Would you rent a friend?

tim_dowling_and_mateFeeling lonely? Don't have anyone to go to the pub with? Then a friend rental service could be just the thing you need. A United States company Rentafriend says it is making brisk business supplying friends for hire to those without friends or just wanting someone new to go out for a drink with.

This alarming innovation is said to have its origins in Japan, but it has also become big in the US and Rentafriend plans to bring it to the UK and soon there could more companies offering the strange service across the world.

But what’s it like to spend a day with someone you’re paying to be your friend? The Guardians Tim Dowling narrates below his own weird experience out with a rented friend.

I meet my friend Andy in a cafe. Over a coffee we chat about music, current events and the ups and downs of our working lives. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about our feelings or our relationship, or rehashing the past.

It’s just not that kind of friendship. I prefer it that way, and I know Andy feels the same, because I’m paying him to feel the same. In fact, I’m paying him 40 an hour to feel the same.

Not so long ago, friendship belonged to a dwindling list of desirable outcomes including happiness, wisdom and good weather that money couldn’t buy. In a cold and indifferent world full of cold and indifferent strangers, a friend was something you had to make yourself.

But no more: now you can purchase friendship at your convenience, by the hour. For a certain consideration, you can hire someone to go to a museum with you, or hang out at the gym, or keep you company while you shop. A stranger, you might say, is just a friend who hasn’t invoiced you yet.


This disturbing development has its origins in Japan, but it has also become big in the US. The website rentafriend.com maintains a database with 218,000 names on it, chums-for-hire from all over the US and Canada.

Apparently, 2,000 people pay to subscribe in order to find friends to take to dinner or to invite round for some scrapbooking. (For reasons that elude me, scrapbooking is huge in the US. You’d certainly have to pay me to do it with you.)

It may all sound a bit suspicious, but Rentafriend founder Scott Rosenbaum insists that the service furnishes platonic friendship only. Those seeking or offering more are struck off.

If this sounds like the final phase of a bid to commodify every aspect of being human (should we not hire out our souls and be done with it?), those numbers 218,000 rentafriends against 2,000 no-mates probably say more about what people will do for money in today’s economic climate than how lonely people are in our dysfunctional society.

An LA Times reporter rang up three random rentafriends and found that none had been contacted by anyone. Although rentafriend.com has plans to bring this alarming innovation to Britain, as has been widely reported this week, there is currently no such service on offer. So I have had to make my own arrangements.

New friendship

Andy is an actor. Soon after we meet he apologises for his goatee and sideburns, which he says have no relevance to our friendship; they’re for a production of Peer Gynt. He has never been paid to be someone’s friend before, but he understands why someone might resort to buying companionship.

When he first came to London from Scotland a year and a half ago, he found socialising difficult. “It actually took a long time to make some kind of contact with people other than workmates,” he says.

I have to confess I’m still struggling with the whole idea. I spend a lot of my time feeling insufficiently lonely, so paying someone to socialise with me is not just a waste of money, but a poor use of time I could spend sitting in a room by myself.

With five minutes of my new friendship on the meter, I am already nursing an obligation to keep Andy happy and amused. I get him some crisps from a vending machine. Actually, I have to borrow the money from him because I don’t have any change, but I tell him he can just stick it on the bill.

I think Andy likes me. I can’t tell for certain, of course, but when you hire a mate for a few hours I suppose you’re also buying the luxury of not caring what he thinks about you, just as you don’t care what a professional curtain hanger thinks of your curtains.

This does lend my temporary friendship a slightly self-centred tinge, however. When we go to the park with a football (both Andy and I suffer a failure of imagination when it comes to thinking up friendly pastimes), I get him to lob the ball at a height where I can head it into an invisible goal, over and over. It never occurs to me to give him a turn. A real friend would probably get pissed off at some point. Not Andy.

Not my friend

Our failure of imagination takes us to the pub where, over beer and newspapers, we settle into an eerie simulacrum of male companionship: the swapping of unconnected anecdotes, the gentle ribbing, the stretches of unforced silence, a manner of addressing issues that presumes common ground.

If you saw us, you would never know we weren’t friends. Perhaps that’s because male friendship and male acquaintance look remarkably alike both rely on a strict protocol of nonchalance or maybe it’s because Andy is a very good actor. I don’t know; I’ve never seen him in anything. Because he’s not really my friend.

Andy thinks it could be the desire for uncomplicated companionship, rather than loneliness, that is driving the growth in friend-hire. “It’s not about striking up a relationship,” he says. “People don’t want to have loads of close friends because it completely ties up your life.”

A real friend

He’s both perceptive and articulate, although I can’t help feeling the person who’s paying shouldn’t be doing so much listening. We should really be talking about what I think.

Shortly after we sit down for lunch at another cafe, we run into my friend Sam. He’s a real friend not in the sense that he’s always been there for me, just in the sense that I’ve never paid him.

“This is Andy,” I say. “He’s my friend.” Sam eyes Andy with suspicion and, I think, a little jealousy.

“Hello, Andy,” he says. “So, what have two you been doing?” “We’ve been to the park,” I say. “And then the pub. We’re friends.”

“Really,” says Sam. “How long have you known each other?” I’m stumped by this. It’s unlikely I would make a new friend like Andy at my age. And I can’t say, “We go way back”, because Andy doesn’t go way back. He’s only 27.

I really enjoyed my day with Andy. He’s a nice guy and I’m sure we could be actual friends, despite the 20-year age gap. Our parting is still a bit awkward though. There’s no promise of future arrangements, no casual assertion that we will meet again. Just a stiff handshake and a weak smile.

A few hours later I have already started to forget what he looks like. Luckily I took a picture of him with my phone, so it will come up automatically with his mobile number. What was I thinking? He’s never going to ring.

What Andy thought

“It was fun, but a little bit weird. It felt like a blind date where you are shoved together and have to find some common ground. You have to go in with a lot of energy and try to work out why someone needs you to be there for the day and fulfil that role.

“I’m not sure I would do it for real. It’s a new venture, so you don’t know the kind of people who would be hiring you.

“If he wants to hire me again I would be up for it, though. And yes [pause], I think we could be friends in real life, though it would depend on the circumstances of how we met.” Article reproduced from the Guardian newspaper.

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