Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Geography of Friendship

This weekend was a new friend’s 30th birthday. In true celebratory style, her friends came in from all over the country to celebrate. There seemed to be guests from everywhere—New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Atlanta, the list goes on. A chunk of the guests were consultants—my pal just graduated from business school—and have relocated several times in the last 5-10 years.

At dinner on Saturday night I got to talking to one guest about the difficulty of friending. “I think a lot of it is regional,” my new friend told me. “I’ve lived in some cities where people were friendly and happy to make new friends, and others where people wanted nothing to do with anyone they didn’t already know.”

In the friendly category: San Francisco, Chicago, sometimes New York.

In the not-so-friendly category: Long Beach, California; Boston.

Her theory, at first, was that smaller cities where transplants are unusual—like Long Beach—are less welcoming. “No one ever leaves Long Beach, and no one ever moves to Long Beach,” she said. “Everyone has been friends with their same people forever. When a new kid comes to town, people have no time for her.”

Of course, this theory didn’t totally hold up with the whole Boston thing, considering it’s a city overflowing with transplants. But interestingly enough, this woman was the second person to tell me that Boston is an especially tough place for meeting new people. I’m not sure why.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Las Vegas is one of the best cities for meeting new people. Maybe not for making real friends, as almost everyone you meet is a tourist, but those neon lights make everyone friendly. I’ve never lived anywhere other than New York or Chicago, so I can’t really speak to other cities, though I’ve heard that Texas (the whole state!)  is great for friend-making while Seattle is, well, not-so-great.

My new friend had a fabulous theory for testing out whether a city is generally friendly or not. “You can tell by whether or not other girls talk to you while you wait in line for the restroom. In San Francisco, every one chats while they’re waiting. In Boston, silence.”

I love this. It’s a brilliant barometer. There’s not much to do while in line for the ladies room other than talk. Sometimes it’s Chatty McChatville and other times, radio silence. I’ve never thought to use this as the gauge of the city where I’m, you know, peeing, but I can’t wait to test out the theory. In the next month I’ll be using restrooms in Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. I’ll report back.

What do you think? Are some cities friendlier than others? Do you buy the big-city/small-city theory? What about the Restroom Line Principle?

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When You Can’t Stand His Friends

I recently learned of an out-of-print book called Please Read This For Me: How To Tell The Man You Love the Things You Can’t Put Into Words. I haven’t read it, but I heard an interview with the author on This American Life. The book, from what I understand, gives scripts for various difficult conversations. Ten of these scripts, according to Ira Glass, are about “dealing with each other’s friends.”

I wish I could get my hand on this book because I would love to read those scripts. Not that Matt and I have any problems with each other’s friends—we’re lucky in that area. We each like each other’s buddies. At least we both pretend to.

No, I kid. We really do. We’ve been together so long that most of his friends are my friends and vice versa.

I imagine not liking your significant other’s friends would be really tough. We’ve discussed here about what happens when you don’t like your friend’s man. But what about when you don’t like your man’s friends?

Ugh. Just thinking about it gives me jitters. I can’t decide what’s worse, being forced to hang out with someone who makes you want to gouge your eyes out, or having the conversation where you tell your husband/boyfriend/whatever that you can’t stand his best friend.

Friendships are, obviously, very personal. Telling someone that the guy they’ve known and been friends with for years is a jerk? It’s a little bit like saying he’s a jerk too. At least it can feel like that to him.

Since I don’t have the pre-written scripts, I’ve been trying to imagine what they might say. Or what would I say? I’m thinking something along the lines of “Noah and I just don’t seem to click. It’s nothing about him in particular, we just never hit it off. So why don’t I stay home while you hang out at his place? It might be better for everyone that way. I can do some of the stuff I’ve been meaning to get done and you guys can have quality time watching football/playing cards/enjoying your mancave without my barrage of chatter.”

No matter how much you hate whoever it is you’re avoiding, keep this one piece of advice in mind: Do not make your partner choose between you two. Because he may choose you, but regardless he will almost certainly resent you for forcing such a decision onto him.

There’s no reason that a friendship and a romantic relationship can’t co-exist peacefully. Bonding time without the significant other present is important for the individuals as well as for the relationships themselves. And yes, sometimes you may have to suck it up and see your nemesis—at important functions or couple’s dinners—but that’s just part of the gig. It’s what you do.

Have you ever disliked your partner’s friends? How did you handle it? What did you say?

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Would Your Friendships Suffer If You Unplugged?

