Monthly Archives: October 2010

Child’s Play

Last night I went to an orientation for Big Brothers Big Sisters. Matt and I have decided to volunteer for the program’s Couples Match, meaning we will get one Little Brother for the two of us.

I’ve always been interested in the program—I love kids, and given the fervor with which I read Harry Potter books and watch ABC Family, I basically am one myself. Still, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect or, more specifically, what would be expected of me.

You can probably imagine my sense of relief when the very first thing I read said a good Big Brother or Sister will “emphasize friendship over changing the behavior of the child.” Our orientation leader was quite clear in her instruction that the “Big” is not there to be a parent or tutor or babysitter. Just a friend.

This I can handle. In fact, having an 11-year-old buddy sounds pretty ideal. Finally, someone who will take seriously my adoration for children’s books, teeny bopper music (I’m sorry, but Miley Cyrus can be really catchy. Ditto Justin Bieber), and High School Musical.

Of course, befriending a child in a mentor capacity is not the same as having a new BFF. The behavior we might expect in a friendship of equals—reciprocation, self-disclosure, general non-flakiness—can’t be a requirement. Our “Little” may never say “thank you,” we were told, and we can’t go getting mad at him. Our focus should be on our own behavior and on being there for the “Little.” Period.

While Big Brother Big Sister is about a different sort of relationship than the kind I usually write about, this approach is an interesting way of looking at the other friendships in our lives. We usually spend a good chunk of our time focusing on what a friend did or did not do. She didn’t wish me happy birthday correctly or she did awkwardly hug me or she didn’t return my phone calls. And this stuff, or at least the bigger issues of two-way trust and camaraderie, is important to an adult friendship. Without a give and take there is no relationship. But what if, maybe for only a moment, we stopped obsessing over what we expect of friends and instead focused on what we expect of ourselves.

For me, that might get pretty eye-opening.

So this weekend, instead of harping on what makes someone else a friend (or not), I’m going to try to turn the tables on myself. Make sure my own behavior’s up to par and not concern myself with what other people do. Easier said than done.

Are you up for the challenge? Could you forgive—or, even better, just not notice—bad friendship behavior and focus on being a good pal yourself? What do you think you’ll find?

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Filed under The Search

Can’t Buy Me Friendship

Go ahead, arrest me. I solicited a friend.

That’s right. Just a few days ago, I paid a woman to spend time with me.

Perhaps you didn’t believe me when I promised to try out Rentafriend.com? Well, I did. Verdict? It was almost normal.

I found my rent-a-friend—let’s call her Lisbeth—through the company website. In my search of local women around my age, there were only two people who seemed solely interested in being hired for friendship. The profiles of the other women were more, shall we say, friendly, than even I’d hoped for (except for the one girl who I’m pretty sure is doing the Bloods gang sign in her photo. Awesome). I chose Lisbeth because she seemed more interested in going to farmer’s markets than meat markets.

Keep in mind that in order to even contact Lisbeth I had to pay the $24.99 for a month’s subscription to the website. Then she told me that she charges $20 an hour. Then she suggested an all-day affair.

We settled on lunch and the museum. The strangest thing about the whole experience was that it wasn’t particularly strange. The time we spent together was quite…usual. Almost as if we were actual friends.

Until it came time to pay for lunch. I figured part of the gig was that I pick up the tab, but she totally did the fake wallet reach. Ladies, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It was the classic date move. You don’t actually intend to pay, but it would be rude if you didn’t pretend to offer, right? Um, yeah, I know that move. I use that move.

Over lunch I learned that Lisbeth is 28, like me, and a social worker. She’s renting out her friendship to make extra money since she’s only employed part time. I, however, was her first “client.” The other interested parties were all men who either seemed creepy or spoke such broken English that she didn’t see how they’d communicate, let alone hang out.

