Monthly Archives: March 2011

Do We Ever Really Grow Up?

Last night, as I was doing my usual blogging procrastination, I found myself falling into the Facebook vortex. (This was just before I rewatched all my favorite moments from Tuesday’s Glee. For the fourth time. Kurt and Blaine? “Blackbird”? Even that original song? So good.) You know the black hole I’m talking about—the one that starts with an innocent click of a friend’s link and ends at the wedding photos of someone you hadn’t thought about since third grade.

During the Facebook stalking session in question, I found myself deep into the photo albums of girls with whom I went to high school. Not girls I was friends with in high school, mind you. No, I was clicking through photos of ladies who were a few grades above me and always intimidated me with their seemingly easy self-confidence. They were the “popular” girls in their class and, probably because they were a little bit older and age matters in high school, simultaneously terrified and fascinated me.

What’s amazing to me is that all these years later those same feelings of insecurity and intrigue started bubbling up. Keep in mind I haven’t seen most of these girls in, oh, maybe ten years? And my life has turned out pretty well. I’m happily married, I’ve got a career I’m excited about and live in a city I love. But one glance at the flat-ironed hair that was the accessory in high school and I might as well be back to the awkward freshman who hadn’t yet deciphered frizz control.

What is it about high school? I was a perfectly healthy, not-awkward teenager. Sure, I may have had some insecurities (show me a teenager that doesn’t) but I had great friends, was well-liked, and succeeded in academics and sports. I was even the co-president of the gospel choir! (True story. Laugh all you want.) I say this not to toot my 16-year-old horn but to say that no matter how happy-go-lucky and not-screwed-up someone is, high school relationships still get inside her head. And some ten years later those feelings are still there, lying dormant deep in the subconscious until Facebook comes along and stirs the beast.

(As I write this, I’m reminded of that Kristen Bell-Jamie Lee Curtis movie, You Again. I never saw it, but maybe I should.)

So, am I crazy, or have you been there too? Do thoughts of “those girls” in high school ever make you feel like an awkward teenager again? Or are those teenage emotions something you’ve long put behind you?

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The Hard Facts: Everyone Is Better Off With a Female Friend

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

 

“When it comes to substance abuse, girls appear to have a positive effect on boys, but boys have a negative effect on girls. Girls who initiate friendships with boys in early adolescence are more likely to develop substance-abuse problems later in their teens… [But] boys who become friends with girls in early adolescence were not more likely to develop substance-use problems as older teens.” (“Teen Boys Benefit From Female Friends, But Revese Is Not True: Study,” The Globe and Mail 3/10/2011)

There seems to be a recurring theme in the research I’ve discovered since writing this blog: We all need women in our lives.

No matter the life phase—childhood, teens, adulthood—science is constantly proving that both males and females benefit more from being close to women.

In childhood, those with at least one sister are thought to be happier and more optimistic.

In adulthood, both men and women find relationships with women to be more intimate and enjoyable than those with men.

And now a new study has found that teenage boys benefit from having female friends, but the reverse is not true. “Boys reported receiving higher levels of emotional support from their other-sex friends, whereas girls receive more support from their same-sex friends,” said the author of the study.

Like I said, we all need women in our lives.

Of course this reminds me of an episode of Friends I watched yesterday, in which Ross discovers that women tell each other everything.

 

Here’s how Rachel explained it to Ross: “You’re missing out on so much, Ross. I mean, the bonding and the sharing, you know? And knowing that someone else is going through the same thing you are?”

And how Ross explained it to Chandler: “Women tell each other everything. Did you know that?…Everything! Like stuff you like, stuff she likes, technique, stamina, girth….”

I love that show.

I get why it’s so important for a man to have a woman he trusts that he can talk to and lean on for emotional support. That said, I’m surprised that having male friends would have such a negative impact. Isn’t the ability to get along with both halves of the population a valuable trait?

I could use this research opportunity to wax poetic about how females are better in relationships. But instead I’d like to go in the opposite direction. We all need women in our lives, but, despite the research, I’d argue having some guy-friends isn’t too bad either.

So you tell me: What are the benefits of  friendship with men that you can’t get from female relationships?

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A Monthly Friendship Ritual

Yesterday I did a round of new friend check-ins.

It’s a ritual I didn’t anticipate when I started this search, probably because I had every intention of emerging with one or two people who would be my goes-without-saying playdate. I figured I’d meet a BFF, maybe a few of them, and we’d talk three times a day. Or at least three times a week.

