Monthly Archives: October 2010

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?

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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?

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Filed under BFFs and Work, The Old Days

Frenemy Territory

At the beginning of the month, “This American Life” reran their episode about Frenemies. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

During the episode’s prologue, Ira Glass speaks to psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who estimates that approximately 50% of all friendships are of the frenemy variety. That is, they are with “people we care a lot about, we feel positive towards, but we also have real conflicts and negative feelings about as well.”

The ambivalence we feel when we see frenemies is actually so stressful that they cause a higher spike in blood pressure than do the people we actively dislike, Ira tells us. Frenemies are worse for our health than enemies.

Another fascinating finding? Most women stay in these toxic relationships for self-imposed reasons. “I’m not the kind of person who just gives up on somebody, I stay friends,” we’ll tell ourselves. Or we’ll say the good times ultimately outweigh the bad. Whatever it is, we keep coming back for more.

So let’s discuss this in two parts. First, half of our friends are actually frenemies?!? That’s just plain crazy. I can think of exactly two girls in college who were frenemies in the classic sense. I’ve upgraded to calling them my nemeses, but in our school days we’d probably exchange a hug while we badmouthed each other through gritted teeth. The relationships came to a natural (and necessary) end after graduation as we each moved on to new—and separate—cities.

Holt-Luntad’s definition of frenemy is pretty inclusive—it’s about having negative feelings, not necessarily trash talking—but 50% seems awfully high. Maybe I came close to that in my teen years, when every relationship came with a side dish of jealousy and competition. But as an adult in a new city, I’ve got a clean slate, and taking on new frenemies seems more trouble than it’s worth. (I imagine I’ll discover one in Mommy & Me one day—“Oh your one-year-old daughter doesn’t read yet? That’s so cute. Walter just got too smart too fast, we didn’t know what to do!” Punch.)

Now, part two. Why are we staying in bad friendships? I held onto my college frenemies because I felt I had no choice. The stress of breaking up with a friend didn’t seem worth it. And I wasn’t ok with failing at a relationship. I could be pals with anyone! Plus, we knew the same people. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

These are all self-imposed reasons, as Holt-Lunstad suggests. But there was one other factor definitely going through my head, though perhaps not consciously: If you’re to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, you should keep your frenemies closest. Should things take a wrong turn, they have too much ammo.

Are 50% of your friendships people you have “conflict with and negative feelings about”? Does this broad definition make you reconsider who’s a frenemy (I know it does for me. I may have more frenemies than I thought?) And why do you hold on to a frenemy instead of breaking up with her altogether?

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Filed under The Search

The Birthday Greeting Hierarchy

Last night I went to a birthday dinner for some old friends. During the meal, I asked one of celebrants how another one of her friends—her maid of honor, in fact—was doing. Were they still close? I had hardly heard the MOH’s name recently.

“We’re still friends. But let’s put it this way,” my friend said. “She wished me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall…And that was it.”

That simple sentence told me everything I needed to know. And so began a heated discussion about appropriate birthday greetings between friends.

There are unwritten rules about this. But evidently the MOH wasn’t in the know, so maybe said rules deserve to be written after all.

Facebook wall posts are at the bottom of the totem pole. They’re for the people you like, but who you wouldn’t otherwise wish a happy birthday at all—be it because you aren’t in touch or your relationship hasn’t reached a texting, emailing or calling stage. I might slap a “Happy Bday!” on the wall of a coworker’s husband or an old acquaintance from college. I’d go that route with an improv classmate or a camp friend from the old days.

Emails and texts are for casual friends. They’re not your BFFs, or even close friends, but you have a current and independent relationship with them. I’d opt to email or text most of the friends I’ve made since this search began. (With a few exceptions, we generally haven’t reached the phone call place yet.) I’ve even got some women in my life who I’d consider a semi-close friend, but our chosen method of communication has always been text, so I’d go that route for the birthday greeting. Email is also acceptable for some family members—I often use it for aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Close friends and BFFs deserve a phone call. Making the effort tells your friend she’s worth a few moments of your day. Oftentimes you’ll be sent to voicemail anyway—it’s a weekday and who has time to field birthday wishes all the time? Leave a message, show you care, and be on your way. It’s not hard. That’s the approach I take. It doesn’t matter if I talk to that friend once a week or twice a year. If our history warrants it—we were uberclose once, but time and distance has caused us to drift—your phone will be ringing. It’s the perfect time to catch up and say “I know we haven’t spoken, but I’ll always think of you on this day.” So your, ahem, maid of honor, no matter if you’ve started to grow apart, must pick up the phone. No exceptions.

If you’re someone’s BFF, you can work your way down the totem pole. That is to say, if I call my best friend and she doesn’t pick up, I can shoot her an email to say “Hope you got my message! Thinking of you.” Then you can post on her Facebook wall, so she feels the extra love. But you cannot go wall post only.

A final thought:  I would rather a close friend simply forget my birthday than opt to go the Facebook route. I’ve forgotten friends’ birthdays before. I never feel good about it. But there have been instances where I was so harried that I never registered what day it was. And often on weekends I don’t look at a calendar at all. When my close friends simply forget, I don’t get mad or hurt. I know how life can get. It’s not personal. But if someone who holds bestie status remembers my birthday and consciously decides to go the facebook route… Well, then I’d probably feel the sting.

