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Recently, I have encountered (what I think is) a fairly common usage of the word "friend" that I consider to be insincere and offensive, but when I brought this up with the offending party, they said my opinion was clearly incorrect and "silly". The usage involves addressing complete strangers or random others (who have obviously opposing views) simply as "friend" (in responses or discourse).

A (simplified) example would be addressing an unknown person (e.g. in reply to a comment on YouTube) who has obviously opposing views as "friend".

Friend, are you saying that your opinion is the only correct one? (with the unspoken implication being that their opinion is questionable).

I view this as obviously condescending and insincere and therefore offensive - especially if it is done repeatedly or routinely. However, looking online, I could find very little about this usage and very few references discouraging it.

Can someone tell me what this is actually called, and if the usage is considered acceptable in English (or should it be avoided)?


Truthfully, I think it is reflexive, intended to "diffuse tension" in some cases, but it is also used sincerely in others. It is not about decorum - it strikes me as offensive because it is used so often (and frequently used in adversarial responses).

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    Truthfully, I think it is reflexive intended to "diffuse tension" in some cases, but it is also used sincerely in others. It is not about decorum - it strikes me as offensive because it is used so often (and frequently in adversarial replies)
    – user22542
    Jun 5 at 21:36
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    It's inappropriate to do anything in a disingenuous fashion. Jun 5 at 22:57
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    I've never really encountered this, but is there a chance it's meant genuinely? Maybe the person is trying to express that their disagreement doesn't make you an enemy in their eyes. Or maybe they're trying to express that they see everyone in the forum as part of the same community, and hence friends in a sense, even if they disagree. Or they could just see it as a way of diffusing tension in general. I don't know how plausible these explanations are, I'm just offering it as a possibility.
    – N. Virgo
    Jun 6 at 6:59
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    I reckon you need to specify a location. "Friend" is used to address people far more often in some varieties of English than in others, and then there are synonyms which are very common. These include"mate", "pal", "buddy", "butt" (in South Wales, where I'm sitting); some are likely to offend in the wrong location or context
    – Chris H
    Jun 6 at 12:22
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    "I'm not your friend, pal!" "I'm not your pal, buddy!" "I'm not your buddy, guy!" "I'm not your guy, friend!" ... how Canadians argue, according to South Park. 🤣
    – Mentalist
    Jun 7 at 7:53

12 Answers 12

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Your opinion is sound. Let's start with main definitions of friend found in three major dictionaries:

Merriam Webster

  1. one attached to another by affection or esteem
    She's my best friend

  2. one that is not hostile
    Is he a friend or an enemy?

  3. a favored companion

Cambridge

a person who you know well and who you like a lot, but who is usually not a member of your family

Collins

A friend is someone who you know well and like, but who is not related to you

There is therefore no justification for regarding a stranger or random person as a friend. At best, to address such a person as friend might be done once (in the second Merriam Webster sense) to indicate a lack of antagonism to a person with whom one is disagreeing or about to disagree.

To use the word repeatedly is at best a slipshod extension of the meaning of "friend", and at worst is an insistent, insincere and often patronizing usage. Because there is no reason for the alleged friendship, it attempts to categorize the recipient so as to belittle them and to make them somehow client to the speaker. This is patronizing or overfamiliar behaviour.

Lexico
overfamiliar
Behaving or speaking in an inappropriately informal way.

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    Even if not intended as patronizing behaviour, it is certainly overfamiliar behaviour. I have added this to the answer.
    – Anton
    Jun 5 at 21:55
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    “Friend” is often used by fundraisers attempting to establish a personal connection. Some people find this offensive. Others ignore it or are taken in.
    – Xanne
    Jun 6 at 0:14
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    It's just like "Buddy" or "Pal", slightly sarcastic in some cases
    – xvk3
    Jun 6 at 13:05
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    @user22542 Yes, there is a name for these in English.
    – tchrist
    Jun 6 at 14:57
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    @tchrist's link is great. From now on, whenever I want to piss someone off I'm going to address them as "Sparky". On a serious note, though, whenever I want to address someone in a way that might be misconstrued as sarcastic, I preface it with "Respectfully, ..." or "With all due respect ..." which is usually enough to avoid any unwanted ambiguity.
    – John Smith
    Jun 7 at 18:21
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It's worth adding this to existing answers.

In certain native English (and possibly other British) social settings, e.g. in the pub, where young men gather to fuel up on testosterone and alcohol, the use of "friend" can be seen as fighting talk.