Yesterday I saw a segment on The Today Show with Susan Maushart, author of the new book The Winter of Our Disconnect. The book is about her family’s decision to unplug for 6 months—no computers, cell phones, ipads, ipods, TV or video games were allowed in the house.

I find these kind of immersion projects fascinating (obviously) so am interested in taking a closer look at this title the next time I’m at the bookstore. But I must say without even reading the book, it’s already got me thinking.

Maushart told Matt Lauer that while her family won’t be keeping the technology ban any longer, the search did its job. After six months without their gadgets, the family is more connected. Photos throughout the segment showed the family happily gathered—around the piano, the picnic table, any three dimensional object. I guess that’s what you do when you have no computer or Wii game in which to immerse yourself. Just stand in a circle and smile.

As soon as I saw the piece I was struck by the desire to try the experiment myself. I could read all the time! I’d get through so many titles a month without the constant distraction of email and Twitter.

But, then, of course I remembered the part about how I write a blog. And, more importantly, how my preferred method of communication with girl-dates has always been email. Cutting digital communication may have made Maushart’s family closer, but I fear it would do the opposite for my friendships. It would stop them dead in their tracks.

Maushart’s thesis in this book, from what I can tell, is that being plugged in ultimately makes you feel more disconnected. I would agree with that. You don’t want to be the loner hiding behind 4,999 Facebook friends.

But I realized while watching The Today Show that my search is entirely reliant on technology. Making friends in the 21st century is a text-and-email thing. Phone calls come in phase 2. If I cut out technology—even if I allowed myself use of a landline or other non-texting phone—it would sabotage my budding relationships.

I know that there was a time when making new friends involved a) meeting, b) calling each other on the landline phone, and c) making a plan and sticking with it. But today, meeting new pals is about Facebook, text messages, Internet stalking, and general online revelry.

So here’s the question: do new friendships rely too much on technology these days? And if you launched your own “winter of disconnect” week, would your friendship search be screwed?

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The Hard Facts: Join Any Club That Will Have You As A Member

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

“Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. It’s a Wonderful Life was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.” (“Social Animal” by David Brooks, The New Yorker, 1/17/2010)

Um, that is a ridiculously eye-opening statistic.

I’ve always been a big believer in joining as it pertains to making friends. Groups provide a necessary consistency. The assurance that you will see someone every month at book club or in your cooking group makes it easier to climb the acquaintance-to-friend-to-BFF ladder.

Joining also presents you with an opportunity to meet like-minded people. Since the old “birds of a feather flock together” saying is proven to be true, other chess players/knitters/runners might be your best BFF prospects.

So sure. Joining is great—especially for someone on a BFF search.

But what if you aren’t on a BFF search? Well, turns out you should join a group too.

Attending a meeting of your Jenga Fan Club once a month isn’t a huge commitment. It’s one two-hour(ish) chunk out of a four week span. And yet it will make you feel as if you earn double your money. That’s pretty remarkable.

My happiness has certainly been increased by the groups I belong to. Aside from providing me with new friends, my book clubs/dinner club/improv class make me feel a part of a community. And they give me a necessary break from the chaos of deadlines and workdays. I feel noticeably lighter after an evening spent in the company of my fellow “members.”

My next question is this: If I belong to four groups, will it quadruple my income? And if one of those groups meets once a week instead of once a month, will it multiply that quadrupled income by another four? Eight times my current cash flow?? I know, I’m getting greedy. I can’t help it.

If you are reading this post and thinking “But I can’t find a group to join,” I have two words for you: Start one.

When I lived in New York, I started my first book club. In Chicago, I started my cooking club. It’s easy enough. First, decide what you are interested in. Then invite two other people who are interested in the same thing. Ask those two people to each invite two people. There! You’ve got a group of seven. If you don’t know two people who want to participate in your Laser Tag League, start a group on MeetUp.com. It’s a great resource for self-organizing.

I’m often asked my advice for someone who wants to launch a (less elaborate) BFF search of their own, and joining is always at the top of my list (along with saying yes and telling everyone you know that you’re looking). But that’s all anecdotal. Now I have the official research to back me up. Love it.

What kind of groups do you belong to? Do you think the “double your income” comparison is right on? And if you don’t have a group, what kind would you want to start?

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Can There Be Girl Talk and Baby Talk At The Same Time?

Last week I got an interesting email from a reader regarding mom/non-mom friendships. I wanted to share it on this blog because I think some of you might be able to speak to this conundrum better than I can. Having very few friends with kids, my experience in this department is so far pretty limited.