That’s how it was with BFFs back in the day. Whenever that was.

Thus far my search has developed differently than I anticipated. I’ve made more friends than I ever thought I would, but very few, if any, are the we-talk-all-the-time type. This is partly because our relationships haven’t gotten there yet, and partly because chatting on the phone is soooo 2005. As I’ve mentioned, my friendship with the newbies are all email and text message. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.

Given this progression, there are times when I’ll go a month without speaking to certain friends. And then will come a day, like yesterday, where I shoot off a bunch of emails and text message just to say “hi” and “let’s make plans soon.” (And no, not the noncommittal, “We should go together sometime” check in. The actual, “Are you free next Wednesday?” type. I’m no amateur.)

I had the misguided idea that once I’d found my new friends I wouldn’t need to make these conscious efforts of communication. Friendship and hanging out would be easy and effortless.

Well here’s a cliché that holds up: Relationships take work. Always. Even after years of friendship, when one person stops putting in any effort the bond will disintegrate. When the friend is a new one, it’s even more important that you do the work—it’s not like you have a lifetime of history to sustain the relationship if it goes through an uber-long phone tag period. There’s very little stopping a budding BFFship from petering out.

So every month(ish)—this isn’t a scheduled activity, but I’d say I do it every four to six weeks—I reach out to the friends I haven’t seen or heard from in ages. (“Ages” can be anywhere from two months to two weeks.) Sometimes I’ll write as brief as “Hi friend! Let’s catch up. When are you free?” and others I’ll give a whole life update. But mostly it’s my way of saying hello, making some plans, and reminding my potential BFF that we’ve got a friendship to pursue.

I can’t tell you how often someone will tell me she met a potential BFF, but then never heard from her again. And after a bit of prying (yes, I pry) I’ll learn that the lack of communication went both ways. “Well I’ve been really busy,” she’ll say “and I reached out for the first friend-date.” The truth is that everyone is busy, so just send the email. You’ll both be glad you did.

And one bit of advice: There’s a fine line between “Hey… Just checking in, hope all is well! Would love to get together again sometime,” and “Why haven’t you called or texted to set up another dinner? I thought we got along. Do you even want to see me?”

Please, please, please. Go with the former.

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Making Friends at the Gym

I have a question about the gym:

How is it that everyone makes friends there? I feel like I’m constantly hearing women refer to their “friend from the gym” and I just don’t get it.

Let me tell you what my gym experience is like: Arrive, change into workout clothes, put headphones on, run, do some pushups, leave.

My body is usually too consumed with pushing through a workout and getting it over with to give off vibes of “friendly and open to new friends.” My expression says “How many minutes are left on this machine?” not “Come talk to me! I’m silly and love brunch!”

There’s this one gym in Chicago that is super nice and from what I can tell is more country club than workout facility. You can do your laundry there, eat dinner, get a haircut. Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually been there myself. But the people I know who belong meet people at this gym all the time. Seriously. I’m pretty sure some people join in hopes of meeting their future spouse (some have told me as much).

Apparently, it’s all about the classes. Somewhere between warm-up and cool down, after the bicep curls but before the squats, people get to talking. Swapping life stories and eventually phone numbers. I don’t get it. I’ve mastered (or come close to mastering) many new-friend scenarios. I’ve figured out how to take a relationship from easy banter to friend-date, where to guide conversation for maximum connection, how to say yes to any invitation. But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how to meet a friend at the gym.

Trying to make a move during someone’s much needed water break seems pushy. Interrupting a runner’s treadmill time to ask how her day was strikes me as inconsiderate. Starting conversation while she’s changing in the locker room? That’s just awkward.

So this is a gaping hole in my friendship education thus far. I’m still keeping an eye out for my opening, but I’m not even sure I want one. I enjoy my gym time as me time. I want to get in and get out. But then, who am I to say no to an opportunity for a new pal?

While I figure how to strengthen this friendship muscle (Har har, lame pun. I know), let me turn the tables. Please, share your gym friendship stories!

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BFF Breakups: How Much Explanation is Necessary

An interesting discussion emerged from yesterday’s post about how to handle the aftermath of a friend breakup. It was not so much about how we communicate after the breakup so much as during the breakup.

One reader said she was curious about “how you can communicate with the break-up-ee so she knows what was wrong, and can move on and have healthy relationships with other people without repeating the same problem.”  The reader cited some encounters she had back in 7th and 9th grade, one of which ended with a friend “dumping” her and never explaining why.