In such an environment, one tends to use the cruder expletives as terms of banterous affection amongst bro-mates, while to outsiders who express opposing political views or support opposing sport teams, words like "pal", "friend", "mate" and so on are synonymous with "a---hole", "s---head" and the like.

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    I like this despite the lack of “authoritative” references (because some usages and behaviours are very unlikely to appear in the written corpus). It complements my own answer beautifully.
    – Anton
    Jun 6 at 9:10
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    I have to say - this is unfortunately the impression that comes out when the conversation is adversarial.
    – user22542
    Jun 6 at 16:47
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    I'm reminded of this encounter between Canadians in South Park.
    – Jivan Pal
    Jun 7 at 10:03
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    When someone in the pub comes up to you and says "I overheard what you just said Friend/Buddy/Pal" get ready for a fight. Jun 7 at 11:33
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    @BinaryWorrier - where I'm from the key word to listen out for is "mate" when it's enunciated very clearly, with a very definite "t" (the glottal stop usually rules in Essex). At that point you'll want to find either an exit or a piece or furniture you can comfortable swing.
    – Spratty
    Jun 8 at 8:20
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I believe this is very dependent on context and culture.

If an American who is not actually my friend were to address me as "friend", I would interpret it as antagonistic, especially if they emphasis it:

Look, friend, ....

can be the beginning of fighting words.

But online (e.g. in Stack Overflow comment threads) I've had many posters address me as "friend" or "bro", and I believe they were all non-native English speakers. I've been told that these are translations of common modes of casual address in their countries. So while it feel jarring to me, I've learned to brush it off as a simple cultural difference.

I also used to have a manager from an Eastern European country who frequently addressed me as "my friend", generally when we were having an argument and he was trying to defuse it. I found it condescending, but I assumed that it was normal in his culture and didn't complain (we didn't get along well, and this would just make it worse).

That said, with the proper tone almost any form of address can be used antagonistically. Even the most formal:

Look, Mr. Jones, ...

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  • Your reaction is pretty typical. See this answer about these inappropriate friendlinesses.
    – tchrist
    Jun 6 at 14:55
  • Thank you. I realize there are always exception. I am not trying to judge this person. I am sure the person is not doing it "consciously" even. it is more of a habitual thing.
    – user22542
    Jun 6 at 16:52
  • @user22542 Exactly, that's what I understood about my manager.
    – Barmar
    Jun 6 at 16:53
  • That said - at other times it is clearly pointed with attitude and used so frequently and with different attitudes that I find it offensive... enough said (now).
    – user22542
    Jun 6 at 17:06
  • If it's someone you know, event in a work context and the word isn't stressed, your ok. If it's a complete stranger, then it's fighting talk. Jun 7 at 11:35
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In the midwestern US, I've heard it in four primary contexts:

  1. Some non-native speakers, particularly from the Middle East, seem to use it casually and, as far as I know, sincerely ("my friend" is a common phrase here). I've always just assumed it was a literal translation of a common form of address in another language. I've met several shop owners who address all their customers (AFAIK) like this.

  2. Gladhanding, where you meet somebody who is trying to convince you of something to their benefit (like a car salesman). This seems like a conscious attempt to ingratiate themselves to you with repetition, and as a result the word gets overused a lot (around once for every sentence or two).

  3. People attempting to threaten and intimidate ("Listen here, friend..."). Generally their hostile intent is more than clear, and it's not repeated an annoying number of times.

  4. Emphasis or attention-getting ("Let me tell you, my friend..."). This also doesn't involve as much repetition.

Generally, if there's no obvious agenda (as in 3 and 4) I just assume it's 2, and the individual is trying to convince me they're my friend for their own advantage.

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    Having spent time in Saudi Arabia, I can attest to 1: when we got off the bus, it was "Shukran, sadiq" (that is, "Thank you, friend"). It's common parlance. Jun 7 at 10:06
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    Such terms are also used commonly in India to address strangers, such as bhai-sahib, which has a mixed connotation of a brotherly relationship (bhai) whilst also being respectful (sahib being an honorific used interchangeably with English "sir" in many contexts).
    – Jivan Pal
    Jun 7 at 10:09
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    There are lots of parts of the English-speaking word where similar terms such as mate or pal are used with no malice.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 7 at 15:02
  • Please understand. I did NOT mean to imply "malice" in any way - I only pointed out over-use, insincerity, and rudeness (e.g. having a condescending attitude) - a shallow, unconvincing attempt to appease those who do not agree with you.
    – user22542
    Jun 8 at 20:23
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Tone and the actual relationship between the two people is everything when it comes to "friend" statements. Usually though it is a sarcastic minor pejorative meaning something to the effect of:

"You are not my friend, so I'm not sure why you are in this conversation or why I have to justify myself to you, but for the moment let's 'pretend' that you are my friend".

