The Business of Friendship

Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow’s new book is canny self-branding under the guise of real talk. It’s still pretty irresistible.

Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow
Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow. Milan Zrnic

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have a knack for coining lingo. When the longtime friends and podcast co-hosts came up with the idea of “Shine Theory,” (a philosophy of friendship premised on the words “I don’t shine if you don’t shine,” which is to say: mutual encouragement rather than competition), they spent thousands of dollars trademarking the phrase and sending cease-and-desists to protect it. When they took a California vacation that would become a large annual gathering of friends, they gave it a title (“Desert Ladies”) and an ethos with a proper name (“Body’s Choice,” or doing whatever your body tells you to do). Their intersecting friend groups make up a “friendweb”; their aversion to catty gossip and in-group fighting makes them “low-drama mamas.”

In other relationships, this kind of self-referential terminology shows up as inside jokes or silly secret languages. For Sow, a digital strategist­–turned-influencer, and Friedman, a journalist, the novel vocabulary of their friendship is also a business product: a sunny, accessible framework for thinking about contemporary women’s friendships, as showcased in their popular weekly podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, its monthly e-newsletter, the Bleed, and multiple national live tours. The pair’s latest coinage, “Big Friendship,” appears as the title of their new book, a memoir-meets–self-help handbook that investigates the challenges and joys of friendship through the authors’ own complicated bond. Sow and Friedman are entering Big Friendship into the popular lexicon in part because they believe that the specific relationship the phrase describes—a long-term, life-changing platonic partnership, rich in mutual investment and growth—doesn’t currently have a name. By christening the thing itself, they hope to foster a greater reverence for that sort of mature friendship, which rarely carries the social currency of a marriage or biological tie.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close is a cozy, earnest read, written in the breezy tones of the early feminist internet (“News flash: you cannot lose a tampon so far up inside your body that it’s gone forever. (That’s why Goddess created the cervix.)”) and peppered with cheeky asides about how great it feels to go braless. There are frequent nods to the psychology and sociology of friendship, with takeaways from studies and scholars—but for the most part, Sow and Friedman keep the focus on their own lives, inviting readers to learn from the ways they’ve built, maintained, neglected, and recovered their relationship in the 11 years since they met through a mutual friend in D.C.

Their initial attraction to each other was immediate and powerful, leading to a period of intense bonding over shared cultural sensibilities. “Even in an unambiguous friendship like ours, the first whirlwind moments can feel a lot like falling in love,” they write of “the heady weeks after we met.” As a love story that happens to have been published at a time when many friends are physically estranged and it’s virtually impossible to meet a new one, Big Friendship offers a heartfelt reminder of interpersonal pleasures: the exhilaration of bantering with a new acquaintance who gets your jokes, the unpredictable nights out and peaceful nights in, the comfort of being in the company of a person whose nonverbal cues are as familiar as your own.

Sow and Friedman wrote the majority of Big Friendship together, in the first person—“in each other, we found someone who already understood who we wanted to be”—with their solo recollections told in the third: “Aminatou felt a sense of relief” after a doctor’s visit; “Ann hated how helpless she felt” being too far away from her friend to visit her in the hospital. The result is a book that feels both intimate and removed, with its moments of clarity partially clouded by a labored attempt to strike a balance between baring it all and preserving the appearance of an exemplary bond between two supercool people. The first-person passages, having been written by committee, have the slight gloss of an agreed-upon public statement from two people who experienced each beat of the friendship differently. The third-person parts are more revealing, especially those that include both authors’ divergent interpretations of a single event, illustrating a communication breakdown or a chasm where latent resentment can take root.

Like the Showtime reality series Couples Therapy, Big Friendship—which covers some of the lessons Sow and Friedman took from their time together in actual couples therapy—welcomes personal projection from readers. Others might not have suffered the same wounds or blundered into the same relationship pitfalls that the authors did, but in every situation described in the book, they’ll probably relate to one or both narrators. It’s a testament to the accuracy of the book’s thesis—that friendships aren’t widely considered to be top-tier relationships worth significant investment—that its exploration of common fissures among friends feels so fresh.

A chapter on interracial friendships offers a particularly vital consideration of the way Black people like Sow must accept, as a condition of their friendships with white people like Friedman, that those friends will almost certainly end up disappointing them in some racialized way. (As an example, the authors recount the time Friedman invited Sow to her house for a friend’s party, with Sow being the only Black person on the guest list.) Both authors chronicle the formation of their respective racial worldviews and meditate on the inevitable difficulties of relating across racial difference in a racist society. “Aminatou firmly believes that interracial intimacy is the only context in which ‘broken windows’ theory is actually relevant,” Sow writes. “Any visible signs of crime encourage further crime! You have to call it out or it will erode your relationship.”

