37: Do I know what friendship is?
And is this a question other people also think about?
The other day I took my daughter to t-ball practice. I always find these situations a bit awkward, standing around watching her play, while the other parents talk to each other. At first, there was nobody else we knew, and I felt fine exchanging pleasantries with the other parents and then watching my daughter play in silence. Then two of my daughter’s friends came, with their parents, whom I know and feel I should enjoy chatting with. They started talking to each other, and immediately I felt somehow different, or separate from them. I felt I should walk over and say hello and join their chat, but I also didn’t know what to say and thought perhaps they understood that I just don’t make small talk with the other parents. Worried that I would seem rude, I did go over and say hi. I found, as I usually do, that my attempts to make small talk resulted in awkward smiles of confusion, or lack of acknowledgement. Am I inaudible? Or are my words not making sense? Or is it just that what it occurs to me to say is so far afield that even though it seems logical to me it just sounds confusing to everyone else?
The more I think about my relationships with other people and the different contexts I interact with other people in, the more unsure I am if I really know or understand what friendship actually is. I know there are many people I’ve wanted to be friends with, but with whom I never was able to achieve that state. I have colleagues whom I have shared a lot with, and spent a lot of time with, who I think I would call my friends. But, as I have discovered when people change roles or move on to other companies, the friendship usually ends when the work relationship ends. That makes it feel more like a friendship that existed only in the circumstances of work, but not a “true” friendship that would exist regardless of circumstances. The same could be said of neighbors - we are friends (or perhaps just friendly?) when we are neighbors, but if someone moves away the friendship ends.
I changed roles in my company nine months ago and left the boss I’d had for the past 15 years and the peers I’d been working with for almost a decade. These are people I’ve traveled with extensively, eaten countless meals with, spent untold hours in conversation with, gotten drunk with (an unfortunate but common bonding experience among colleagues), done “team building” exercises with, and spent huge amounts of time with. And within weeks it was like we didn’t know each other. No emails, no phone calls, no trips, no virtual meetings. My former boss saw something I had written and reached out to me a few months ago. He said we should reconnect, so we set up a video call for a couple of weeks later. By the time we met, he had forgotten why he suggested we reconnect (and he told me so). It was amazing how little we had to talk about given how much of our lives we had spent together. This was the man, of course, who probably doesn’t remember telling me, when we were both much younger, that his colleagues were not his friends. It seemed pretty harsh when he said it, and I never understood exactly what he meant by that, but it sunk in. Sure enough, when we were no longer colleagues, suddenly it was as if we had no shared history.
There are people I’ve been very close to in many contexts, whom I felt deeply about, and whom I thought felt deeply about me, who have just vanished from my life without explanation. In other cases, I am the one who did the vanishing. I didn’t make friends in college until my senior year, and then it was like a dam burst and I was connecting with people in late night conversations, drinking ourselves into deep philosophical musings, and eagerly trying to absorb what we could of each other before we moved on to whatever would happen after we graduated. But the connections I forged with these people confused me, and I decided it was too much. I stopped answering my phone or opening my door when people knocked. I unplugged my phone from the wall (remember when phones plugged into walls?), deleted voicemails without listening to them, and went to great lengths to avoid running into people whom I had emotionally revealed myself to in any way. Was that me experiencing friendship and then freaking out about it? Or was it something else?
The dictionary definition is not helpful. This is from Merriam Webster: “Definition of friendship: 1) the state of being friends.”
The definitions of “friend” are a bit more helpful, but still unsatisfying:
Definition of friend (Entry 1 of 2) 1a: one attached to another by affection or esteem b: ACQUAINTANCE 2a: one that is not hostile b: one that is of the same nation, party, or group 3: one that favors or promotes something (such as a charity) 4: a favored companion
If we go with definition number two, then I have lots of friends (there are many people in the world with whom I am not hostile). I’m intrigued by the idea of being “attached to another by affection or esteem.” It implies both fondness for someone, as well as respect for them. “Attached” also implies mutuality. I can have affection or esteem for someone, but am I attached to them because of that? Or does that only happen if they also have affection and esteem for me? And how do I know if they have affection or esteem for me? Will they tell me? Definition number four feels too simple. A favored companion? Is that just someone I like being around? I’ve often had the problem where I find someone I like being around, because they seem nice, or funny, or engaging, but I try to be around them too much and what I don’t realize is that they don’t like being around me, but I can’t tell because they are so nice and easy to be around. An example might help.
