Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Hard Facts: The Color of Friendship

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

“Only 3.7% of white brides and grooms have a black friend who is close enough to be in their wedding party. … Blacks are more likely to have a close white friend than whites are to have a close black friend, with 22.2% of blacks having at least one white bridesmaid or groomsman.” (Demography, “Friends For Better Or For Worse,” August, 2006)

Two months ago a reader posted a comment that’s been on my mind ever since. “I teach at a big university in a really ‘cool’ college town in Georgia,” she wrote. “It really is a cool town—if you’re white. If you’re black, like me, you find yourself being the only African-American professor in your entire college of 75 faculty members. And you can count on one hand the number of black female peers you have across the entire campus.”

“Of course, I’m open to friendships with women of other races and cultures, but it’s sometimes difficult to determine who among the white women I meet might be anti-racist enough to have a friendship of equals with a black woman. As you’ve pointed out on your blog, women tend to ‘friend’ women they have something in common with. If there’s no one who appears to have much in common with you, because of race and/or culture, joining book clubs and yoga classes and such doesn’t really work.”

I quote so much of this comment because I think the writer illustrates her dilemma more eloquently than I ever could. And for two months, I’ve been wondering how to properly address this. Well I have black friends, I thought. Until I remembered my wedding – it was almost 200 of the most important people in my life, right? There was one African-American man in attendance.

Since I hit my 20s and Matt and I started traveling the wedding circuit, every time—every single time—I go to an exchanging of vows, I find myself saying to Matt, “This isn’t a very diverse affair.” And every time—every single time—he replies, “How diverse would our wedding be?” That is, until we got married. And I’ll tell you how diverse our wedding turned out to be. Not at all.

It’s an upsetting truth. I could go on about my lack of close, non-white friends, but it’s not something I’m proud of. I’m not saying I want to run an affirmative action friend search. But yes, after my in-person rants about social justice, I’d like to be able to walk the walk.

All this reminds me of a brilliant article in GQ, “Will You Be My Black Friend?” It’s smart and funny. If you don’t believe me, ask Oprah and Chris Rock. They’re making a movie of it.

But anyway. The study cited above is especially interesting because it doesn’t use traditional survey responses to collect data. Instead it studies a random sample of wedding photos from the Internet. It’s pretty smart, really. “Wedding party are a realistic representation of close friendships…only the closest and most important of friends can be expected to be a bridesmaid or groomsman.” The crux of the study is that when people of both races respond to surveys, they report having more diverse friendships than they actually have. Wedding party photos, this study says, illuminate the truth.

Another 2006 study of race and friendship found that we’ve actually been making progress. “In 2004, 15% reported at least one confidant of another race, up from 9% in 1985.”

We still have a ways to go. What now? My commenter friend said, “Just something for you to consider as you move forward in your search. Conducting it in a town populated by other women like you is a real luxury that I wish I had.”

I’ve considered. I’ve taken a hard look at how my relationships reflect my values. This is a bigger conversation than just one post, but here’s a start. Do your friendships lack diversity? Can common interests like book club or yoga transcend racial differences? What’s the key to making interracial friendships, and why are we still struggling on that front? And what would you say in response to the brave commenter who laid it all on the line?


Filed under 21st Century Friendships, The Hard Facts

Friend Finding 201: Say Yes

In the introductory session of this course, we briefly covered 10 tips for meeting new people and turning first girl-dates into second ones. Today we’ll be giving our full attention to one vital word: Yes.

So much of making new friends is about being open. It’s about saying yes to the invitations that come your way, no matter how far out of your comfort zone they may be.

This comes with a caveat, of course: Only say yes if you mean it. Making a habit of saying yes when you actually mean no is a pretty good way to lose friends. Today we’re in the business of finding.

Even after months of dedicated BFF searching, my first reaction when I get an invitation is usually “I’d rather spend a relaxing evening on the couch.” Until I remember that the couch is what got me here in the first place. So now, unless there’s a scheduling conflict, I accept the invitations that come my way. So far this policy has led me to, in no particular order: A fortune teller, a cookie-making party, a 2-year-old twins birthday extravaganza, dinner with a pair of strangers, dozens of bottles of Pinot Grigio, more pieces of spicy tuna than I can count and countless other exploits.

Adventures like these are the fast track to friendship. Doing something you’re bad at, as long as you’re willing to be bad at it in front of someone else, will earn you insta-memories. And I must say, a trip to the psychic is a faster route to “Remember that time?” than even the most riveting book discussion.

