What I learned about Friendship in 2013

I used to believe that being comfortable with someone required either a depth of knowledge on their personal life or a large amount of time spent together.  I now know that both are necessary: If I know a lot about you personally, but I haven’t spent much time with you, then it’s a [celebrity/resume/online profile] relationship and not a real friend relationship.  If I spend a lot of time with you, but you never share your feelings or your thoughts with me, then I don’t know you at all and we’re not friends.  Both have to happen: exchange of information, and time shared.

From that conclusion comes how to make friends! Spend time with them, and open up.  It’s easier to open up after the other person has, so if you want to make it happen, be the first.  If they are judgmental, don’t worry: whatever they falsely judge you for will get corrected over time.

I used to think that exclusivity was a necessary part of friendship: that if you are friends with too many other people, that dilutes the strength of my friendship with you.  Therefore, I used to be jealous and unhappy when my friends would hang out without me.  But I learned: friends can have other friends, that doesn’t make your friendship any less to them if they are your friend.  I stopped avoiding strangers as a way to protect and preserve my current friends, and instead opened up to strangers as either potential friends or chances for an interesting conversation and new perspective.

I used to divide people I knew into two categories–close friend and not friend.  When I did start trying to make friends, I got confused: Do I treat these not-yet-friends as a close friend or not?  This question gave me social anxiety because it’s too early in the relationship to decide whether they are going to be your close friend or not.  However, if I don’t treat them as a friend, then how will we ever become friends?  And if I do treat them as a friend, and the friendship doesn’t work out, am I a liar or a bad friend to that person, acting as a friend but not following through with genuine friendship?  I soon realized my binary view of reality was wrong: relationships come in ranges, and your relationship with everyone is constantly changing.  Some relationships are strengthening while others are weakening.  As a result of this knowledge, I learned how to be friendly in degrees, according to how close I felt to that person at that time, instead of strictly cold to strangers, and strictly warm to close friends.

Would you rather believe you have no friends and be right, or believe you have friends and be wrong about some?  After having no friends made me depressed, I decided I’d rather risk being betrayed than depressed.

Friendship is mutual.  Just because you treat someone as a friend, doesn’t mean they will reciprocate.  And just because they are friendly to you, doesn’t mean they are actually your friend.  So how do you tell?  One way is to see what they voluntarily do without you asking for it, or even what they do without asking you if you want it.  Let’s say you’re moving.  A friend instantly starts thinking about whether they will be able to help you move that day, without you having to ask them.  Let’s say you’re sick.  A friend may buy you soup without asking if you want soup, or what soup you like (giving you an opportunity to politely decline.  And if you do politely decline, a friend may bring it anyway.  ”I’m bringing you soup” is stronger than “do you want soup?” is stronger than no offer at all).  Problems with this method is that sometimes people are just shy, or being proactive isn’t part of their personality, so it’s unfair to say they aren’t good friends simply because of who they are.  This problem is best explained with invitations: some people organize and host events, some people don’t.  If someone never runs an event, they never really are in charge of inviting people, so you might never get an invitation from them, but they still might care about you like in the moving or sick example above.

Not all friends are equal. I used to think friendship was math: execute contact/lunch/event every now and then, prioritizing people I’ve seen the least, so as to fairly and equally distribute time.  This became a problem for two reasons: I treated close friends and distant friends the same, which sends the wrong message, and I didn’t give them my best because instead of showing up excited to meet them, I showed up like it was my job to be there.

Believing exclusion is mean, I felt like including everyone would be kindness.  However, I learned that even that can be taken too far: by trying to include everyone, you have to constantly switch people’s priorities from high because you haven’t talked to them yet, to low because you just talked to them.  This inconsistency in how you treat others makes you seem like a shallow, undependable friend, which is mean.  Ironically, by trying to be kind to everyone, I ended up being mean to everyone in turn.

I used to think I have to be the same person to everyone, in order to be honest and “true to myself.”  However, different people bring out different sides of me, since I have different things in common depending on the person.  My identity to each person is different, and while that’s a bit scary and confusing, it’s OK.

Read Personality and Impression, A Time and Place for Judgment, Getting Comfortable with a Friend

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