On The Criteria of Friendship

“We are the sum of all people we have ever met; you change the tribe and the tribe changes you.”

― Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People

I’m turning 25 next week, and I’m going through this phase of my life I’m calling “The Friendship Re-evaluation Phase.” I’m taking the time to think about who my friends are, and who aren’t. This thought exercise made me ask some fundamental questions. What is a friend? What is the concept of un-friending? How do I make the investment in new friends? Over the past few weeks of mulling around and trying to answer these questions, I’ve decided to write about it to bring clarity of what actually matters. I understand friendships matter, but no one really told me why.

Bad Relationships

To really get a grasp a great friendships, I’m going to start by analyzing bad relationships.

I remember in High School, there was this classmate of mine who thought we were friends. He would try to impress me with everything he had while I just wasn’t interested. The cues were all there, but I never forcefully said, “Matt, you can’t be my friend.” But, because my classmate never understood my cues, he continued to pursue me for all four years of my High School experience. I’ll call this the false friendship where the pursuer gives while the other party takes. I took my classmate’s recognition of friendship and I never responded back. Years later, I saw him working as waiter at a restaurant. I didn’t recognize him at first, and he gave me a shout out. Taken by surprised, I treated him with the same respect that I would give anyone else. But that’s where the relationship stayed, as acquaintances. This relationship was never to happen.

Then there are assholes. People who take, and know they are taking, but return little to nothing in return. In fact, if a situation comes up where they are given the option to stab you in the back in order for personal gain, they will gladly do it. TvTropes calls this person a jerkass. But sometimes this person masks this with their words or behaviors. They may seem genuine, but it’s a facade, and you could pay for it later.

My mother is a very gullible person. She has some of the worst friends I’ve ever met. One of most recent friends take advantage of her willingness to follow that she gets scammed into network marketing schemes more often than not. [1] Needless to say, her friends take advantage of her by asking her for favors, coming over for dinner and freeloading, and inviting her to risky activities. In one recent conversation with my mom, she tried to convince me to give her my email password because it was going to make me thousands of dollars. No, I didn’t give her my password, but I had to help my dad change his because he obliged. I have my mom’s friend to thank for that one.

It seems the patterns of bad friendships are major flaws in personalities. For example, one kind of friend we are all aware of is the blamer. The blamer will blame others for their misfortune when in fact that should be pointing that finger right back at themselves. “The world hates me.” “People don’t get me.” “If they just heard my side of the story…” They have some inherent flaw that they can’t fix because they don’t point the finger back at themselves. “Perhaps I hate myself.” “I need others’ affirmation of my self-worth to feel better.” “Maybe I should listen to the other person.”

Last week, I shared a animated video dubbed by a lecture from Brene Brown. She mentions that a sympathizer will try to help someone by beginning with the words, “Well, at least you’re not…” They don’t really help anyone and try to mitigate the situation at hand than to get to the root cause. Because of this trait, it’s hard to really understand if this friend will feel for you or feel with you.

A frenemy is an enemy disguised as a friend. Kelly Williams Brown writes in her book, “Adulting”, about the different types of frenemies.

The Seven Dwarfs of frienemies:

  • Flaky: Do you two have plans? How about now? Flirty (to your significant other): This girl needs you to accept the fact that she playfully jostles your boyfriend every few minutes because that’s just who she is! She’s just friendly! Oh my God, it doesn’t even mean anything! You’re not mad, are you?
  • Boasty: This frienemy says something boastful but phrases it as a complaint about themselves so you’re forced to comfort her, even though both of you know damn well that she isn’t upset about looking too thin.
  • Crabby: This frienemy can never, ever enjoy a single thing, but instead keeps up a monologue of misery and disdain. Never bring this person to a fun dance party, or a goofy movie, or to meet your new significant other. Spoiler alert: She won’t like them. Because she doesn’t like anything.
  • Backstabby: This friend loves you soooooooo much! Except when you are between her and something she wants, in which case, fuck you!
  • Underminey: No, that dress you bought looks … great! So you! It’s awesome that you feel so comfortable with your body!
  • Doc: This frienemy knows exactly what you’re going through, and has all kinds of advice. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re actually going through this, because Doc has diagnosed so, so many things wrong with you. She’s only trying to help. She’s just doing this because she cares.

— Kelly Williams Brown, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps” [2]

Learning how to distinguish the different types hacks your brain into creating a quick heuristic when taking a look at your friends. Does this friend seem to have this type of quality? And a lot of it? Perhaps that have more than one of these traits. It’s really time to start thinking about the quality of this friend. And also, it may be time to evaluate yourself. Do you find yourself in any of these roles? i might complain about flakey people, but I feel super awful when it’s the third time I do it to someone else.

By the way, every type of person I’m mentioning doesn’t just apply to friends. It also applies to relationships. If your partner is a toxic fit, it’s time to really re-evaluate your relationship. Which brings me to a piece of advice that I’ve been having trouble with these past few years.

Don’t wait for others to change.

Contrary to your good intentions, you can’t change someone. You can give them advice and offer them a different attitude on how to deal with problems, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to change them. That’s going to be a personal transformation, and one you’re most likely going to waste your time with. The investment you put into someone that has little to return should have little importance to you. Of course, how you define friendship value is your choice.

For a really close friend of mine, she’s distanced herself and it’s really hard to get a hold of her. Every time I try to reach out to her, she pulls back two steps. And it’s gotten to the point where I have considered ceasing my efforts to reach out and wait for her to respond. It is time to learn that I just can’t wait for her since she’s not willing to make the same investment for me.

Black eyed peas gif

Yes, I have the Black Eyed Peas stuck in my head. So will you.