The comment might as well have sent me spiraling back fifteen years in the DeLorean. During the years from fifth to eighth grade, I got in plenty of fights with friends. In my recollection (which is admittedly cloudy, it was a while ago), the fights were mostly due to friends getting mad at me, not the other way around, and I almost always didn’t know why. I’d go to school one day to suddenly find  I was on my BFF’s bad side. My memory of the conversations goes  something like this:

Me: Why are you mad at me? What did I do?

BFF: You know what you did.

Me: Um no, I don’t.

BFF: Well, you should.

(The resemblance to a recent Phil-and-Claire Dunphy fight is uncanny. If you haven’t seen this Modern Family episode, go directly here. You’re welcome.)

Knowing that a friend is mad at you, or breaking up with you entirely, and not knowing why feels like crap. You’re helpless and confused and wondering if maybe you didn’t do anything at all. Maybe the “thing you did” was just being yourself. And nothing feels worse, especially when you’re in middle school, than realizing that just being yourself is enough to make someone defriend you.

So, yeah. I identified with this reader. Perhaps she still has some residual frustrations with ex-friends who never communicated what crime she committed, but I’ve been there too. And, yes, I’m still bitter. The fair thing to do, if you’re ending a friendship, is to at least tell her why it’s over. “You know what you did,” is a cop out and oh-so-frustrating. How is someone supposed to change her behavior when she doesn’t know what the bad behavior was in the first place?

But then, on the other hand, is this reader who wrote: “It feels a little too intense to be someone’s teacher or parent and tell her how to correct her friendship behavior.” She says we’re adults, and it’s not our job to coach an ex (or soon-to-be ex) pal on how to be a better friend.  This is also a fair point. If someone’s a bad friend, is it really our job to show her the error of her ways?

What say you? When you’re angry with a friend, or breaking up with her, do you communicate what she did wrong? Or choose to separate yourself and move on? And if you do explain her wrongdoings, what does that conversation sound like?

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The Friend-Breakup Aftermath

Last night, while at my cooking club, I suggested that one of my fellow chefs try a delicious restaurant in my neighborhood.

“I can’t go there,” she said. “I might see her.”

The “her” in question is my friend’s ex-BFF. Once upon a time, in another city and another decade, they were the closest of friends. After a long story that is not mine to tell, that friendship is over. It didn’t end due to any one thing so much as an accumulation of issues that deteriorated the friendship.

The tough part though—well, one of the many tough parts—is that while they grew up together on the East Coast, they both now live in Chicago. And while there have been attempts to mend the friendship,  it doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Now my friend is hesitant to venture to a night out in my neighborhood, for fear of a dreaded run-in.

When I asked her if I could blog about this today, my pal was quick to point something out: “I could go there, I’d just need reinforcements.”

“Totally understand,” I said. “And if we did see her, I’d for sure shoot some angry glares in her direction.”

And then I realized I’d had this conversation before. Plenty of times. About ex-boyfriends.

I talk so much about how making friends is like dating, but I’ve never considered the reality that if friending is like dating, then the aftermath must be similar too. Bad breakups might mean avoiding a favorite lunch spot or yoga class or an entire neighborhood just to steer clear of any unplanned meetings.

It means keeping up with their whearabouts through friends or facebook, but not calling or reaching out. It’s over, after all.

As we know, friend breakups often inspire more guilt in women than romantic breakups do. But what about after the breakup? Is there protocol for shedding that toxic relationship from your life?

From what I can tell, post romantic-breakup behavior (after the initial crying/confusion/anger) involves some combination of facebook defriending/burning photos (or at least taking down the frames)/avoiding him/dressing up in your hottest outfit when you might see him to show him what he’s missing. Accurate? Or too romantic comedy?

So what I want to know is, is your post-BFF breakup behavior the same as the romantic kind? I’ve never broken up with a BFF that I might run into, but if I did I’m willing to admit I’d probably go through all of those phases—the picture removal, the avoidance, the extra attempt to look cute in case avoidance wasn’t an option one day.

But what about you? If your ex-best friend lives in the vicinity, how does that affect you? Do you avoid each other? Or maybe just shoot death stares at each other in response to any surprise encounter? Do you try to act civil, or just pretend you never knew each other?