She seemed like someone who, under different circumstances, I could actually be friends with. After lunch we wandered around the Museum of Contemporary Art, spent a while in the gift shop, and prepared to part.

Then came the awkwardness. On an otherwise solicitation-free corner of Michigan Avenue, I paid Lisbeth $60 for our time together. “I feel weird taking money from you,” she said.

“Oh, you know,” I said awkwardly as I shoved a wad of bills in her hands. “If you ever want to hang out again, like, for real, you know where to reach me.” Yeah, this didn’t feel like an escort situation at all.

After we went our separate ways, I realized I’d been so nervous about the payment bizarreness that I gave her $20 too many. I tipped my rented friend! Kill me.

I guess she didn’t feel that weird taking money from me after all.

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Filed under The Search

The Hard Facts: Sister Act

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Last year…the British psychologists Liz Wright and Tony Cassidy found that young people who had grown up with at least one sister tended to be happier and more optimistic, especially if their parents had divorced. Another British researcher, Judy Dunn, found a similar pattern among older adults.” (“Why Sisterly Chats Make People Happier,” The New York Times, 10/26/2010)

It seems I’m not the only person wondering about whether family can suffice as best friends. In an essay that became the Times’ most emailed article of the day yesterday, Deborah Tannen examines a collection of recent studies, all of which found that having sisters will make you happier, no matter your gender.

But why? Tannen argues it’s not the type of communicating women do—our face-to-face emotional gabfest isn’t any better or more productive than male side-by-side bonding—but the frequency with which we do it.

There’s plenty of similar research about cross-gender friendships. Both men and women get more emotional satisfaction and support out of relationships with female friends. It’s time with the ladies that determines our loneliness factor. If Tannen’s reasons are correct—if we like sisters better because they’re willing to talk a lot—then the same could likely be said of female friends. We women have the whole relationship thing down pat.

I wonder if I would be less aggressive about this search if I had a sister of my own. The ultimate BFF is probably one who is more like family than friend. But that’s not what this search is about. At least not for me.

I’m not trying to recreate a sibling relationship because I already have a great one. Maybe I’m the exception to the rule, but I talk to my brother all the time. Almost every day, if gchatting and instant messenger count. We rarely talk about feelings, and when we do there’s always an air of awkwardness, but we don’t have to. We can read emotions without addressing them. Instead we talk about mutual friends, family, TV, and general observations about the world.

As I’ve said previously, my sibling relationship can’t replace what I am looking for in a BFF. But maybe I’d change my tune if I had a sister waiting in the wings. Tannen sure paints a nice picture.

If you have a sister, do you talk to her often? Do you talk about feelings more than activities? If you have a brother, do you wish you spoke more? Is one more eligible for friendship than the other?

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Filed under The Gender Gap

Look How Far We’ve Come

I’ve done a pretty decent job this year of meeting new people. I don’t have a new BFF just yet, but I do have new friends. I’ve met them in all sorts of ways—improv class, online essays, wedding dress shopping, work, meet and greets—and I sloooowwwwlly feel like I’m establishing my own social network in my not-so-new-anymore city.

On Saturday night I went to a new pal’s birthday party. When I got there, she was telling some of the guests—including a few of the ladies who attended my getting-to-know-you pizza dinner—that she moved to Chicago five and a half years ago and didn’t know one person at the party before she got here. Every single guest was a relatively new friend. And it was a good-sized crowd.

It struck me as such an encouraging detail. In only five years, she’s set up an entire life for herself. When we talked about it the next day, she said she’d had a bit of a lightbulb moment when she realized her guest list was entirely new friends. It made her never want to leave. After all, five years seems quick once it has passed, but to start again would be daunting.

I’ve been in Chicago for three and a half years now. I didn’t do a big affair for my birthday, mostly because I turned 28 and that’s not a very interesting age, but also because I felt like so many of my new friends were in that more-than-an-acquaintance-but-not-a-full-fledged-friend stage. I wouldn’t want someone I barely knew to feel obligated to celebrate me, but I also wouldn’t want to leave anyone out.

