easily established," says psychotherapist Eloise Skinner.
Of course, people are still covering each other. My friends and I would still happily accommodate each other should the need arise but the expectation to be paid back has increased considerably as everyone tries to rein in their financial transactions.
Our shared cultural values are often central to the ways in which friendships operate. Cultural environments influence things like behavioural patterns, attitudes and values — even our sense of personal and communal identity. When culture shifts quickly, our friendships often shift accordingly. As a society, I have noticed that we have started to orient away from a community mindset. We’re becoming more hyper-individualistic by nature, which then leads to a transactional approach to every relationship we have.
For example, when I lived in an apartment complex with my family back in India, we knew all our neighbours and everyone else who lived in the locality. All these years later, there is still an unshakeable bond between everyone living there. Today I live on the other side of the world and I don’t think I can name anyone around me who doesn’t live in my shared home. I doubt many of us can anymore.
"The rise of transactional friendships is symptomatic of our culture's increasing focus on individualism and self-care. We want to be happy, fulfilled and successful — but we also want these things without sacrificing our personal time or energy. As a result, instead of building relationships that require mutual support and effort, many people opt for those that are easy and convenient," explains relationships expert Pippa Murphy.
When things get tough, you turn to your friendships and relationships for help and guidance, which can become overwhelming for those involved. The cost of living crisis hasn’t been much help either. People are working longer hours for less pay, which doesn’t leave them enough time or resources to participate meaningfully in friendships and relationships.
A friendship can get quite overwhelming when you’re not in the headspace to be there for your friend in the way you would hope to be, or if the thing they need from you is more than you can handle in that moment. I hate to admit that there have been times when I’ve been so overwhelmed that I haven’t been able to participate in a friendship in a more meaningful way, making the relationship transactional.
"With the rising cost of housing, healthcare and other necessities, many people are struggling to make ends meet. This has made it harder for people to cover for their friends without feeling the financial strain themselves. As a result, many people are less willing to lend money or cover expenses for their friends. Or if they do cover their friends, they’re more likely to request the money on Venmo straightaway," explains Murphy.
There is also the added financial strain of keeping up appearances, which can cause social anxiety.
"Financial pressures can be difficult to speak about, even with close friends, and the pressure to maintain a certain level of friendship can increase the difficulty of speaking openly about financial challenges. Money can often be a representation of deeper themes and issues for people — including within relationships. Often, the challenges go deeper: identities, social status, authority and power," says Skinner.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you may not expect repayment but that doesn’t mean you should let someone take advantage of you and your kindness.
"If we were out for a drink or if my friends needed help, I would initially cover for them, no questions asked. But I wouldn’t want it to become a habit," explains Aryan Rajesh, a mechanical engineering student from India.
"If you have a friend that regularly takes advantage of your generosity without offering any compensation in return, then it's time to reevaluate how things are going between you two. Or on the other hand, if you have a friend that you want to like you just because they might be able to help you with something at some point in the future, then this is a negative transactional friendship," explains Murphy.
At its core, friendship should always be about being there for the people you love without expecting anything in return. And in a world where everyone wants something from you, finding friendships where nothing is ever expected of you can be a blessing. But if you're being taken advantage of for your kindness, then maybe it's time to reevaluate some things.
Maybe I’m wrong and this shift isn’t as big a deal as I’m making it out to be. I’m lucky to have close friends and family who would have my back at a moment’s notice. I’m sure many people can say the same. But the world as we know it is changing, which means our relationships and how we value them are also changing. And while they say all change is good change, in this instance I’m not so sure I agree.