Monthly Archives: October 2010

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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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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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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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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A Mandate for Man Dates

I’ve become a friend pusher.

I hear myself talking up “guy time” to Matt these days. A combination, I know, of wanting him to get all the great benefits of social interaction and trying to assuage my own guilt for constantly ditching him for girls nights. His reaction is usually some variation of “I’m all good with the friends I’ve got, thanks….”

As I’ve mentioned here already, my brother recently moved to Chicago. While he has Matt and me, and our cousins, and of course his girlfriend and her friends, he’s arrived in the city under similar circumstances that I did: leaving almost all his best friends behind in New York City.

So when a friend announced that her long-distance boyfriend was moving to Chicago, also from NYC, of course I knew what should happen. A man date!

They’d be a great setup. Two Big Apple transplants in their 30s. Done and done.

Until I mentioned it to my brother who told me that “I’ll do it if you want me to for the blog, otherwise no thanks.”

There are two things of note here. 1) What good brothering that he’ll do anything for this blog. 2) I probably sabotaged my own plan when I called it a man date.

I watched I Love You, Man for the first time since starting this blog the other day. It was fascinating to hear so much of my internal dialogue come out of Paul Rudd’s mouth. Though ultimately the film is a buddy comedy, when Paul Rudd sets out on his search for a best man I figured I might pick up some tips. What stuck with me most was the rule that Rudd’s character should ask guys only to “casual lunch or after work drinks.” No dinners allowed.

If said rule holds true for women I’ve been a real rebel. Apparently, dinners are too intense for a first meeting. Too much like an actual date. Or so says Andy Samberg.

I’m re-approaching the brother set up, this time with the hopes of planning a triple date: Me and Matt, my brother and his girlfriend, and my friend and her man. It will be a big hit… assuming I haven’t already put too much pressure on them. Oops.

Though I tend to think it’s easier for guys to make friends, they seem generally less open to friend dates. When I try to set up girls there’s always at least a meeting. They may never be BFF, but they try each other on for size. Men seem so put off by the idea of an awkward I Love You, Man type meeting that they just laugh at me and tell me to keep the BFF searching to myself.

Who do you think would be more open to friend-dating, men or women? Why? And what’s your stance on dinner on the first date?

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Ode to Old Friends

You know when you buy a new pair of jeans and they fit so well you start wearing them every day? And you suddenly realize that you haven’t worn your older pair of everyday jeans in forever?

Well that’s a pretty lame metaphor for what I often worry is happening with my friends. I spend so much time these days nurturing new relationships and waiting to see if a local BFF will emerge that I forget—or don’t take the time—to give my current best friends the attention they deserve.

According to the Gallup organization (you know, the one that does all those polls), people who’ve told a buddy how much they value their friendship in the past month are 48% more likely to report being ‘extremely satisfied’ with the friendships in their lives. That doesn’t mean I can’t focus on the friendships I hope to have, too. It’s just that I need to take a moment every now and then to remind myself—and my friends—how lucky I am to have them (even if seeing them means crossing state lines).

Because I’m devoting a chunk of my time right now to meeting new people and “dating” new girls, as well as the fact that very few of my phone-a-friends are in the same time zone, I’ve had trouble connecting with old friends on the telephone. Two of my closest friends live in San Francisco and the two hour time difference coupled with our hectic schedules means we can rarely hear each other’s voices. (In fact, just writing this reminds me that I owe Naomi a call.) And sometimes, when I haven’t talked to someone in a while and feel I need to give a complete life update, even emailing can feel like a big task.

So between work, family, old friends and new, keeping up with everything and everyone can be tough. I try to deal with it by reaching out whenever, however. If I don’t have time for a phone call, I’ll shoot an email. If I see something that reminds me of someone, I’ll send a quick text to tell her I’m thinking of her.

These aren’t earth shattering revelations here, I realize that. But it’s a reminder that focusing too much on the friends we don’t have can have can get a person all Eeyore-ish. And reaching out to your existing friends—telling them that, you know, they’re, like, super cool—will make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And maybe even better? It will make you happy. Or happier. 48% so.

How do you balance keeping up with old friends and making new ones? Can you believe how easy it is to forget to tell friends you appreciate them? If all else fails, if you can’t find the words, send this ecard (or this one or this one). You can’t go wrong.

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In Which Bob Harper Gives Me Something To Ponder

I was catching up on Biggest Loser last night (love that show. Love Bob. Love Jillian. Love all of it) and noticed that the theme of the episode seemed to be selfishness and why we should have more of it.

