Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friendship V: Friends vs. Acquaintances – the endgame

Oh so long that you might need some coffee (to stay awake) and a comfortable chair (in case you don't manage to).

In the hectic pace of life in London, there are hardly enough hours to fight the transport system, do a full day’s work, go home to cook and tidy (many forms: laundry, ironing, dusting, vaccuming etc.), prepare for the next day and maintain full blossom friendships. What meager time of each evening is left after an exhausting day is usually spent watching television, reading and unwinding from the trauma of an adrenaline paced rush. Socialising is for the weekends unless it is well planned for and similarly executed in a timely fashion during the working week. The weekends are filled with errands and ‘me’ time and ‘us’ time and larger scale socialising – all before mentally clocking on for a new work week. In short, friendship maintenance and acquaintance developing take skill and patience and committment.

The key reason in writing this post is to examine the difference between acquaintances and friends. In 2009 (and for some years before this) there has been the massive influx of people in one’s life thanks in no small part to technology – so where earlier you would have called to wish someone a very happy birthday late at night from the one phone booth near your house VERY QUICKLY because it cost an arm and a leg, now you have the option of sending a free e-card, skyping them, leaving a message on their Facebook, e-mailing and having a gift delivered direct to their doorstep at very little extra cost. Where in college I lost touch with all but a few close friends thanks to these long distance phone calls and the vagaries of the postal service today everyone is out to be friends with everyone else and their brother, distance be damned. This often makes things difficult and confusing, for all parties concerned.

Sadly I am an old fashioned girl. Or is that just plain old I wonder? To me there is a marked difference in friendships and acquaintance-ships and in my world these are two distinct things. I find that often in my interactions with people this is where the confusion lies. Friendships in adulthood are harder to come by, gauge and access with any modicum of sense because of the way we form habits and interests that become more settled and staid as time goes on. Things don't click like they used to. There is a level of apprehension and thinking 'is this worth pursuing' if the click is not instant. On the other hand it is still easy to make acquaintances – we said hi at a party, small talked about the weather, your kid, how cool you think living in Wembley is – and lo and behold we part acquaintances. I would then never describe you as my friend. This is the bulk of our adult social interactions and the examples are endless. People you meet at work and then decide to go for a drink with, people at blog meets, picnics and parties, friends of friends of friends. Mostly you meet, are introduced by the common denominator, exchange pleasantries, swap life histories, look for the things, people and places that you might have in common.

Sometimes you come up trumps and there is a an instant connection and you just know that you will exchange mobile phone numbers at the end of the evening, at which point you will not only give them your real number but you will also make an effort to meet for lunch, introduce your partners to each other and possibly make plans for a movie. This is not the norm but the exception. Unless you are a very friendly person (i.e. not me) who makes friends with everybody, want them ALL to come to your house, share childhood photographs with, see each other every weekend and make one giant group - in which case we clearly have nothing in common and you shouldn't even be reading this.

But most often the introduction, swap stories stage will remain just that, the extent of how much information you will swap. Because in yours and/or the other persons mind it is clear to see or muddy as hell as to where this might go. There is no potential and no matter how hard you try you can see that you will not be friends in the true sense of the word. Sometimes you give it a second and third try, you mix and mingle whether out of politeness or to genuinely give it a shot but unless something magically appears between you it is unlikely that a long and lasting friendship, that keystone to adult life, will appear.

Being a friend, even as an adult, is about sharing confidences and enjoying each other’s company in a more uninhibited way than say a formal relationship with a colleague. It's about sharing common interests, laughing at the same things and connecting. Most of this is not a learnt behaviour or response. Mostly, but especially the connection, has to come naturally, because anything forced will not thrive but make each of the people more resentful and untrusting of each other and jeopardise other future relationships. Sometimes things click, other times they don’t. Thankfully the world is a big open accepting space and if one friendship doesn’t work out to ones satisfaction you don’t need to crawl under a rock to be forgotten. You just get back out there and try, try again.

Some people are loners and don’t need the adult interaction with anyone but their partners and their 4.5 friends from chaddhi-hood. But time and distance from bedrock friends of yore necessitates some socialisation - how likely is it that you and all your college friends will stay in the same city throughout your careers in this fast moving world? Else an adult life in a faraway place (or any place really) would be impossibly lonely to bear. I like to think that with age comes wisdom and the finesse to maintain ones dignity in the face of forming friendships. Alas this is not always the case. It is, as I am learning, a trained response. To have the grace to accept ones shortfalls and the understanding of what the difference is between friend and acquaintance. Which is not to say acquaintances are a bad thing – in fact it’s quite nice to, once in a while, have a slew of people with whom random non-meaningful, yet colourful conversation can take place. Checking about health, children, movies watched, opinions, cultural interests – these are all things that might widen our understanding and view of the world. But they are distinct from the influences of friendship where the conversations impact how we think and behave. And no matter how many advances you or I make, in some cases you will never go beyond the veneer of acquaintance-ship into the warmth of friendship.