I won’t be in my friend’s shoes in two years because I have family and college friends who I knew when I arrived here and who I very much plan on inviting to any 30th birthday festivities that might occur. But still, I love the idea that a good portion of the room could be filled with new additions.

When I first moved to Chicago, I was nervous about the whole new friends thing but excited for a change. I loved the anticipation of what my Chicago life might bring. Who would I meet? What would we do? Would anyone in the Midwest care for pop culture the way I do?

It’s fun to be in the process of answering those questions. And it’s satisfying to notice as each small step turns someone from a stranger to a friend. My new friend’s story makes me excited all over again to see what the next two years could bring.

Where do you see your friendships in two years? Have you ever had a friendship aha moment? Or a realization that your BFF search could be called off?

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Filed under The Search

Flocking Together

It’s no secret that I love television. It’s also well-established that many of my favorite shows are those that revolve around a group or pair of friends: How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Glee I could go on, but I might start embarrassing myself.

These are also the shows that make people worry about the current state of their social lives. If we don’t have a BFF who can read our minds like Will, brunch with us every Sunday like Miranda or Samantha, or guess what we bought at the store on a Saturday morning a la Chandler and Joey in my most favorite episode of Friends (“The One with the Embryos”), then we’re not complete.

On Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed about these TV shows, which he labels “Flock Comedies.” TV is apparently moving away from the family sitcom and going the buddy route. Why? According to Brooks, the friendly focus of these shows is actually a response to changes in American society. “With people delaying marriage and childbearing into their 30s, young people now spend long periods of their lives outside of traditional families, living among diverse friendship tribes,” he says.

But that’s not all these shows are good for, Brooks adds. Because when those once-young people eventually do get married, they make room for baby (and work) by sacrificing friendship. So flock comedies “appeal to people who want to watch fictional characters enjoying the long, uninterrupted bonding experiences that they no longer have time or energy for.”

I think Brooks has it right, but I see it from a different angle. The reason I watch buddy comedies is not to see what I don’t have (even if that realization is a side effect). Quite the opposite. I watch to remember what I have had. Living across the hall from your best friends may not be totally realistic after college, but watching a bit of banter on Friends reminds me of my own Monica-Phoebe-Rachel caliber friendships. When I started watching How I Met Your Mother, I was convinced the writers must be living inside my head. The gang had such familiar conversations—the absurd arguments and ridiculous theories—in their MacLaren’s booth that I was immediately transported back to my college days. It’s comforting to relive that every Monday night.

So I’d say the reason flock comedies are successful is because the relationships can be so genuine, not because they give us a mini-escape into a life we can’t have.

Also because Phoebe and Chandler are brilliant.

What is your favorite flock comedy? Why do you think they are so popular?

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Filed under Everything I Know I Learned on TV, The Old Days

A Global Understanding

There’s been a lot of great conversation on the blog this week. I’ve been fascinated to read your take on mean girls and online friending, not to mention last week’s discussion of appropriate birthday greetings. (Birthdays are a touchy subject—I love it!). Yesterday I was super intrigued by the divide when it came to huggers and non-huggers. And the comments brought to light another friendship topic I’ve had on the brain: Cultural differences as they pertain to BFFs.

In response to my awkward hugging encounter, one commenter, a German native, wrote: “Maybe this is a cultural thing, but I only hug people I feel somewhat close to. … I don’t hug old-coworkers, classmates or sports buddies just because I haven’t seen them in a long time. We shake hands (this is much more common in Europe, and it’s not at all business-like, just friendly).”

An Australian reader wrote: “North America is a hug or handshake culture and it seems awkward to shake hands with a friend or non-professional acquaintance. Here in Australia we mostly do the European cheek-kiss thing. It still sometimes brings awkward situations but not as much.”