Unfriend

I’m experimenting with different approaches to end these relationships. One way to deal with ending a relationship is to give them the silent treatment, dodging their phone calls and emails, being that person that doesn’t say anything back when we hang out. Of course, the other person might be confused in why you’ve been so shifty and may not get the message that you don’t want any part of them anymore.

You could politely tell the other party you two aren’t friends anymore, and not engage with them after. In a way, I like this approach because you’re being direct and honest while not burning your bridges. But it doesn’t work for everyone, especially those who don’t take direct advice well.

In Gavin De Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear,” he talks about a business owner who gets pestered by a man who wants to work for him. After each exchange, the business owner engages with this man, first politely, then aggressively. By the end, these two men had a hostile and toxic relationship. When the business owner finally stopped engaging with the man, their exchanges diminished. The moral of the story is that provoking drama creates drama.

What’s hard about breaking up relationships is the investments you’ve made to it. You feel locked-in to it and can’t exit. But this is also a practice in confidence. Take the time to prepare what you’re going to say before you go with this action of un-friending. If you know the other person well, you can tailor it for them. Don’t make it into some elaborate plan and going extremely out of your way to make it known though. Be tactful.

Good Relationships

Broken up with those bad friends, what are we looking for with new friends? I don’t have many true friends. True friends are friends are people that could save me from a pinch, or can be relied on to help when I’m at my lowest point, or can be reached out to for help because there is an enormous amount of trust in this relationship. They are people who I could call my family. They are people I know I will grow old with, that even if we have a severed communication line for years, when we reunite, it will be like nothing had happened between us.

Good friends have integrity, trust, and companionship. They are able to make tough calls, able to empathize, able to listen, able to meet halfway. There’s a good blend of giving and taking. They don’t have to necessarily have the same personality, but if they help me grow, and vice versa, I know I can benefit from the relationship.

I don’t have time to understand everything. I allow other people to spend their time studying something very narrow and leverage on their knowledge. I invest in people. And it’s not a question of whether they are smart. It’s a question of whether I can spend my time with that person. Will this other person be able to listen to me? Can I take the time to listen to this person? Are they continuously growing? Are they helping me grow? Can I help then grow?

Take Some Time to Invest in People

A recent friend of mine told me over lunch that we don’t have the power to change our current friends. Maybe we don’t necessarily need to un-friend them. What we can is choose who to hang out with. He brought up something that hasn’t occurred to me often enough — you can always make new friends. By scoping out new friends, you increase your chances of finding true friends. Your old friends, the ones that you make plans with but they repeatedly cancel on you, can be displaced by these new friends. And new friends may involve going to a meet-up or event, talking to strangers, and following up to make plans to do something later.

With everything, making new friends or being maintaining good friendships takes practice. I’m taking the time each week to give exclusively to friends. Even if it’s a little bit of time, every amount of time counts. There was a time when I didn’t invest any time with friends. For the last year of my previous job, I isolated myself. I was working evening shifts and I would make the excuse that I couldn’t meet people.

I was convinced that I had to sacrifice friends in order to keep the job I had. I worked my ass off and didn’t see much financial reward. Burnt out most weekends, I didn’t make any effort to reach out to anyone.

I was alone with no one to really talk to. I was miserable. There were no pending texts. Nothing in the inbox. No one was making an effort to reach out to me. It was a dark time, and when I finally quit my previous job, I understood it’s not a flaw in others but a flaw within myself. Since then, I’ve been slowly reaching out again.

It was tough at first. I was scared of sending off emails to people I hadn’t talked to in years. But after the first outreach message, the subsequent emails were easier. Now, I’m not scared to ask strangers for emails and follow-up with them. I might sound bizarre, but try isolating yourself for a year. But it can’t be that bizarre, because as I mentioned in my ‘thankfulness’ essay two months back, I mentioned that most people suck at following up.

“The people you surround yourself with need to lift you up. I’m not just talking professionally, but personally as well. Who fascinates you? Who challenges you? Who makes you excited to get started every day? Treat them well, provide them with value, show them why you’re worth keeping around, and you’ll get tremendous return. Invest in people. It may be the most important business investment of your life.” — Gary Vaynerchuck, The Most Important Thing You Don’t Have on Your Bucket List

The benefits are enormous. Perhaps though, you don’t want to have a huge group of friends. That’s the most important thing about investing in friends — understanding your needs and wants. We are all selfish, but we have to be to some extent because we need to take care of ourselves. One way we take care of ourselves is knowing what we want in relationships with others. Again, Kelly Williams Brown writes in her book “Adulting” the following.

“..Assess honestly your own friendship needs and wants.

Some people have the time, energy, and boundless affection to have thirty-seven really close friends. Some people want two close friends, and fifteen people they can call to go out dancing with on a random Friday. Some people want one really tight-knit group. All of these are 100 percent reasonable social needs.

Our model for someone who does well in friendship is someone with a zillion friends, who is never alone, who can conjure twenty people at a bar with nothing more than a mass text. For some, this is indeed what they want. But it’s okay if that’s not what you want — if you’re a quieter, shyer person who would rather have a small handful of people you’re genuinely close with.”

— Kelly Williams Brown, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps”

I’m the type of person who wants enough friends around me to tell me I’m a bit crazy. I don’t care for the zillion of friends. What I care about are friends who are there for me. There isn’t much to this world more than living it with good friends.

[1] If you’re interested in learning more about network marketing and multi-level marketing, listen to this episode of This American Life. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/543/wake-up-now

[2] I can’t help recommending this book if you’re in your twenty-somethings. It has a lot of great advice for young people who are in this transitionary phase of being a college student to being a working adult.