Reader writes:

“Having recently hung out (separately) with three mom pals, I noticed that I was getting frustrated because every time we were getting into a deeper level of conversation, the kid started screaming and it seemed like my friend’s head was in two places at once. She was trying to listen and talk to me, and, of course, pay attention to her child. In each instance, there wasn’t anything wrong with the child—he wasn’t hurt or hungry—he was just demanding attention, as toddlers are wont to do. I can only imagine that this was incredibly frustrating to my friends. However, I was surprised at how much it annoyed me. Of course I understand that children are your priority once you have them, but am I alone in feeling frustrated that I’m giving 100 percent attention to my friend and not getting it back? Obviously the solution is to hang out without the kids present, but it’s not reasonable or realistic to expect a friend to procure child care every time we want to get together.”

The timing of this email is interesting because I just got back from a weekend with my 20-month-old nephew. Since he is my nephew, and my only one, his screaming or demanding attention didn’t frustrate me, it amused me. But that is, again, because he is family, and because I hardly ever get to see him.

That said, this weekend did make me aware of exactly what this reader is talking about. Trying to have a conversation with someone who is simultaneously watching a toddler is difficult. It just is. A person’s attention can’t be in two places at once, as much as we wish it could. And a mother’s first priority when watching her child has to be her child.

So, as the friend, what do you do?

At the end of her email, this reader wrote: “I hope this doesn’t make me sound shallow or mean-spirited.” Not at all. It’s a legitimate frustration with no easy answer.

As the annoyed friend—and I imagine many of us have been there—the what-to-do is tricky. Do you, perhaps, suck it up, knowing that this phase in the child’s life will pass? And also knowing that one day you may have kids, and you may want friends to keep you company while you’re watching them? Or do you hold out for the times when you can get together at a restaurant or in some other kid-free zone, even though it will probably result in less frequent visits?

I think the best option is a combo platter. Still visit the mother and child—moms appreciate adult interaction when they are in baby-watching mode—but save the deep level conversation for those kid-free girls nights out. (This isn’t so easy, I know. But it would be my ideal.)

Moms and friends-of-moms, what do you think?

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The Nicest Thing a Guy Can Do For His Friend Is Make Fun of Him

Yesterday was a big day for my husband. The Jets lost.

Matt is a die-hard New England Patriots fan. Considering the Jets beat the Pats last week, all Matt wanted was a Jets-free Super Bowl. (Yes, we live in Chicago, but Matt was raised in Boston. He has hometown loyalties.)

After the game, Matt and my brother-in-law (we spent the weekend in Cape Cod for my mother-in-law’s birthday) commenced texting every Jets fan they knew to give them a hard time. It was hard for us women to wrap our heads around.

“They’re your friends. Don’t you want them to be happy?” my sister-in-law asked.

“If you are truly good friends, you root against their teams,” Matt said.

This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true, at least for my husband. I’ve watched Matt and his friends delight in sports-related smack talk in person, via email, via text. All of it. These kind of jabs are, in some twisted way, how men bond.

Male and female friendships are very different (How? Let me count the ways) but I think the most drastic discrepancy might be regarding this kind of communication.

Men tease and, often, both sides enjoy it. Women not so much.

Take wedding rehearsal dinners: The speeches from the groomsmen are very often more roast than toast. The guests are regaled with tales of drunken outings and other such shenanigans, which usually score a lot of laughs. Then the bridesmaids get up and, from what I have heard, usually say things like, “You’re so pretty and smart and I love you so much.”

I’m not saying women don’t have senses of humor. Obviously. But I do often think about the inconsistency in friendly adult teasing between men and women. I wonder about it because, for whatever reason, I often default to the male tendency. In emails, I’ll write something that I think is clever—a harmless poke at a friend—but delete it before hitting send for fear of offending someone. And then I’ll think to myself, “If I were a guy this would be fine. Encouraged, even.”

I know that Matt’s college friends—who maintain close contact through their fantasy football league listserv—basically take turns taking shots at each other. Matt thinks it’s hilarious and fun, even when he’s the butt of the joke. It only gives him more motivation to get back at the other guys later.

I’m not saying I wish women were like this. I’m plenty sensitive and would probably feel the sting if my friends picked on me all the time, no matter how friendly the intention. But I do wonder why friendly teasing (is that even the right word? I’m talking the well-intentioned adult kind, not the no-good playground bully variety) is such a bonding mechanism for men.

Have you ever noticed this gender difference in communication styles? Why do you think it is?

