Can I call you friend?

Can I call you friend? It’s a curious little question, one apparently more complicated than I thought it was.

Here’s the article that sparked this musing:  Only half your friends actually like you.

This study bugs me for many reasons. First and foremost, the assumptions and value judgments floating around the margins were not addressed in any way, and the conclusions have been rolling around in my brain ever since and bumping into other thoughts.

These studies didn’t define friendship for the participants. The study administrators used a word they assume has the same meaning for all participants. That’s a big assumption. Huge. Big enough to bury the methodology in muddied responses. If you want to compare opinions of a fruit and half your subjects think they’re rating oranges and half think they’re rating grapes, are the results meaningful? I say no.

Nasty, tricksy things, assumptions. But, okay. Lets say we accept the (absurd) premise that everyone was operating with the same criteria when they rated their “friendships.” The conclusions still baffle me.

These studies found that perceived affection was unequal, and also that people are lousy at predicting the affection levels of others towards themselves. In other words, people overestimated how much other people liked them in ways related to how much they liked the person they were evaluating.

Let’s put this another way: studies show that if Beverly likes Ginny at a level of 10, she assumes Ginny likes her at level 10. But the reality is many of the Ginnys of the world only like their Beverlys at a level of 4. Okay, fine so far, right?

WRONG. The studies conclude that this is A Problem.  The horror! People like some of their friends more than they’re liked back? The inequity! /sarcasm

The conclusions–that unequal affection is inherently bad–reduces the value of a friendship to  a binary. Their conclusion is that anything other than full reciprocity of affection means the friendship itself is flawed.

I find this an immensely puzzling conclusion. It runs counter to my entire experience of friendships. It seems reductive and devaluing.

Friendships come in as many different shapes and varieties as humans do. The conclusion itself — that friendships are a singular type of relationship which somehow cheats one side if it’s not evenly mutual like a simple business transaction…it bugs me.

I like a lot of people. I consider them my friends if I like them. I  don’t ever expect to be liked back. (when it happens it’s a perpetual surprise and pleasure.) Why can’t I call someone friend simply because I like and respect them?  Why should my appreciation obligate them to hold me in precisely equal regard?

That whole idea seems silly to me. It even smacks of blackmail.  Consider this statement: “I like you, therefore you must like me back just as much, or else we aren’t friends at all!”

Does that sound odd to anyone else? It puzzles and itches at me, and so I shared it here.

(Note: I am not looking for anyone to “explain” the study to me. I understand its point I simply disagree with it on a visceral level.)


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Sad Confession & Funny Story

Confession: I am not good at friending.  It isn’t that I am a total curmudgeon. I enjoy peopling. I like people. I see value in pretty much everyone I meet. People are cool.  Fascinating. Amazing.  It isn’t some self-doubt issue that holds me back either. If I could alter certain core traits I would be a much better person in the eyes of Society,  but I don’t want to change. I like myself as I am, flaws, quirks, and all. Or to be more precise,  I like myself more than I want to try to change.

The real problem is twofold:

  • One:  I am an intense, intelligent, opinionated person whose baseline personality is as subtle as Limburger cheese, which makes polite interaction damned difficult work for me.  I’m happy being me, but when I relax, I quickly wear out my welcome.
  • Two: I  don’t have a good grasp on the practical concept of nice, which means I have limited capacity to make the gestures that keep friendships strong.

The dance of human bonding is too complex to distill down to the behavioral formulas I use to govern casual and/or professional exchanges. (I have those down pretty well. A few decades of practice and all that. It isn’t easy, but I manage.) Take away structure, and I flounder. And panic, I’ve learned, follows fast on floundering.

Is calling intrusion or inclusion? What about emailing? When are gifts right? How much gifting is too much? Too little? Sharing versus oversharing –what is too much? Too little? Unwelcome? Repetitious?  Oh, geez, have I told this story? What one person enjoys makes another uncomfortable, but not always…and all that assumes that other people are nakedly honest about their feelings at all times. Big assumption. Big. HUGE.

Friendships have SO MANY variables —  not only who the friend is, but the circumstances, the occasion, their state of being, their state of mind. First there’s recognizing which of a zillion situations is in play, and then trying to remember which situational variants call for what reaction…

When in doubt about a proper relating behavior, I default to no behavior.

Be invisible is my conditioned response to overload, and that is lousy friending. (even I know that much)

A friend steps up in times of need. I’ll be the one off standing in a field, totally oblivious or wholly paralyzed. I do wish it wasn’t true. I do try. Often the best I can do is be honest and say, “I can’t.” Or else, “To help you, I need  you to tell me what you need. Specifically. Concretely.”

But see, that isn’t good friending either, because sometimes what people need is the freedom to not have to explain what they need on top of whatever concrete need they have. The best gift is often the one that arrives unasked. I know this. I just…suck at it.

Without direction, I will guess wrong and hurt feelings often deeply. That isn’t insecurity talking, it’s experience.  It is  also not a case of “I could get better at it if I tried harder.” I can point to dozens of burned bridges to illustrate the consistency of my failure.  Trying the same thing over and over expecting different results…what do they call that, again? Ah, right. That’s the facetious definition of insanity.