There’s been a shift toward promoting selfishness lately, at least in media directed towards women. Not in a “think only of yourself and screw everyone else” way so much as a “put on your oxygen mask first” mentality. It’s about helping yourself so you’ll be well equipped to help others.

I get this. I support it. Sometimes, no matter how much we want to say yes, we have to say no. Take care of number one before you run yourself into the ground. All that good stuff.

But it can become easy to use this pro-selfish stance as an excuse to get out of things we should be doing. Oftentimes when we’re tired, we really need to rest. Other times we need to get over it and go out.

The selfishness they talk about on The Biggest Loser is do-or-die. These people have put everything and everyone before themselves for so long that they compromised their own health.

When it comes to friends, putting yourself first is rarely a life-or-death situation. But as with any relationship, figuring out when to tend to yourself and when to tend to others is the key to a friendship’s longevity.

Some examples. I’ve had plenty of  plans with friends who’ve bailed at the last minute because they had a rough week and needed to be alone with their boyfriend or their family or their couch. Fine. Totally get it. I’ve done it myself. But there are also some friends who seem to always have had The Roughest Week. It constantly becomes about them. And then when you need them, they aren’t around because their own stuff couldn’t be set aside.

I wouldn’t say I’ve had any relationships end over this, but I’ve seen my attitude toward certain friendships change. I’ve gotten to places where I just accept that “Oh, this is that kind of friendship. Ok. Good to know.”

The tricky part is figuring out when selfishness is acceptable—healthy, even—and when it’s simply, er, selfish. It’s not always the big dramatic death-in-the-family/house-is-burning-down/boyfriend-breakup stuff. Take a birthday party. Most of my friends do their annual celebrations at a bar of their choosing. If I show up, it’s likely that I won’t get to talk to them much. But I know that no matter how tired I am, no matter how bad a day I’ve had, they’d be genuinely upset with me if I didn’t make it. So I do.

But then, some might say, the mark of a true friend is the person to whom you can say “You know, it’s been a rough few days. I’m down, I won’t be any fun, is it ok if I’m a no-show?” And that true friend will say “Of course! You take care of you right now. No biggie.”

See? It’s complicated. Most relationships are.

So my question for you: In the context of friendship, when is it ok to put your own needs first, and when must you buck up and do something you don’t want to for the sake of a friend? I can’t imagine there are hard and fast rules about this, but how do you gauge the line?

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The Hard Facts: That’s What Unfriends Are For

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

“[Researchers] found the number-one reason for unfriending is frequent, unimportant posts. … The second reason was posting about polarizing topics like religion and politics. … Inappropriate posts, such as crude or racist comments, were the third reason for being unfriended.” (“Top Reasons for Facebook Unfriending,” Science Daily 10/5/2010)

Breaking up with a real-life friend can be harder on women than breaking up with a romantic partner. Breaking up with an online friend is not nearly as tough. But I’d imagine it’s plenty more common.

We’ve already discussed the etiquette of unfriending. But a recent study gets at the root of why we do it in the first place.

What’s interesting here is that we seem to “punish” people online for their behavior in that same space. None of the top three reasons for unfriending had anything to do with real world antics. We’re less likely to unfriend someone because we’re mad at them or because they broke up with our best friend than we are for, say, sharing too much about their Farmville exploits. In fact, according to this study, 57 percent of those surveyed unfriended for online reasons, while only 26.9 percent did so for offline behavior.

Apparently, we like to keep our universes—the real and the virtual—separate.

Real-life friend breakups can be so complicated that it’s refreshing to have the major unfriending culprits so neatly identified. There are lessons to be learned here, assuming you hope to hold onto your Facebook friends.

1. People who want to know everything about you don’t want to know everything about you. It’s awesome that you took a nap today. And that you woke up. And that you peed. And then went back to napping. Way to go. But unless your only Facebook friend is your mom (and even she might not be interested in your toilet habits), keep it to yourself. A random thought every now and then is acceptable. Links and videos are preferred. But constant trivial streams of consciousness? Not so much.

2. Politics and religion belong on Facebook like they belong at the dinner table. Personally, I don’t mind when people post about politics. Religious posts might turn me off, though, as it strikes me as a bit of a church and state scenario. The long-established separation of church and Facebook.

3. The crude and racist post thing should go without saying. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered a racist status update from a Facebook friend, but recently there was a TMI post that made me want to crawl into a hole. Any status update that starts with “So I was getting it on with this girl…” should get an automatic unsubscribe.