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When Your Friend Is Your Waxer

Back when I started this blog, I was plagued with the issue of whether or not I could befriend my waxer. Perhaps it sounds like a silly problem, but I was in need of company and the woman who does my waxing seems like a really fun person. From what I know of her. Which is not much.

The issue, at the time, was whether we could be friends outside the salon after all that she’s, um, seen.

I tried once, fairly unsuccessfully to pursue the friendship. I had done her a favor and when she said thank you—via text—I suggested lunch. She didn’t respond. Or maybe she responded and sort of danced around the issue. Whatever it was, she very clearly did not accept my invitation. Fine.

Yesterday the opposite issue came up. I was talking with a friend who has been doing a diet program. She wants to stop the diet, but doesn’t know how to break it to her “nutrition consultant.”

I hear stories like these all the time. People become friendly with their trainer, or hairstylist, or waxer, and then it gets awkward when they don’t need those services anymore.

Rationally, we all know that these aren’t true friendships (at least, not usually). They are business relationships. A nutritionist or a hairstylist is someone you pay for services. But during the time you spend together—which can be more often and more consistent than time with your BFF!—you get to know each other. You form a relationship. So even though you know it’s not an actual “break-up,” making the choice to move on can feel like one.

When I’ve encountered this problem in the past I’ve taken the wimpy passive-aggressive way out. I’ve just stopped going. I’m not proud. Especially when it got all awkward after I stopped going to my hairstylist for cuts, but then returned for color. Oy.

But how do you say to someone who you’ve gotten to know over six months or a year, “You know, I really like you? It’s just that I think you make my hair look a little too much like a poodle?” I mean, really.

Have you ever befriended someone from you buy services? What did you do when you wanted to change “providers”? My friend says she’ll do it by phone, which I imagine will make it easier than in person. Thoughts?

{Side note: Writing this reminded me of the Friends episode where Chandler wants to quit the gym, so I rewatched the scene here. It’s not totally related but man, that show holds up.}

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When Is it Time To Let a Friendship Go?

Most of the time, this blog is about  new friends. How to meet them, nurture them, keep them. It’s important stuff.

Equally important though? How to let friends go.

Yesterday a new pal told me that she and an old BFF have been growing apart. They live next door to each other, so they have every opportunity to hang out like they once did, and yet they’re continually drifting.

“Instead of trying harder and reaching out more, I’ve been pursuing other interests,” she told me.

This is an option that almost never occurs to me.

I’ve made no secret on this blog of how hard it is for me when people are upset with me. I’m sure this is some deep-seeded issue with which some therapist could have a field day. (This is not an invitation…) In that same vein, it’s hard for me to just let a friendship go. I forget that sometimes a relationship can grow apart naturally, and that that’s ok.

The friend in question is younger than me, and most definitely at a place in her life where people grow apart. Instead of holding on to the past, she made a healthy decision. She decided to pursue the new activities and people in her life that make her happy.

So my question is, how do you know when it’s time to let a friendship go?

It’s one thing if one person moves and the distance makes it harder to connect. But if you live next door? Is there an amicable way to separate and move on?

I’m not  sure that it’s possible to grow apart but still maintain a friendly relationship.When friends drift (aside from the moving far away scenario stated above) there’s usually one party feeling left behind. Whether the catalyst for the separation (yes, I’m using dating language again. That’s all there is) is kids, a new job, a new beau, or just old-fashioned outgrowing each other, someone’s going to feel the sting.

Although, now that I think about it, that might be girl-specific. Guys don’t seem to mind it. Whenever I hear about two men having a falling out, I try to grill Matt for specifics. Who dumped who? Was he sad? Hurt? Is he trying to woo his BFF back?

And then my husband looks at me like I have three heads. “No he didn’t try to win him back,” he say. “They’re guys.”

Oh, yeah.

Many things to cover: 1) When is it time to let a friendship go? 2) Can a friendship ever separate amicably? 3) Do girls have a harder time with fading friendships than guys do?

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The Hard Facts: The Role Genes Play in Friendship

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

You might have more in common with your BFF than a shared passion for football, politics, or kitty cats. Just like members of the same family, you and your ‘bestie’ could be sharing some very compatible genes, according to a new study published Monday in PNAS, the journal of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.” (“Friends feel like family? You make be genetically tied,” msnbc.com, 1/17/2010)

This latest study from James Fowler (who’s already brought us such doozies as how your parents affect your popularity and why any two of your social contacts probably already know each other) has identified a specific gene that, if two people both carry it, makes them more likely to be friends. DRD2, the gene in question, is said to be associated “with alcoholism, among other things.”