If the tone is softer and you actually are friends than it can mean something like (although this is rarer):

"we're not close, but we are friends and though this is a hard truth, I am still somewhat sympathetic."

There are also many subtle variations and combinations of these two, again depending mostly on the tone and actual relationship.

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It can be anything from a warning to a threat.

It's used either because you are both approaching or at least looking at the border to a situation where that word can no longer apply.

The apparent disingenuousness is an invitation to consider the appropriateness of the label friend.

Is it true? Do you want it to be true? Are you forgetting that you should be friends? Or at least friendly? Do you sound unfriendly? Are you unfriendly? Do you want to pick a fight?

It can be a warning that you are overstepping and not being friendly.

It can show that they mean their response in a friendly way and that they themselves are not trying to overstep.

It can mean all those things even in a disingenuous or sarcastic way.

It can mean: If you don't tone it down, there's going to be some real unfriendliness

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  • Yes, I have questioned my own attitude many times. Like I said - I was surprised there was so little about this "habit" online - So I was curious to know what the consensus would be. I appreciate everyone's input.
    – user22542
    Jun 6 at 17:10
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While most answers are focusing on the aggressive side - for good reason - there are some contexts where the intent is largely benign. In public speaking it is often used to indicate that the speaker is part of the community, is approachable and wants to be a friend to everyone present. In some cases this is a genuine expression of fellowship, and like all things that work well when used earnestly it has been co-opted by the less genuine as a manipulation tactic. Salesmen have been using it for centuries, by all accounts.

In historic literature the word 'friend' is often used to indicate that the speaker is well disposed towards a person or group, or at the very least wishes to appear so. Examples of this are scattered all through literature: the speech by Mark Antony in Shakespear's play Julius Caesar comes to mind, famously opening with "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears."

As usual, context is key. If you're in a crowd being addressed by a politician, he's using it to try to get you to accept him. In a casual conversation with someone you barely know, maybe he's just being jovial. When you walk onto a car lot and the salesman calls you friend, be wary. In a bar? Get ready to back down or step outside.

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Yes, using "friend" for someone who clearly is not your friend (simply because you don't know them, they're a stranger, or you simply have a clearly unfriendly relationship) may be rude or inappropriate.

Even if it's not meant in an aggressive manner ("Friend, let's step outside and discuss this with our fists!"), it could well just be slimy or deceptive ("Friend, I would never deceive you just to get your money...").

I don't know who said it, but it's a known (at least to me ;) ) quote that if someone calls you a friend, it's high time to bail out of any negotiation or deal.

N.B., in German, there is even a special word "Freundchen" ("Freund" = "friend", "-chen" = diminutive), which is absolutely offensive in an aggressive way.

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  • +1 for Freundchen. How convenient it would be to have the word "friendie" in English, used in the same way. Jun 8 at 5:56
  • The German example is excellent. It reminds me of referring to someone as a "munchkin" rather than describing them as "short".
    – user22542
    Jun 8 at 12:02
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It depends on the situation.

If one uses it to defuse a potentially or actually escalating interaction by indicating there is no enmity then it'd be fine.

If it's used to positively indicate amity, then it's not condescending or objectionable.

Someone using it in the manner you describe does seem condescending.

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It depends on the country and culture. For example: it can be rude in some case, but in China it can be a way to show kindness to strangers.

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    Jun 8 at 1:20
  • I know this because I am Chinese Jun 16 at 15:35
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I'd say that "friend" as used to address another person is really old style / posh and might be considered sarcastic under most circumstances. If you're saying this to someone you don't know or whom you aren't friends with, people will probably be offended by this - it will probably come off passive-aggressively, whether you meant that or not. If you say this to close friends it would be quite confusing to them.

I would avoid using this term if I were you, and prefer terms like "mate" or whatever is most common in your country.

You can find this quite a lot in older English books though, so I wouldn't deem it technically incorrect. It's similar to calling a nephew "child".

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Unfortunately, for myself being addressed as 'friend' by strangers has taken on a very negative connotation.

As others have pointed out this usage of 'friend' is going to vary in commonality depending on what region one is from. For example, in my University days, it was very common for Indian students to address strangers with 'friend'. With the large body of Indian students and faculty, this became normalised among the greater population.

These days though, I live in a region of the US where addressing strangers as 'friend' is very uncommon. As a result, the overwhelming majority of time I run into this usage, it's from call scammers from India cold calling me. Which reflexively puts my guard up.

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