What about you? Do you buy into this birthday etiquette? What about when a friend forgets your big day altogether?

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Filed under The Search

The Hard Facts: Did You Hear About Rachel?!?

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

“After criticizing other people, gossipers’ positive emotions were reduced by 16 percent and negative emotions increased 34 percent.” (“Is Gossip Good for You,” New York Times, 10/8/2010)

I love to gossip. I do. I don’t want to love to gossip, but given how much I engage in the activity, reason would have that I must enjoy it.

According to the latest research, some gossip has positive effects. When you gab with a girlfriend about how great someone else is, and shower the unknowing party in compliments, positive emotions are raised 3 percent, negative emotions are reduced 6 percent, and self-esteem is raised 5 percent.

But, seriously, how often do people engage in complimentary gossip?

If what I know is reality than the majority of time people engage in gossip they’re not saying anything they’d want to share with the group.

The examples of “positive gossip” in this study are sayings like “So-and-so’s husband is adorable” instead of “she married that lout?”

I’ve certainly shared those exchanges, musing over how cute someone’s baby is or what a fabulous catch her husband was. But I’m not sure that actually qualifies as gossip. According to my dictionary, gossip is “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

So, “her husband is adorable” is not gossip. “I hear her husband’s a cheater,” is.

Despite getting constantly caught up in the rumor mill, I buy the research that says our negative emotions increase by more than a third when we trash talk. No matter how much I hope to vent or get something off my chest, I always feel worse after a bitchfest. Criticizing someone else isn’t going to change my own circumstances, after all. It’s not freeing; It’s exhausting. And in the end, above all else, it makes me feel like an ass.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess this is true of more people than just myself. And yet we keep it up. We feel worse after spreading negative gossip, but most of us can’t help it. We engage. Maybe not often (if you’re a better person than I), but it’s the rare person who can swear off the dish altogether. Why?

The answer lies in this sentence of the aforementioned New York Times article: “Whether kind or cruel, gossip was associated with a greater sense of social support for the perpetuator.” The mere act of gossiping—regardless of the content—makes us feel more connected. We get to exchange information with another party, and the mere act of this exchange—especially the exchange of gossip, which is often billed as “secret” even though everyone’s talking about it—makes us feel like part of the in group. We’re privy to something exclusive. We belong.

Moral of the story: Gossip is bad but we do it anyway. (Side note: The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin just posted an interesting video about her attempt to stop gossiping.) Do you gossip? Are you more of a positive or negative gossiper? Why is gossip so addictive, when it usually makes us feel bad about ourselves and does nothing to really strengthen our friendships? Come on, be honest. No judgment here!

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Filed under The Hard Facts

You Gotta Have Faith

When I first started writing about this search in online essays, between the rageful comments from the angry mob came a number of suggestions that I should try religious institutions to find my next best friend. Plenty of people said they made their closest friends in church group. A coworker tells me she met her besties at bible study. A friend of my mother-in-law said that when she first moved to Boston, she found new friends as soon as she joined a temple.

I don’t consider myself especially religious. Though I was raised Jewish, I can’t remember the last time I entered a temple for something other than a wedding or a funeral. But religion is one of the great uniting forces in history, so for me to ignore it altogether during this quest would be a glaring omission.

This Thursday I will attend my first LEADS (Leadership Education and Development Series) meeting, part of the Jewish United Fund’s Young Leadership Division.

I have mixed feelings about it. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m joining under false pretenses. Doesn’t signing up for such a group imply that I’m especially religious? That maybe I’ve celebrated Shabbat more recently than approximately twenty years ago? But then, I’m sure that I’m just the kind of person this group is interested in recruiting. Who knows? After eight weeks I could find a new home in this community. And I was told quite clearly that you don’t need to be ultra-religious. After all, it’s billed as “an introductory exploration of the Jewish community and contemporary issues.” Also, each meeting culminates in a happy hour at a local bar. That sounds pretty universal.

Like every gathering I sign up for (improv, volunteering, MeetUp, Grub With Us) my ultimate goal is to leave the group with at least one new potential BFF to ask out. I’m hoping this won’t be too hard, as I’ve become immune to the fear of hitting on potential BFFs (except for at Starbucks, where I’ve been working a lot lately and can’t bring myself to bother any of the nice looking ladies to see if they want to be my bestie). So why am I more nervous about this group than most? Partly because of the false pretenses thing, but also because I’m worried I’m going in at a disadvantage.

One of the results of my not being religious is not knowing very much about my religion. When I started my improv class, we were all beginners. None of us knew what we were doing, so the playing field was level. Here, I figure the others who’ve signed up will be more informed and have stronger opinions than I. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just don’t want to be the group laughingstock.

But that’s what this search is about. Going outside the comfort zone and all that good stuff. So Thursday I’ll show up to my LEADS group, on the prowl as usual. Then, of course, I’ll report back.

Have you made any close friends through religious institutions? What is it about this environment that is so effective in bringing people together? Do you think I’m giving a false impression of myself by joining in the first place?

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Filed under The Search