And sure, my days are crazier than ever. I have fewer intimate evenings with the remote control. But I don’t have kids to tend to. I have an understanding and supportive husband who encourages this local quest. And while the hectic schedule can be exhausting at times, the new connections give me enough energy to make up for it. In fact, a 2004 study found that “when compared to time spent with relatives, children, customers, colleagues, or bosses, time spent with friends is rated as being the most enjoyable. On average, time spent with friends ranks even higher than time spent with your spouse.”

In her article “The Year of Saying Yes,” Patty Volk writes, “There isn’t one thing I said yes to I’m sorry I said yes to. And look what I would have missed. ‘No’ means safety and the numbing stasis that implies. I’m changed. The change has to do with the joy of being available to chance. There is a thrilling difference between being comfortable and being too comfortable.” I second all of that. Even the time I got stood up—she never showed!—I’m glad I said yes. What a great story!

I’m only a few months into this search. I don’t have all the answers. I hardly have any answers. And I haven’t found The One. I have found The One Word, though, and that’s got to count for something.

When it comes to plans with friends what do you say more—yes or no? Do you ever force yourself to say yes when you’d rather run in the other direction? Are you usually glad to have uttered the new magic word (“please” is so old school) or do you usually wish you’d stuck to your first instinct?


Filed under The Search

What a Boy Wants

My husband’s oldest and best friend was in town this weekend. He came not only to visit Matt but because another of their childhood friends was in town for a bachelor party. That friend, a Marine, is deploying in a few days, so the weekend became a farewell extravaganza of sorts.

I’ve almost never seen Matt as happy as when he’s with his BFFs (though he would never call them that). I’d love to say it’s similar to the sheer bliss in his eyes every time he gazes my way, but come on. He loves me lots, but there are different types of joy. The look in his eyes when he’s with these guys—friends he’s known and trusted and laughed with all his life—is the same mix of comfort and wonderment and affection that stares out at me from photographs taken on the little league field at 7 or on their way to prom at 17.

There’s no question that male friendships are different. Men would rather engage in side-to-side activities—watching a football game, playing a round of golf—than have face-to-face talks. And when it comes to serious emotional discussions, research shows both genders turn to women first. But just as I yearn for girl-time so I’ll have someone to talk and talk and analyze and then talk some more with, Matt devours the time he gets with those he doesn’t have to talk, talk, analyze, and talk with. Women want friends who’ll help confront problems, men want friends who’ll help escape them.

Watching Matt this weekend, it was a necessary reminder that I’m not the only one in this marriage who needs friend time. My husband may not be on a best friend search, but that doesn’t mean those relationships aren’t vital for him (he has great local friends, but if I find a new friend with a husband that would be perfect for him, I’m sure he’d be open to that). Men and women, we both lust for friendship, if for different reasons. And I must say, there’s something magical about how unspoken great male friendships really are. That Matt and his best friends know they’ll have each other’s backs, always, without so much as one word to say as much? Well sure, I’m a little jealous.

Do you believe men long for friendship as much as women do? Is the difference merely what that friendship entails? Have you ever witnessed male friendship in action and felt just the teensiest bit of envy? And, to all the (perhaps few) men in the audience, would you say you look to women for support and men for escape? Or are escape and support one and the same?


Filed under BFFs and Marriage, The Gender Gap

I’ve Bin Thinking About Your Ignerince

I’ve been blessed with a stellar memory. I’ve been cursed with a stellar memory.

It’s true. My memory is a weird beast. When I worked at a magazine, colleagues used me as a human table of contents. (“When did we run that story about the mommy wars?” “Who edited the piece about hormone replacement therapy?”  May 2006. Liz. Duh.) While road tripping to Chicago with my mom when I first moved out here, I got bored and thought a great project would be to see if I could name every winner of Survivor thus far. Easy.

But for as many wonderful stories and useless bits of trivia afforded by ridiculous powers of recall, you remember the less-than-happy times too. Oftentimes more clearly.

Last month, I wrote a post about new research on friendship breakups (the gist: dumping a friend is harder for women than dumping a lover is). The comments were fascinating—it’s a loaded issue—and brought to mind the only BFF breakup I’ve been through. I promised to tell the story one day. Here it is.

It was the summer before eighth grade. I was dumped. Hard.