I’ve never unfriended anyone on Facebook. I’m too nervous that they’ll see. But if I did, it would likely be for public fighting. Back in the day I discussed a New York Times article about a couple who fought publicly (and viciously) on Facebook. How awkward?!? Please keep your marital problems between you. I don’t need to be privy to that.

Have you ever unfriended someone? What was the reason you gave her the boot?

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The Stories We Tell

I’ve written plenty recently about Click: The Magic of Instant Connections, a new book about those euphoric moments when we hit it off with someone and know the relationship will stick. So I was thrilled to get to talk to Rom Brafman, one of the book’s authors, yesterday.

I know from reading the Brafman brothers’ research that there are certain factors that make clicking more likely. The click accelerators that they write about are proximity, vulnerability, resonance, similarity and a safe place.  If I sit next to someone every day, or if we have the same birthday and share an adoration for mashed potatoes, we’re more likely to hit it off. But what if there’s someone who I really want to become friends with? Are there steps I can take to manufacture a connection?

Brafman says this is where the power of the narrative comes in.

“My guess is that if I recorded a conversation between you and your friends in New York, most of that conversation would be each of you relating stories of things that happened to you. Whether it be funny things or gossip or newsy stories. ‘You’ll never guess what happened…’ type stuff,” he says. “When we introduce ourselves to new people, we get in that element of ‘Oh, this person needs to know about me, so let me tell her how long ago I graduated from high school or why I moved here.’ It’s very factual, but it’s not very interesting.”

I never actually noticed this distinction, but he’s exactly right. When Callie returned from her honeymoon last week, we spent 51 minutes on the phone swapping stories of the last two weeks. But when I arrive at a girl-date with someone who could be my Chitown Callie, it’s more like an interview.

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do?”

“When did you move here?”

It’s very factual, but it’s not very interesting.

There are ways of obtaining said knowledge without grilling your dinner date, Brafman says. If you share stories of your life, those details will emerge.

When I meet someone new, questions are my immediate go-to. But for my upcoming dates—and I’ve got some on the schedule—I’m going to avoid the usual inquisition and defer to stories instead.

Maybe the one about how I locked myself out of the house for 45 minutes on Sunday. Or how I recently did interviews for the release of The Social Network and just before the last one, an actor told me that both my bra straps were hanging out of my sleeves. They had fallen to my elbows. Who does that happen to? Me, obviously. And maybe Mary Tyler Moore.

If those tales of my brilliance don’t win over a new friend, I don’t know what will.

Have you ever noticed this difference in conversation between old friends and new ones? Do you think this one tweak in girl-date behavior can speed up a click?

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Girl-Hate-Girl Action

When I tell other women about my current plight, most nod their heads in agreement. They can usually relate in some capacity. Maybe they too have relocated. Perhaps they’ve been left behind by friends who’ve gotten married and moved to the suburbs. It could be that everyone in their lives has stayed put but friendships are simply changing as people get older and busier. There are few people who simply say “Nope, don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

Few, but not none.

The women who seem most confused by my story are the ones who report not understanding female friendship in the first place. “I’ve never been able to be friends with girls,” they’ll say. “I’m a guy’s gal.”

I’ve never known what to make of this claim. Women who state that they “don’t like other girls” and “can only be friends with men” kind of baffle me.

Yes, I know all about toxic friendships. I’ve been on the receiving end of notes from mean girls, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that someone out there has cast me as the Regina George of her childhood. Girls can be tough on each other. We can be competitive and catty and jealous. Friendships might come with baggage.

But we can also be smart and insightful and funny and empathetic and silly and adventurous, and “I hate girly things like shopping” is not an acceptable reason to write off the entire gender.

I have a friend who once told me that she doesn’t believe any woman who says she can’t be friends with other girls. “It just means that woman is a bitch,” she says. I’m not necessarily endorsing that theory, just reporting. Don’t kill the messenger.

My guess is that any woman who says she can’t be friends with other women is, in fact, friends with other women. She probably has one or two girl friends that she’d describe as “not your typical girls.” Maybe they all think they can’t be friends with women. The three of them are just anomalies who happened to find each other.

Ladies who say “I can’t be friends with women” should probably revise their statements to say “I can’t be friends with that woman or that woman.” And everyone has someone they can’t be friends with. We can’t all be BFFs. Or even FFs. Or Fs. Some people aren’t going to get along—not because one woman hates girls and the other is a girl, but because, maybe, one thinks the other is superficial while the other thinks the one is self-righteous. For example.

Have you ever met a woman who claimed she just didn’t like being friends with women? Do you believe her? Why do you think she makes that claim? And, if you’re a lady who can’t stand female friendships, why? I’d love some insight…

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