I’ll take sanity with a small side order of guilt over driving myself crazy. Call me selfish. You won’t be the first. It’s a bit awkward being me.

I’m good at disappearing, though.  I got tons of practice growing up because invisibility was a survival skill. I was one of those perfect bully magnets. Physical awkwardness, emotional difficulties, and academic achievement all flagged me as a target. That’s when I learned how not to be seen. I  was so invisible in middle school even the teachers didn’t see me.

True story. Funny one.

Sure, each teacher knew I was in their class, but none of them saw me. I liked it that way. Thus in the fullness of time my mother found out I was not nominated to the Junior National Honor Society by any of my teachers. (Some of whom were Mom’s friends and knew my whole family well.)

Cue major parental outrage. Mind you, I did qualify for NHS membership. I was carrying a near-perfect GPA on an overloaded course schedule and involved in a ton of extra-curricular activities too. My records were identical to other children with multiple teacher sponsors.

But it never occurred to any one teacher that I might be acing ALL my classes. I “didn’t stand out.” Or so my mother was informed. KA-BLOOIE ensued. Apologies were made. I was inducted into JNHS. Life went on. Scholarship money eventually resulted.

And that’s how I learned being visible had an upside. I also learned (slowly) how to mimic basic social behaviors until they became habitual practice.  It took a lot longer to learn how to tell fake friends from from real. But that’s a tale for another time.

As often happens, I’ve reached the end of a post with no particular point made.  What’s a good wrap-up? Hmm. Oh. Buy my books, they’re awesome? Yeah, that’ll do.

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BFFs: a bit from Flight Plan

I haven’t shared from this book yet. No idea why. Here’s one of my favorite scenes.


Naomi saw Serena’s feet first. A bare toe rubbed over the top step of the porch stairs beside her, and then Serena sat down while balancing bagels stacked on steaming mugs in each hand. She still wore nothing but the filthy camouflage sneak suit, and she smelled like garbage. Sleepy eyes gleamed at Naomi over a secretive smile. “I promised to go to bed,” she said. “But you’re on the way. Good morning.”

Naomi took a mug and let tears spill down her cheeks. “I love you so much.”

“It’s only tea, Naomi. It isn’t even good tea.”

“It’s more.” She wiped her face and sipped the perfectly acceptable black pekoe blend. “You don’t realize how much better you’ve been, the last few days.”

“Well, don’t get too excited. I’m still a moody bitch.” Serena wrapped her arm around Naomi’s waist. “I love you too, Bao-bao. You held me up until I could run again.”

Naomi put her head in the curve of Serena’s shoulder. “Whatever.”

Birds were peeping in the drooping evergreens somewhere, and the gray sky was lightening in advance of the sunrise. The breeze was light and cool. Naomi shifted the tea to one hand and took a bite of half-thawed bagel. While she ate, she went back to doing what she’d been doing before Serena arrived: wondering why Parker wasn’t freezing to death out on the lawn in nothing but a pair of cut-off sweatpants.

He squared his shoulders and flowed smoothly from one t’ai chi form to another. His balance never wavered as he pivoted to face them, but surprise came through: he hadn’t noticed Serena’s arrival. His attention went back to the exercise, and then he smiled.

Naomi couldn’t keep her lips from curving up, but she firmly put him out of her mind even as heat coiled through her. Boundaries were important.

“Why is ‘threesome’ the first thing every guy thinks when he sees us together?” Serena asked. She added loudly, “She doesn’t share, sorry.”

Parker came down flat-footed. Chest muscles and abs rippled when he took a deep breath, and his face flushed red. Serena hummed appreciatively.

Apprehension sputtered to life within Naomi’s heart as Parker turned away and got back on task. “Serena, I know you, and—please, let me have this? I can’t compete, you know I can’t.”

“No, no, no.” Serena kissed her on the ear. “Silly Naomi. Very much no.”

The cheerful emphasis was as confusing as it was a relief. Naomi went back to watching Parker. “Why not? You’ve been sniffing after him since you met.”

“Only because I could feel him, steady-safe like you at my center. Secure, not sexy. You and I don’t have sex.” A moment passed. “Together, I mean.” Another pause. “Except those couple of times way back when, but we were both stoned and drunk at once, so I don’t think they count.”

“Stop.” Giggles bubbled up. Naomi stifled them. “You are not helping.”

For a moment they were fifteen again, winding down from a night of harmless pranks and minor property crimes. They had been so young. So full of hopes and passion. Life hadn’t been perfect, but the future had been infinite. Their limitless reality had imploded, desperation had crushed them both into tiny futures with no room for dreams, and then even those unenviable lives had been torn to pieces.

This morning felt like rebirth.

Serena set down her cup to nestle closer, but her breath stank and so did the rest of her. Naomi pushed her away. “Dirty girl.”

“I am.” Serena was still watching Parker. “He is hotter than a chili pepper, and you haven’t even nibbled on him yet. What is wrong with you?”

Boundaries, Serena.”

“I can’t help noticing. He’s in the same place you are.” She rubbed a fist between her breasts. “Steady-safe, the pair of you. Like my heartbeat.”

“Notice away, but I will not talk about anything we do or don’t do. Ever.”

 


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