I want to leave this with two prime examples from my life - to explain how even technology trumps this very human of relationships:
1. Evil evil Facebook: I am no fan. Before I could say ‘Jack Sprat jumped on a mat’ I had nearly 300 ‘friends’ on it – and to be honest I pursued only about 20 of those to become my friends. This is not because I am so popular – it is because everyone wants to be everyone’s friend and use it in a totally different way than I do. I use no applications; I have no interest in taking the multitudes of tests to see who my top film stars are or what kind of flower I am; I don’t get throwing of animals and food at my brother and my birthday calendar is a book that lives on my kitchen sideboard. I use it to put up random pictures (with no given regularity) and share what book I am reading at that moment – nothing deep, insightful or meaningful. I have ‘friends’ on it who are people I barely talked to in school, distant relatives, people I haven’t seen in 20 years, people I will never ever bump into on the street, friends of friends who remember me from the common friends 20th birthday party. All kinds of people, who are lovely no doubt, but not really my friends. These are mainly acquaintances. With friends and some acquaintances I stay in touch via the odd email, the phone and in person. So in one fell swoop, a few weeks ago, I deleted about half my ‘friends’ from Facebook. I feel lighter and I have no remorse. Because the people I kept on are still not all my ‘friends’ but they are people in whose lives I am vaguely and genuinely interested in following (loosely) and this is the easiest way to stay in touch without having to delve deeper.
2. But to illustrate that I am not a Luddite who believes that too much technology is a bad thing let me tell you about my friend Pretty. She used to write a blog which I loved reading. We met on a whim, for coffee, on a dark winters evening on the steps of the Bank of England. She claimed to have few friends being new to London and I was feeling a particular friend shaped hole in my life as well at that point. Long story short we exchanged e-mails for a bit and decided to meet. From the instant we met I think we both knew we’d be friends. We sat in Starbucks far longer that planned that evening and over coffee and laughter arranged to meet with our spouses very soon. I could tell then, immediately in fact, that we’d be pukka friends. And I think over the years we have become and we are just that - friends. But she stopped writing. Which is a crying shame because her writing though usually brief was always insightful, tinged with humour and good cheer. She claims she doesn’t need the blog to vent into an abyss anymore. What she forgets is what the abyss throws up is unexpected treasure (um, me?), sound commentary/ advice/ viewpoints from independent third parties (um, you?) and the odd stalker (which could be fun, no?). Nothing I say will convince her to start again – thank goodness we became friends before she stopped. If it weren’t for our blogs we’d never have met. So for some things I am grateful to technology.

Life is full of treasure and friends can be found in so many avenues in this big bright world that it is a shame not to try and to be closed to the idea of new friends as we grow old. I give full marks to extroverts like my mother who is surrounded by acquaintances and friends constantly. And while I realise that I am not at all like her and have real friends far and few between as opposed to her many many, like her I understand that there is a difference between the two, what loyalty in friendship means, what the power of being an acquaintance is and appreciate both friends and acquaintances for what they bring to the table.

Once you learn how to make the distinction and set your sights accordingly life can be wonderful and fulfilling with people who fill it meaningfully and with people who entertainingly live in its fringes. Whichever you are or whomever you choose to be, remember that life is never lonely if you have a friend. And being a good friend can be an entirely fulfilling way to get through life.


  1. Nice series :)
    What do you do when you invest time in people and it all goes pear shaped, when a group becomes competitive for affection and time. I stay away from the whole group thing ever since I had one particularly bad episode. My bed rock ( I love that term) keeps me sane and happy inspite of the distances between us and my acquaintances fill up the spaces. :)
    I also met a very interesting person recently thanks to blogging, so it does have some perks.

  2. To me blogging is just about getting 'published' but yes, the people you meet through it are a wonderful bonus!

  3. Anonymous6:01 AM

    Hmm interesting post. I have moved a lot in the past 10 years. Each time, I moved, the first thing I did was join a MOM's club(because I have kids). Now in short periods of time(2 years in Colorado, 6 months in London worst smove of my life) I have made many many MOM friends and I am still in touch in most of them. Not by calls but by emails.. I always wonder what to do with that group...I have lists in my FB by the cities I lived in. Isnt that insane..