But even when Sow and Friedman write in their own voices about their own lives, they maintain a palpable distance from their readers by narrating their lives as a third-person storybook. As a result, some passages feel oversentimentalized (Friedman “walked [San Francisco’s] roller-coaster hills … drunk on whiskey gingers and the feeling that she was shaping her life into something she loved”) while others are deliberately opaque, giving readers a quick glimpse of an inside joke or an in-group dispute that’s never fully explained. “She isn’t interested in rehashing the details of what happened,” the book says of Sow in one section, about how Friedman invited to the Desert Ladies trip a woman who’d previously “betrayed” Sow. Well, then, why mention it? Attempts to emphasize the gravity of the situation—“It would be years before we could talk directly about what happened at the third Desert Ladies”—fail to land without the relevant details that might help readers grasp the severity of the betrayal.

It’s easy to understand why Sow and Friedman would want to smooth the rougher edges of some of their stories, and why the sections that detail their beefs and misunderstandings, which nearly dissolved their friendship, rarely include accusations more damning than “Ann was so afraid of hurting Aminatou that she was holding back” or “[Aminatou] felt underappreciated and dismissed.” When the defining product of your career (and, by extension, your financial solvency) rests on the strength of your friendship and the persuasiveness of that bond, there are limits to the feasibility (and profitability) of total candor.

The Call Your Girlfriend podcast has thrived as a depiction of an aspirational relationship; now, with these new admissions of imperfection, it could become a depiction of a more authentic, accessible one. In some ways, Big Friendship resembles a booklong version of the Instagram “getting real” post—the relatively recent tradition of influencers revealing that not everything is as perfect behind the scenes as it appears to the content consumer. As Carrie Battan has written, “At their worst, such posts pull the same trick as aspirational content: they leverage insecurity for profit.”

Big Friendship provides some moments of honesty that feel genuinely radical and refreshing. For instance: its accounting of Sow and Friedman’s respective salary histories. The names of their employers are never mentioned (though easily Googleable), but blow-by-blow accounts of their job hopping and rising pay rates take up a lot of space in the front half of the book. Over the past several years, both Sow and Friedman have done admirable work to demystify how people make money and destigmatize the act of talking about it. As such, I would have loved to read more about how financial considerations played into their resolute fight to save their friendship. Big Friendship does acknowledge that the authors’ personal and financial investment in their own falsified image as picture-perfect “besties”—a term they use despite their consistent protests against the cultural infantilization of women’s friendships—made the prospect of abandoning the relationship even more daunting than it would have been among two close friends without such lucrative business entanglements. But how much do their podcast and its related income streams make? As they weighed the difficulties of letting their relationship fade against those of working to repair it, did they ever calculate how much money a failed friendship stood to cost them?

Sow and Friedman say they didn’t fully grapple with how being business partners might affect the nonprofitable parts of their friendship until long after they’d formed a formal LLC. But, the way they tell it, their friendship has always been entwined with their respective careers—maybe more so than it would be for most friends. Big Friendship is the story of a generative bond that has been as much about nurturing ambition as it is about personal support and fun time spent together. The authors’ first hangout after meeting at a Gossip Girl screening was at a professional networking dinner. In their 20s, lacking official mentors, they write, “We felt a sense of urgency about building our salary base,” so they coached each other on pay negotiations. “While we don’t select friends because they might help us advance our careers, here’s the dirty capitalist truth: Friendship has been the source of some of our biggest professional leaps,” they write.

The authors maintain that Shine Theory can apply to any part of one’s life, including “having a family” and “mastering a skill,” but their examples are all about career advancement. They also recommend, as a way to put Shine Theory into practice, adopting the “ask and offer” method—seeking help on some specific matter while volunteering some help in return—which seems better suited to professional contacts than intimate groups of friends. For readers whose lives are less career-centered, whose friends don’t primarily identify by their day jobs, or whose social circles include people outside of white-collar and creative industries, this vision of friendship as a women’s alternative to the old boys’ club can feel alienating and cold.

And yet, Big Friendship is unfailingly warm. Sow and Friedman clearly love and respect each other a great deal, and it’s hard not to wonder how all our most important platonic relationships might benefit from the level of commitment and work they’ve devoted to theirs. Over the course of the book, the authors show themselves learning in real time: They realize that the “story of sameness” they established during their initial period of bonding has glossed over important differences in communication styles and life experiences; they also discover that being a “low-drama mama,” an identity they wore proudly, sometimes means avoiding conflicts that need to be worked through. Writing with the crystalline hindsight of friends who learned the hard way, Sow and Friedman reveal the hidden origins of the schisms they paid good money for a therapist to help them heal. After reading this book, their readers might not have to.

For more on Big Friendship, listen to Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman on Thirst Aid Kit.