The logical next question, then, is are the genes really choosing our friends? Or are two people with a tendency toward alcoholism more likely to meet (in, say, a bar, or AA) than another two people. It’s a little bit chicken or the egg.

The authors of this study aren’t claiming to have the answer just yet. But they are saying that finding genetic links could be the “beginnings of a scientific explanation for the elusive quality of ‘chemistry’ among friends.”

Of course, in the same study, they reveal that another gene—CYP2A6—has an opposites attract effect. People who carry it, the authors found, are attracted to people who don’t. CYP2A6 is “associated with an ‘open’ personality.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I assume it’s someone (like me, maybe?) who is happily willing to share things about herself with the people she meets. It’s that same question again. Is it really the genes determining friendships? Or is someone who is especially “open” more drawn to someone who is a bit more “closed”? Someone who complements her outgoing nature with a quiet calm?

I’m never quite sure what to make of some of the friendship research. Like with so many studies, the findings of one often seems to contradict those of another.

Even Fowler himself said that the idea that one gene would be attracted to itself and another would be attracted to its opposite “should not be true at the same time.” I do love it when researchers readily admit there’s more work to be done.

Personally, I believe in nature and nurture. Obviously it’s a bigger debate than I can adequately address in this blog. But I am willing to say it’s hard for me to imagine that who you’re friends with is mostly due to how your genes match up. Just seems to me there’s more to it… but what do I know? I’m no geneologist. Maybe I just like the notion of letting that “spark” feel like magic, as opposed to tracing it to some fancy lettered gene.

Do you believe genes help determine your friendships? Or is it more of a nurture thing? And, when it comes to who your friends are, do you even care about these kinds of studies?

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A Lesson I Should Have Learned In Kindergarten

Yesterday was one of those fun flying days where I got to the airport two hours early only to find out my flight was cancelled and I wouldn’t be on a plane for at least another five hours.

Awesome, right?

Let me backtrack first to say that, of course, my trip was wonderful. Three days of friends, wine, theme parks (Harry Potter and Sea World), relaxing by the pool, football (well, they watched, I mostly read), Golden Globe red carpet analysis (and tears when Chris Colfer won, obviously) and non-stop chatter. I’m really pushing for this to be the first annual.

The only buzzkill of the trip came when I arrived at the Orlando airport to find that my 11:30 am flight had been cancelled and I had been booked on a flight at 2:20… the next day.

These are the moments when I see how this search has changed me. My former self would have been so annoyed that I wouldn’t have been able to be friendly. I’d like to think I would not have been mean to the ticket agent, but I’m pretty sure there would have been lots of silent fuming and “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all” tongue biting. People aren’t stupid. When you’re pissed at them, they can see it, even if you’re forcing yourself to remain civil.

During this search I’ve done my fair share of chatting up potential new friends. I’ve learned how to talk to anybody, in just about any situation. And so when Alan the ticketing agent told me my options, I didn’t get angry or go silent. I just laughed at my good luck and talked with him about my weekend and the weather in Chicago.

Alan told me that I could either head back to my hotel and come back tomorrow, or stick around for a flight late that evening that had a good chance of being cancelled.

“Then you’ll have to come back to the counter, talk to us again, and maybe end up back where you started.”

“Will you be here?” I said. “You’re nice. I don’t mind talking to you again.” Bear in mind Alan was about 60. This wasn’t flirting. He just seemed like a nice guy. He seemed interested enough when I told him I’d been in Potterville and when we looked at the Chicago snowflakes on my weather app.

“I’ll tell you what…” he said, and proceeded to take my phone number and promise that if he saw any seats open up on the next flight to Chicago—one he seemed to think would get out—he’d book me and call me immediately. “It’s a hail Mary but we’ll try.”

And so I got some oatmeal and got out my book and 35 minutes later I had a call. Alan came through for me. I don’t think I won him over with my dazzling charm or anything. I think I lucked out with a nice agent (I’ve encountered plenty of horrid ones) who was willing to help out an friendly customer. (I can’t imagine the kind of angry mobs they probably deal with.)

It’s a totally cheesy and obvious lesson, but one that I’ve been reminded of so many times this year.

If you are nice to people, they are more likely to be nice to you.

Like I said, nothing earth shattering. But easy enough to forget when you’re stranded and helpless in an airport at 9:30 on a Monday morning.

Going on a friend search has switched my default button from keep-to-myself to chat-with-others. It’s a nice change. Without it, there’s a decent chance I’d be sitting in an airport right now.

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