Acceptable friendship behaviors, and the general expectation of what a friendship will be, vary pretty significantly from one country to the next. For example, a reader once told me that in Italy it is totally acceptable to ask a solo diner if you can share a table with them. (Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of every romantic comedy ever?) Not always the case in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Then there are the Croatians and their “friendship over business” stance.

When I first started writing about my search, I discussed it over email with a friend who’s living in Hong Kong. He wrote, “I would be willing to bet that Americans are much more likely to relate to your blog for the simple reason that they are much more likely to travel. In fact, I heard once that something like 85% of the world population ends up living within 20 miles of the house in which they grew up.” I haven’t been able to confirm that exact statistic, but I can say that Americans are the most mobile people in the world. We move, on average, every 5 years. If adults across the globe are more likely to stay in one place, they’re obviously less likely to encounter problems of the I’m-moving-how-do-I-make-new-friends variety.

A study released just last week delved into the differences in how American and Japanese friends communicate. The study discovered that while Americans are all about telling our friends everything, that doesn’t fly between friends in Japan. “[Researchers] found that Japanese people were more likely to feel that relationships were stable and because of this, were less likely to share so much information with their closest friend. However, Americans shared more information with friends than the Japanese because they saw their relationships as more fragile and shifting more often, thus requiring more maintenance via self-disclosure.” The simple fact that Americans move around more is responsible for other cultural differences in friendship behavior—including our tendency to share everything from our bodily functions to our morning drive traffic report.

Tell me, what cultural differences have you noticed? If you live in the U.S., have you observed any changes in friendship behavior when you travel? If you live outside the States, what is the difference between friends here versus where you live?

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Filed under The Hard Facts

Hug It Out

Can we please talk about the most awkward moment of a girl date? Because it’s killing me.

You have a nice dinner, easy chatting, and then, when you part, there’s this moment. Nervous hesitation, shifting from side to side. Uncomfortable energy is in the air… And then you go for it. The hug.

Or you don’t. But if you’re me, you do. And it is just so painfully awkward.

I am not kidding. The to-hug-or-not-to-hug parting moment is the worst. I’m one of those people who will do anything to interrupt an awkward silence. Including calling out the silence itself. “Well this is awkward…” Thus increasing the kill-me-now factor by approximately one thousand percent.

It’s a combo of Monica Geller’s “I’m breezy!” and Chandler Bing’s “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable!”

Take a girl-date I went on a few months back. We had a perfectly nice meal, but when we were leaving there was this strange moment where neither of us knew what to say or do. So just as she started to wave goodbye I actually said aloud “Ok, I’m just going to go for the hug.”

Who says that? The poor girl was like “Um, ok. So we’re doing that.” Those were her actual words.

A similar problem can occur when you run into a sorta friend out of the blue. Do we hug hello? Or just wave?

This happened to me twice—twice!—yesterday. First I ran into an old coworker, and for reasons I cannot explain I hugged him. I should not have been hugging him. We were not close. It was weird. I was just so taken aback by seeing him out of context that I went for it. And then I was totally embarrassed for the duration of the conversation and for a good seven minutes afterwards.

Then, because apparently that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, I ran into a girl who works at my company at a bar last night. And I hugged her hello. I mean seriously. What is wrong with me? Again, embarrassed. Less so, because I bet she’s a hugger, but still. I hardly know her. We work in the same company, not the same department. It was not the time.

All this to say, if you run into me on the street, and you see me start to lift my arms, you have two options: Embrace it, or run.

Does anyone out there even know what I’m talking about? Have you experienced this awkward girl-date moment? Or am I just a total weirdo? Don’t feel bad, you won’t be telling me anything I don’t already know…

61 Comments

Filed under The Search

Mean Girls at Any Age

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“One recent survey of 273 third graders in Massachusetts found that 47 percent have been bullied at least once; 52 percent reported being called mean names, being made fun of or teased in a hurtful way; and 51 percent reported being left out of things on purpose, excluded from their group of friends or completely ignored at least once in the past couple of months.” (“The Playground Gets Even Tougher”, New York Times, 10/8/2010)

In my improv class last night, three women were asked to act out a scene in which they were coworkers around the watercooler. It didn’t take long for their characters to turn into mean girls, plotting to take down their poorly dressed coworker.