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The Hard Facts: Why The First Meeting Matters Most

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

“There is more than a literal truth to the saying that ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. [Recent] findings suggest that new experiences that contradict a first impression become ‘bound’ to the context in which they were made. As a result, the new experiences influence people’s reactions only in that particular context, whereas first impressions still dominate in other contexts.” (“Research Discovers Why First Impressions are So Persistent,” Physorg.com 1/18/2011)

When you’re on a friend search (or a romantic one, really) first impressions weigh pretty heavily. That initial meeting—with all of its potential for awkwardness—will likely be the deciding factor in whether you have a second get-together, and a third. There’s a lot riding on it.

If you do meet a potential BFF a second time, your initial assessment will likely hold up—for better or worse. This new research says that almost always, our first impression sticks. If you find a girl-date crass and abrasive, but later run into her at a party where she’s being sweet-as-pie, you aren’t likely to change your opinion. Instead, you’ll consider this behavior the exception to the rule. You’ll likely surmise that the PBFF is a grouch who turns on the charm in large social settings. That’s what the researchers mean when they say that “experiences that contradict a first impression become bound to the context in which they were made.”

Though I strive to make a positive impression when I meet people—who doesn’t?—I don’t always succeed. If I’m exhausted, or have had a bad day, I’m in real danger of coming off as distracted or disinterested. Especially if the meeting is in a group setting. (It’s tougher to disengage when the friend-date is just the two of you.)

The good news to come out of this research is that while first impressions are tough to change, they’re not impossible.

Take my example of the harsh PBFF who turned into a sweetheart at party time. You’ll think her nice side is party-specific, but only until you see it in other contexts. If you see her at a party, and then later run into her on the street, and the next day bump into her at a work event, and if all those times her nice-girl persona holds up, you might find yourself changing your mind. “In that case, the first impression becomes decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose it’s power,” one researcher says.

Good to know. Having the power to change someone’s first impression is a pretty great weapon in the friending arsenal. Not easy, but powerful.

Have your first impressions of potential friends ever led you astray? How did you change your mind?

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When Friends Spiral Out of Control

Charlie Sheen is a tired subject. Every word that could possibly be written about him has already appeared in print. Every news outlet that might want an interview has aired said clown show. And yet, every day, he’s back in the news—whether it be for his winning turns of phrase, or, yesterday, his firing from Two and Half Men. The whole circus is a hilarious/depressing/outrageous/just plain scary combo platter of crazy. (My personal favorite piece of news was Sheen’s tweet yesterday that he is looking for a summer social media intern. Now there’s a resume builder.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t even be broaching this subject, but there’s one question I’ve been wondering about and here seems to be the appropriate place to ask it: Where are Charlie Sheen’s friends???

I have no idea what happens behind Sheen’s closed doors—aside from the freeflow of tiger blood, obviously. But there have to be people who’ve been friends with him since way back when and are trying to get him help. Or intervene. Or something. Right? Or is he so far gone that everyone in his life has given up?

I’m incredibly lucky in that I’ve never witnessed a friend go on a downward spiral that required an intervention. No serious addictions, no friends in abusive relationships, no one in need of capital H Help. (Knocks on wood.) I’ve also never had a friend go so far off the deep end that I had to remove myself from the relationship, which I have to imagine has happened with at least some of Sheen’s old pals. Doesn’t there come a time when you must say “I can’t be party to this anymore”?

If I did find myself in the position of good friend to a self-destructive individual, I like to believe that I’d do whatever was necessary to help. But I also know that it’s not always so easy. Giving help often means being the bad guy. Or having uncomfortable conversations. It requires butting your nose where some might say it doesn’t belong. These things can destroy a friendship. The easy way out, in these situations, is to stand by your friend. But we all know about how easy and right aren’t always in sync. Old news.

Have you ever witnessed a friend’s descent into self-desctruction? Probably not Sheen-style, but a milder form? What did you do? And do you wonder where Sheen’s friends are, too?

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One Year Later…

I realized yesterday, while sitting on the couch watching the PBS concert of Les Miz (because, yes, that’s how I take advantage of a lazy Sunday afternoon and yes, that musical gives me chills and yes, it’s true, Nick Jonas plays Marius but no, that is not the {only} reason I tuned in), that it was the first birthday of this blog. I remember writing the first post. I was on a plane en route to LA and hammered out some 300 words about my quest.

A year later, it seems a good time to revisit those words and see how they hold up.

“I am a married white female searching for a best friend forever.” Check.