Once a neighbor had a dinner party at which I met a couple, about my age, who were new in town. One of them was an artist. They lived in the converted tobacco lofts downtown (that I would have preferred to live in, though somehow my girlfriend and I ended up buying a suburban house on a cul de sac). I instantly held the artist in esteem - I admire people who are brave enough to embrace their art as their full time career (something I decided not to do in my early twenties). And the artist was funny, and nice, and warm. I felt we had a connection. I left that evening hoping to see them again. A few months later the artist had an opening at a gallery downtown. I was excited to go and reconnect with him and his wife. The opening was from five until seven. I walked in at 5:00 sharp, the only one there. The artist greeted me, “how are you?” he said, remembering me from dinner. We exchanged some pleasantries as I had a glass of the complementary wine. I felt somehow connected to the artist, like I was a special guest, as if we were old friends. I stood next to him, drinking wine, smiling, making small talk as he greeted other guests. I stood close to him the whole night, continually waiting for him to re-engage me in conversation after greeting someone else. I stayed until the end, by that point having gotten quite tipsy (not really noticing that the artist himself was not drinking, and few others had more than one glass of wine or stayed for more than half an hour). I didn’t want to leave because I was enjoying being in the presence of the artist and the atmosphere of the gallery. Perhaps I was hoping to be invited to the after party, or to dinner, or wherever they were headed. That did not happen. Eventually the gallery was quiet enough, and the small talk awkward enough, that I decided to say goodnight and walk home. The artist eagerly accepted my farewell and encouraged me to have a good night.
It wasn’t until later that I started to realize that my behavior was, perhaps, a bit odd. I didn’t really know the artist at all, but I was imagining that we were old friends. I stood by him all evening, probably to his annoyance, perhaps hindering him from connecting with other guests. I acted like I was the guest of honor and that he wanted to be with me the same way I wanted to be with him, but of course this was not the case. How could it be? For him, it was his event, his gallery opening, where he had the opportunity to show his work, connect with potential buyers, and establish his reputation in a new city. I was someone he met once or twice through a mutual friend, why did I think talking to me would be one of his goals for the evening? I’m not trying to beat myself up about my behavior (though I have done that plenty of times in my life), but rather I’m trying to look objectively at different situations that I’ve experienced to better understand how I relate to others.
If there were hints given to me that evening, I missed them, as I often do. When I am among neurotypical people, I struggle to see things from their perspective, and often don’t try. I used to think that was because I was a self-absorbed jerk (and many others have suggested this), but now I realize it’s just because I think differently than other people. And other people think differently than me. But it always feels like “my fault” for being the weird one, and I often feel the need to apologize for my behavior. Perhaps this is why I never feel that I am part of any group of friends, but just someone who is occasionally included in an activity of a friend group, or whom a friend group will tolerate in limited doses.
The person I consider to be my “best friend” is someone I haven’t seen for six or seven years, and whom I’ve only spoken to on two or three occasions in that whole time. We are both bad at keeping in touch, as we say. But what is friendship if it doesn’t involve communication? If we see each other again, I’m sure we will have a great conversation, and we will feel the bond between us, but are we still friends? Could we really say we are “best friends” if years go by with no contact whatsoever? And what does it mean to label one friend as “best” anyway? That feels so juvenile. My five year old daughter talks about having a best friend. But who that best friend is seems to change with some frequency, or else it seems she is best friends with everyone she is friends with (I suppose this illustrates the futility of trying to make a hierarchy of friends).
Actually, the more I think about it, most of the closest friends I have are people who I don’t live near and whom I don’t speak to often. We have connected deeply at some point in the past - in college, or high school, or a different phase of life, but that was ages ago, and we’ve moved on. We are not part of one anothers daily existence, but still I feel we are close and I would say we are friends. Would they agree?
I’m not sure if other people are confused about the nature of friendship, too, or if it’s just me. I’ve often assumed, about all kinds of things in life, that everyone else “gets it” and I’m the only one who doesn’t. And so I learn to pretend I also get it, and try my best to act like I get it, even if I have no idea what is going on. Friendship is perhaps just one of those things that I pretend to understand and try to go through the motions with. Or, it might be that I understand it the same way everyone else does, which means nobody else really quite gets it either. Or maybe it’s one of those things that I think about too much and for most people these are questions that don’t need to be asked.