The Turkish word for friend is arkadaş. It is made of the word arka, which means behind, and the suffix -daş which adds a meaning of commonality to the word before it. For example, the adjective made of the word name and this suffix refers to people with the same name. So this word’s makeup describes friends as people who have a common “behind”, a common past.
Having a common past, or having gone through similar experiences is a key feature of any tight knit group of humans.
Let’s look at families. Families are by definition people who share the same ancestral past in its most recent sense.
Childhood friends are people who spent their childhood together, people who share memories of their most formative years.
Mothers can relate to each other because they share the same experience of being a mother, they know how it feels to give birth.
One of the most cliche friendship type in my native Turkey is a military service friend, with whom you have done your mandatory military service together, slept, sweated, got humiliated and yelled at together.
Schools around the globe, whether it’s a high school, elementary school or a university all have alumni networks. Even those who have never met before can suddenly find something common in their past when at an alumni event.
Some of my own best friends in the world are those that I met through AFS. AFS is an intercultural exchange program for high school students. When I was 17, I spent a year in Spain through this program. Even though my other AFSer friends and I all spent our exchange years in different countries, learned different languages, lived with radically different families, the experience itself was so unique that once we were back, it bounded us together, and made us feel understood while our old friends couldn’t even imagine let alone relate to our experiences and emotions.
I came across an interesting example of this phenomenon when I arrived in the U.S. as a college student. Fraternities and sororities understand this mechanism very well. They are trying to build an intimate community out of students who have almost nothing in common. Their method is a set of activities that the newcomers have to go through before they are in. It is called hazing. Hazing usually involves activities that are less than desirable. But it’s the right move because difficult experiences are better than pleasant ones for building relationships. In an event of hardship, we need each other more, and that forces us to establish stronger bonds. Fraternities and sororities are almost like a lab grown version of this phenomenon, executed in artificial and fully controlled environments.
The most interesting thing about this phenomenon in people is that as long as they believe in a common past, it doesn’t even matter if they actually experienced it or not. Nations are a great example of this. Turkey for example, is a nation built on the premise of a unitarian country under the Turkish identity. Even though the actual people in Turkey have drastically distinct histories prior to the Republic, as long as they identify with the nationality, they can have the illusion of sharing even the most distant history of the ethnic Turks in middle Asia more than a millenium ago. Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey famously said, “How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!”. His nationalist philosophy considers anyone who says they are Turkish, Turkish.
Since the actual common experiences don’t have to be experienced by everyone in the group for this phenomenon to work, sometimes groups are formed out of myths that are completely made up, but it works nevertheless, as long as everyone believes the same myth.
Having gone through the same experiences or believing the illusion of it, is the most powerful thing that brings people together. But why does it work? Why have we evolved to operate this way?
Human relationships rely on trust. Without trust, and with constant paranoia, not even a two people relationship can work. Trust comes in the form of consistent predictability. When we know how a person will behave in a certain situation reliably, we let our guards down and spend less energy on making sure we aren’t under threat.
The easiest way to reliably predict how someone will behave is comparing it to how we ourselves would react in the same situation. Our own reactions and behaviors are, at large, a product of our past. We are shaped by our experiences, and they dictate how we behave. Even our genes are a product of our past, which is why people who look alike can have this illusion as well. If we believe others have had similar experiences to ours, or even better, if we lived through past experiences together, we subconsciously conclude that they will behave similarly in a given situation, hence, no crazy surprises for us. This way we can trust them and form a productive relationship, group, family, society, nation or a civilization together.