I still remember sitting in my summer camp cabin reading the letter from Amanda, one of my closest friends. Well, apparently not. “I’ve bin thinking about this a long time,” she wrote. Yes, she wrote “bin.” And I’m allowed to make fun of that because the rest of the letter was about how everyone in our class hated me and I was going to have no friends that year because I was “ignerint.” Even at 13 I understood the irony of that spelling. And to this day, I still feel some sweet satisfaction at those errors. Because that’s the other thing about having a good memory. It transports you. So even while I’m writing this, those feelings of hurt and shock and confusion and, yes, superiority are bubbling up all over again, though dulled by the distance of 15 years.

When I read the letter I cried and cried and cried. And then I laughed a little at her poor spelling and then I cried some more. (You might now be thinking I am harping on the spelling thing, but I was 13 and in fear of utter friendlessness. I took what I could get.) I had no idea—I still don’t—what I’d done to deserve this. I believed Amanda when she said nobody liked me anymore and I shouldn’t come back to school. I sent my parents the letter, with a note of my own telling them that I must transfer. Immediately.

Of course, the best thing about being 13 and at summer camp is how quickly the clouds part. Because by the time my mom got the letter and called up, demanding to speak to me, I was all, “Hi Mom! What’s up?” By then, I’d made a friend—more like a big sister—because of the letter. An older girl saw me crying, took me under her wing, told me Amanda was a moron, and is still a dear friend today. (She might even be reading this. Thanks Sarah!)

I did not switch schools. I got home from camp. I still had friends, even if the gang I’d once shared with Amanda was a bit splintered. I survived the end of middle school. But I never forgot.

I asked my mom about the letter the other day (she’d inexplicably kept it for years afterwards) and she said, “Don’t you remember? You told me you eventually asked Amanda about it. She said she wrote it when she was drunk.”

Um, no. That’s kind of amazing-slash-horrifying. And news to me.

I guess I don’t remember everything.


Filed under The Old Days

Frosted. Corn. Bran. Flakes Come in All Varieties.

There are certain types of friends we all have. The Drama Queen. The Beauty Queen. The Chats With Everyone and Kind of Embarrasses You But Really You’re Just Jealous and In Awe Of Her Queen.

But this post is not about any of those friends. This is about The Flake.

You know who I’m talking about. The friend who bails on your dinner date. And then does it twice more. And then you find yourself trying to schedule plans with a new friend, and saying things like “Well, I technically have a dinner next Thursday, but she always cancels so I doubt it will actually happen.”

I wrote that very sentence to a new friend today and she said something that really struck a chord. She described this flaking species as “People who have the potential to be very dear friends but you just don’t trust them to actually follow through. … And if they don’t care enough to stick with our date (or at least give ample notice when stuff comes up) then how do I feel valued enough to tell them my deepest darkest secrets or ask them to help me move?”

And yet, flaking has become more and more acceptable. Even expected.

Last Sunday, I had plans with a newish friend. At 10 that morning I called her. An hour later I texted. (I am not a stalker, really. But given the current state of phone calls I wasn’t sure she’d get the voicemail.) She called back soon enough and told me that since we hadn’t spoken to confirm she didn’t think we were still on. I told her not to worry, that once I make a plan I put it in the calendar and stick to it. “Ooooh, that’s good to know,” she said. She seemed surprised. We ended up going on a glorious walk.

As someone who assumes we’re on unless told otherwise, I couldn’t believe I was the one who had to give the disclaimer.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the bailer be the one wearing a warning sign?

There are plenty of common courtesy elements I need to work on—namely, returning phone calls and emails in a timely manner. And canceling plans isn’t the worst thing in the world. Sometimes there’s absolutely nothing better than having someone bail on you at the last minute. The gift of a free evening is no small thing.

But it’s worth noting that, as my friend pointed out, when you become The Flake, people often stop trusting you to show up. Even when it counts.

Do you have a Flake in your life? Do you mind it? Do you agree that if someone continuously cancels at the last minute, she probably doesn’t value your friendship as much as you’d like? Or is flaking nothing more than the product of the crazybusy world we live in? And, is the “just confirming we’re on for tomorrow” email just standard operating procedure nowadays? If you are The Flake, speak your piece below!


Filed under The Search

The Hard Facts: Keep Talkin’ Happy Talk

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

“Higher well-being was associated with less small talk and having more substantive conversations. Compared with the unhappiest participants [in this study], the happiest participants … had roughly one third as much small talk and twice as many substantive conversations.” (Psychological Science, “Eavesdropping on Happiness,” Feb. 18, 2010)

When I started this girl-dating journey, I believed in the whole “don’t talk about religion or politics around the dinner table” thing. I didn’t want to stop a potential friendship in its tracks just because I went to Obama’s Grant Park election night rally while she might have spent that glorious evening mourning the fall of Sarah Palin.