It struck me in that moment that mean girls exist way beyond our school days. They may wear the guise of a mature adult, but there are still office cliques and book club cliques and mommy cliques.

According to recent research, it’s not just that mean-girl behavior lasts longer—it starts earlier too. While social aggression used to start around fifth grade, now it can take hold as early as kindergarten.

Yikes. There’s no safe place. At a time when headlines are full of teen suicides due to bullying, it’s just plain terrifying.

In fifth grade I was the victim of a BFF-turned-mean-girl. My best friend decided that she didn’t like me anymore. We had been inseparable until one day when she decided that wait, never mind, she didn’t want to speak to me anymore. After a month it was “wait, never mind, we are BFFs again.” If memory serves, this happened twice in that same year. Luckily, I’ve mostly blocked it out.

Then, of course, there was the infamous letter my friend wrote me during the summer between seventh and eighth grade.

The worst part? For most of my youth, I was one of the popular kids. What could it have been like for the kids who had a harder time socially? I don’t even want to know.

What I do know is that female relationships are fragile, especially when girls are young. They can be flipped upside down with no warning. “Oh, yesterday we were best friends? Too bad, today I hate you.”

I’m not a mom, so I can’t speak to this from any anecdotal place, but according to sources in this article, many of the mean girls come from mean moms. Mean moms who encourage their daughters’ exclusivity.

It’s scary to think—and almost too hard to believe—that mothers might reinforce this kind of behavior. It’s enough to make a would-be mom (one day, that is. I have no announcements here) run in the opposite direction… How? Why? Whaaat??

These aren’t rhetorical questions. I really don’t get it. Many of you are moms… can you enlighten me? Have you seen other mothers encourage their daughters’ mean-girl behavior? Have you seen moms behave as mean girls themselves?

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Filed under The Hard Facts, The Old Days

Pay For Play, Friendship Style

There was a time when going online to find a mate was considered “weird.” Maybe even pathetic. That time is long gone.

Online dating is standard operating procedure these days. One of my closest friends just got engaged to a fabulous guy she met online. It works, people. But you already know this.

So what about finding friends online? Would you go there?

It seems like new friending sites keep popping up. When I started this blog I quickly learned about GirlfriendCircles.com and GirlfriendSocial.com, which are both basically Match.com for female friendships. Since then I’ve learned about CompanionTree.com, the coed version of a platonic friend-matching site, and… drumroll please…Rentafriend.com.

Yes, it is what it sounds like.

Unless it sounds like an escort service. Because it promises in BIG BOLD LETTERS that it is not a front for any sort of escort situation. It is merely a site in which you pay people to spend time with you. Hmmm. (It bears noting here that the majority of “friends” for hire post pictures that are a bit more than friendly—hello, cleavage!—and the majority of customers “purchase” friends of the opposite sex.)

Here’s how it works. First, you sign up for a monthly membership: $24.95 per month or $69.95 for a full year. Then you can browse potential friends (actually you can do this before you sign up, but you can’t get contact info for your new BFF until you sign up) and see their rate-per-hour, anywhere from $10-$150 per hour (usually $20-$50). Yes, beyond  your membership fee you need to pay the friend directly for whatever time you spend together. Once you spot the profile of your potential bestie, you can contact her by phone or email, and set up your playdate.

I first read about the site on msnbc.com. Apparently it is modeled on “hugely successful sites in Japan and Asia,” and people hire friends for anything from business trip dinner date to weekly companion for their elderly mother. My favorite example in the article? “Two students rented parents to meet with college officials after they were caught drinking on campus.” Um, that’s not hiring friends. That’s hiring actors.

