Long-distance friends are good friends to have around

– by Kristopher Smith

(Image description: Women in a Tanzanian fishing village “planting” shared algae lines during low tide.)

Long-distance relationships, whether they be friends, family, or colleagues, are found across the world. And while you might think that long-distance relationships are products of planes, phones, or the internet, long-distance relationships have actually long been an important component of human sociality. For example, obsidian trade networks in East Africa stretching hundreds of kilometers indicate humans were maintaining long-distance relationships as early as 700,000 years ago. Why do people bother being friends with people who live so far away from them?

Friends are one strategy people use to manage risk. Life is unpredictable, and while today you might be well-fed and in good health, tomorrow you might find your fortunes down. Friends help deal with this uncertainty by providing help to one another during down times, giving each other support whenever they need it, regardless of who helped whom last – that is, engaging in need-based sharing. Tracking debts between close-distance friends is a faux pas across cultures, and friends are expected to help each other as long as they are able to help–denying help because a previous act of support has not been reciprocated can be a quick way to end a friendship. Need-based helping is more robust compared to tit-for-tat reciprocity; if friends only helped each other when they can be paid back, then when someone was most in need of help, their friend would be unwilling to help due to concerns of not being repaid. By always helping each other when one of them is in need, friends can be assured they have the support to get through hard times.

But risks in the environment are often clustered in time and space, hitting everyone in a given area at the same time. In these cases, close-distance friends might not be able to provide help. For example, if you are a fisherman depending on a daily catch to feed your family, a large storm that stops you from going out to the ocean for days can spell trouble. And your friends might literally be in the same boat, unable to help you because they too need help. However, if you have friends further down the coast where the storm has not hit, you can reach out to them for support. In other words, long-distance friends are useful for providing access to resources not available in your local environment. Even when times are good, these friends can get you resources you cannot get locally, such as a place to stay while traveling or information about job opportunities in another city.

While long-distance friends can be useful for supplementing help from close-distance friends by providing access to non-local resources, they also present additional challenges. First, long-distance friends are seen less frequently. This makes it harder to monitor whether a friend is declining to help because they are intentionally refusing to help–and thus defecting on their cooperative partner–or are simply unable to help at the time. Second, they are unlikely to belong to the same cooperative institutions, which among close-distance friends can help smooth over disagreements and provide outside enforcement of cooperative agreements. For example, when friends attend the same religious congregation, they can appeal to their religious leader to mediate conflict between them, such as by reminding a stingy friend of the virtue of helping. Taken together, it is easier for long-distance friends to cheat the need-based sharing common among friends, and it is harder to encourage them to help via institutions. As a result, long-distance friends may be less likely to rely on need-based sharing and more carefully track debts between each other, only providing help when accounts are nearly balanced between each other.

Rural villages along the coast of the Western Indian Ocean in Tanzania primarily rely on small-scale fishing for their food and income. The productivity of different fishing spots changes across seasons, and to access better fishing spots, fishermen must travel to different villages, where they meet and befriend locals. Other professions connected to fisheries, such as fish processors and fishmongers, also travel to where business is booming, forming useful relationships beyond their home villages. As a result of people following the fish, they build a sprawling network of long-distance friendships between villages. Do these long-distance friends provide the same kind of need-based support as friends living in the same village?

To answer this, my collaborators and I interviewed 917 people in 21 fishing villages in the Tanga Region of Tanzania, asking participants about their friendships in their village and neighboring villages. We randomly chose one friend in their village and one friend in another village to ask about different kinds of help the participant had received from each friend, such as advice, loaned tools, and cash help in the form of loans and gifts. Loans and gifts offer interesting insight into account keeping because loans have an explicit expectation that the help is repaid in the future–it is literally tracking debts between friends, which is usually not the case for gifts.

Unsurprisingly, people were more likely to receive help in general from close-distance than long-distance friends. However, contrary to our prediction, long-distance friends were actually a little less likely to give loans than gifts, while close-distance friends were a little more likely to give loans than gifts. Long-distance friends did give larger loans than gifts, which at first glance is consistent with our predictions, but looking at why these loans were given revealed that long-distance friends were much more likely to give a loan for business investments compared to close-distance friends. And help as a business investment was the largest kind of help given, for both loans and gifts and for close- and long-distance friends. That is, long-distance friends are often providing loans for big-ticket items like new boats or ring nets. In many of these villages, that kind of cash is just not available to give out, and people are likely piecing together investments from their wider social network, receiving support that is unavailable locally.

While there were some differences between close- and long-distance friends, more notable was the similarity between them. Regardless of distance, the biggest kinds of help given by friends was advice, help when sick, and help with getting work done. And even among cash help, the differences between close- and long-distance friends were small. Previous research on long-distance relationships have focused on ritual relationships, such as osotua among the Maasai, where social and supernatural sanctions help reinforce the cooperative relationships, making them robust sources of support. Here, even among friendships with no special status, distance does not impede support flowing freely between friends.

The fact that long-distance friends provide the same quality support as close-distance friends has important implications for cooperation more broadly. Many collective action projects, such as managing open-access fisheries, require people to cooperate at a distance with people living in other communities. This can be a hard obstacle to overcome. Just like cooperation between friends, difficulty in monitoring others and lack of shared institutions can breed a lack of trust and interest in cooperating with people who live in other communities, causing between-community collective action efforts to fail. But if long-distance friends provide support to one another, then this can foster interdependence between them–their fortunes are tied together, such that a person providing help to their friend indirectly benefits because their friend is more able to help them in the future. This interdependence makes it more likely for them to participate in between-community collective action because of their mutual benefits from it. Long-distance friends then can be a foundation to build-up larger cooperative efforts, bridging communities with their shared interest, an idea my collaborators and I are currently testing in this context.

A friend in need is a friend indeed. And as it turns out, this is true regardless of whether your friend is your neighbor or lives a world away. People lean on their friends to get through hard times and long-distance friends can provide some kinds of help that close-distance friends might not be able to provide, no strings attached.

Read the original article: Smith, K.M., Pisor, A.C., Aron, B., Bernard, K., Fimbo, P., Kimesera, R., & Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2023). Friends near and afar, through thick and thin: comparing contingency of help between close-distance and long-distance friends in Tanzanian fishing villages. Evolution & Human Behavior, 44(5), 454-465.