I’ll keep it light and friendly, I thought. All Chicagoans can bond over the weather—seriously, Sun, it’s May—and I can talk about tabloid headlines all night if necessary.

But I’ve found the girl-dates that inspire me to skip home are the ones where we do, in fact, get serious. During one particularly promising dinner, my maybe-friend and I traded stories about our vastly different upbringings and debated the Man Upstairs and the existence of soul mates. (Her: “Do you believe in soul mates?” Me: “You mean, like us?” No, I didn’t really say that. But almost.)

Science backs up my anecdotal research, and to be honest, I’m a bit surprised. If you’d asked me a few months ago who I thought was happier, those who ponder life’s big questions or those who don’t sweat the (big or) small stuff, I’d have said the latter.

“It could have gone the other way — it could have been, ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’” one of the authors of the study told the New York Times. I get that. The big thinkers so often seem the most somber, dragged down by the weight of the world.

But “substantive conversation” in this case isn’t limited to dissecting the meaning of life. A profound social encounter was defined as “an involved conversation of a substantive nature (i.e., meaningful information was exchanged, e.g., ‘She fell in love with your dad? So, did they get divorced soon after?’)” Talking about TV even counts, if you’re analyzing characters and motivations. This is good for me. My Survivor strategy sessions are officially considered profound discussion. I knew it.

Needless to say, I no longer shy away from serious talks on the first girl-date. If it will make us both happier, then we’ll want to hang out again. And again. As long as we both shall live.

The study concludes that, “the happy life is social rather than solitary, and conversationally deep rather than superficial.” What it doesn’t venture is which came first. Are happier people more likely to have deep conversations? Or do deep conversations increase a person’s well-being?

What do you think? Which came first—the happiness or the depth? Do you tend to keep it light when you meet new people, or delve into more meaningful discussion?


Filed under Pickup Lines, The Hard Facts

The Home of the Brave? Not My House.

A few weeks ago, a fellow book-clubber asked me how my friend search was going. I told her I’d been busier than ever, meeting every potential BFF that would have me. Then she said something that totally caught me by surprise.

She said, “You’re so brave.”

I think my actual reaction was to laugh out loud. Me? Brave? No. What I am, really, is the type of person who will spend Friday night on the couch lamenting my lack of local best friends while doing nothing about it. The type of person who will continue along that road, complaining about something while taking few steps to fix it, until I make a promise to The Internets that I am going to make a change. Because once it’s out there in cyberspace, there’s no taking it back (at least in theory).

Courageous is not a word people use to describe me. Silly, maybe. Friendly, I hope (at least by now). Snippy when she’s tired or hungry, for sure. But the only other time in my life I can remember being called brave was when my father was dying. A high school friend emailed me. He, too, said, “You’re so brave,” which I recall only because I remember thinking “I am? What did I do other than curl up on a hospital couch for three days, smelly and unshowered and unspeakably sad? I’m not brave, I just have no choice.”

But anyway, this isn’t about that. This is about how someone called me courageous for doing something little kids do every day.  And I don’t even really do what they do. They walk up to strangers and say, “Hello, I’m Rachel, will you be my friend? You can come over my house. My mom makes good cookies.”

I say something more like “Um, hey, would you, um, maybe want to grab a bite sometime? Or a drink? I can work around your schedule, but, yeah, it’s totally cool if you’re too busy.” I’ll show you courage.

(I hope to one day work up to the kid version. My mom does make good cookies.)

Still, I know there are people who think some of the things I do—going to dinner with total strangers, asking a novelist out, not attacking Joan Rivers in a fit of Oscar hysteria—show some level of bravery. Because putting myself out there means I could be rejected. People might—and sometimes do—think I’m crazy. I’ve gotten enough emails from readers that start with “I can’t believe I’m writing you, this is really weird,” to know that for many of us, blindly reaching out to a potential new friend is scarier than asking out a potential mate.

And it’s too bad, isn’t it? Shouldn’t extending friendship be standard? It’s hardly Purple Heart worthy.  Yet sometimes these little gestures—these moments of vulnerability—feel much more courageous than going skydiving or speaking in public. (I said sometimes. I would never skydive and I get all awkward and shaky when speaking in public… but for some people…)

What is it about reaching out to potential friends that scares us? Why are kids so good at it, but adults sometimes so awkward or uncomfortable? And do you think the cookie pickup line would work?


Filed under The Search