If I sound skeptical, it’s because I am. But the site’s founder, Scott Rosenbaum, says the site receives 100,000 unique page views a month and has nearly 2,000 paying members. Perhaps it will catch on. But isn’t the very nature of friendship reciprocal? We both want to spend time with the other? A partnership of equals?

And what happens after the first friend-date, if you hit it off? Does future companionship come free?

Glutton for punishment—and curious friending guinea pig—that I am, I’d give this site a try. I’ll find the one Chicago lady not shoving her boobs in my face and invite her on an outing. A crowded one. That takes place in broad daylight.

Who knows? It could be like any other girl date. You know, besides the part where I pay her $80 for hanging out with me. Now there’s a confidence booster.

Would you be willing to meet friends online on a site like Girlfriend Circles, Girlfriend Social, or Companion Tree? What about Rent a Friend? Would you try it? Under what circumstances?

25 Comments

Filed under 21st Century Friendships, The Search

Getting Down to Business

The question of mixing business with pleasure is not a new one. I’ve seen enough friendships go down the tubes due to business disagreements to believe that working with your BFFs is not a good plan. This is not to say that you can’t turn coworkers into friends (you can and you should) but I’m skeptical of making the transition in the opposite direction. As John D. Rockefeller said, “A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.”

The friendship getting the most play in popular culture these days is one that proves my point: That of Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Most of you have probably heard of Zuckerberg—the 26-year-old founder and CEO of Facebook, and the youngest billionaire in the world. If you haven’t seen The Social Network you may be less familiar with Saverin, a co-founder of Facebook and, if the movie is to be believed, Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend.

According to the film, which is based on Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book The Accidental Billionaires but which Facebook has called “fiction,” Zuckerberg and Saverin were BFFs whose relationship was torn apart when Zuckerberg decided to virtually shut Saverin out of the business’s future. The two had different ideas of what would make the website most successful.

It’s a great movie for plenty of reasons, not least of which is Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue. But from a friendship perspective, it was fascinating—and sort of terrifying—to watch the seemingly tight friendship deteriorate. There was no specific catalyst for the breakup, just a slow drifting apart that eventually exploded in one final, scandalous, Justin Timberlake-inspired blowup.

Personally, I’d lean against going into business with my friends not because I think any of them would screw me out of my entitled fortunes. For me it would be the concern that we wouldn’t be compatible co-workers, and that the residue from any work skirmishes would taint our real-life friendship. You see, my friends are mostly type-A go-getters. And so am I. And when you get together a group of people who all think their way is the right way, it can get a little dicey.

I love my college friends more than anything—they are the women who taught me what it means to have the friendships I’m now so desperately seeking—but I am not kidding when I say that deciding where to go to dinner can feel like we’re trying to come up with a diplomatic solution to the nuclear arms race. Everyone needs to be heard—which more often than not results in everyone talking over each other—and each of us has an opinion. Always. When we were sophomores, in an effort to decide where and with whom we would all live the following year, seven of us sat in a room for two hours voting on every possible permutation of living arrangements. The end result was fantastic, but it wasn’t the most efficient method of decision-making. My only memory of the meeting in Jenna’s dorm room is of wanting to shoot myself. Today, it’s one of our favorite jokes—“remember the permutations?!?”—but it was a mini-version of what could happen if our gang tried a business venture.

If you got a group of type-A strangers together with an organizational hierarchy in place, it would likely be the basis for solid business dealings. But throw ladies who’ve been friends for 10 years—meaning they treat each other more like sisters than coworkers—in a room, and make them all equal partners? Maybe it would go smoothly. But given how much I adore my friends, I’m not willing to risk it.

Have you ever gone into business with a close friend? How did it go? Do you think friends can be business parters? Why or why not?

13 Comments

Filed under BFFs and Work, The Old Days