“I have two lifelong BFFs, Sara and Callie, who I met when I was 10 and 14, at camp and high school respectively. I have seven super-close friends from college.  I have dear pals from high school whose weddings I’d never miss and babies (well, so far there’s only one baby) I’m dying to meet.  There is no shortage of shoulders to cry on. Here’s the catch: I live in Chicago.  Sara and Callie live in New York City. My Northwestern roommates live in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and St. Louis. The high schoolers are in D.C. and (you guessed it), Manhattan. My closest friends are everywhere but here.” Still true. If one of my friends would like to have a baby soon please, that would be great. I need more little ones to gush over.

“I moved to Chicago with my now-husband after we both decided a long-distance relationship (he was at law school in Philly, I was working in New York) just wouldn’t do. We’ve been here for nearly three years and in that time have made a few friends. Primarily couples, with whom we catch up over dinner  every few months. But on a Sunday morning when I want to grab an omelette over girl talk, I’m at a loss. My Chicago friends are the let’s-get-dinner-on-the-books-a-month-in-advance type.  I’m looking for someone to invite over to watch The Biggest Loser or to text ‘pedicure in half an hour’ on a Saturday morning. To me, that’s what BFFs are. Not just people who know your innermost secrets, but the ones up for grabbing a bite on a whim because they love being with you just that much, and getting together feels easy and natural rather than a chore you need to pencil in.”

Here’s where things have changed (aside from the fact that we’ve been here nearly four years now). Whereas a year ago I’d made “few” new friends, now I have a hearty helping of them. I’ve got a virtual phone book full of brunch pals, though I’m still working toward that Sunday morning last-minute call. These days I wonder if that’s a pipe dream anyway. One thing I’ve learned over the last twelve months is that it’s hard for people to make last minute plans, including myself. And that definition of BFF I wrote back then? The innermost-secrets-meets-playdate-on-a-whim bit? That’s a work in progress. It’s constantly evolving.

“So I’m on the hunt for Miss Right. A person who can fill the one void in the otherwise great life I’ve set up in the Windy City. I always thought friendships blossom naturally, like at summer camp and in school. In the grown-up world, apparently this isn’t the case. So I’m taking matters in my own hands.

This blog chronicles my quest.”

Indeed.

A big thank you to everyone who has been reading this blog for the past year—whether you hopped on board day one or yesterday. The fact that you come back each morning is the best blog birthday present of all. And I hope you’ll continue to stop by—big things are to come before we turn two!

Today’s question: What is your definition of a BFF?

And as my birthday present to you, my favorite song from Les Miz (just ask Matt who had to listen to me belting it out all day):

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When Your Only Communication is Online

Here’s a fact: I did absolutely nothing yesterday to advance my friend search. Aside from a family lunch, I didn’t leave the house.

I spent the day digging myself out from a pile of emails, a task that’s been on my to-do list for about a month and a half. I did play catch up with some friends, but it was all over email and gchat and text. I played some old-fashioned board games with other friends, except it was through new-fashioned Words with Friends, my latest iphone Scrabble-like obsession that requires no face-to-face interaction with my opponents.

I’m not gonna lie—it was kind of lonely. Not sad or depressing—I socialize plenty, so a day off was fine—but I have to say that connecting over and over online didn’t make me feel more connected, it made me feel more separate. It was as if each Gchat and email reminded me that I was sitting alone on my couch.

Again, this is no pity party. Two years ago it might have been, but yesterday was just a day I chose to stay home and plow my way through a to-do list. But after all my talk of whether or not technology helps us feel connected, it was interesting to participate in this unintended online-communication-only experiment.

I’ve heard social psychology experts say that the people with the most Facebook friends are often actually the loneliest. And now I can see how this could be the case. Facebook chatting is not the same as an in-real-life gabfest. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate technology. It definitely helps me keep in touch with the people in my life. It also helps me forge new connections, like those with the readers of this blog. I’m not looking to go on a techie cleanse (that would have made me feel really isolated yesterday), but online communication is no substitute for the real thing. As opposed to making me feel energized (as girls nights often do), connecting only through technology made me kind of lethargic and grumpy. There was no laughter, just a lot of speedy typing.

And the worst part? At the end of the day, when my phone rang, I hit ignore. I felt tired and distracted and not up for actual voice-to-voice chatter. From all I’ve read about true loneliness, the biggest threat is that if it brings you down too much you retreat instead of seeking social interaction. Sometimes, loneliness begets more loneliness.

My Thursday was a like a microcosm of what a technology-only life could be. The lesson: You don’t have to give up digital interaction, but don’t ever fool yourself into believing it can replace the real thing.

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