The Hard Facts: A Common Enemy

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

“Trashing the same person often helps people bond. …. The power of this initial spark of shared antipathy, it seems, comes from what negativity implies. Everyone, after all, can say kind things. And everyone does. This is how we supposedly make friends: by being nice. But by going negative—thereby breaking a general rule of first impressions—you signal that you instinctively trust this new person, because you suspect he or she might feel the same way.” (“Hating The Same Things,” New York Magazine, 3/27/2011)

Like it or not, this is so true. When you meet someone you hardly know, bonding over someone you both really like isn’t all that interesting. It can help to break the ice, but bestowing compliments on a mutual acquaintance isn’t going to immediately bond you because it doesn’t say much about who you are. Aren’t you just doing what you’re supposed to do?

Hating the same thing, on the other hand, can foster a click but quick. Whether your shared enemy is a person, a celebrity or even an airline, suddenly you’re in an us vs. them situation. Which means you and this potential BFF are an “us,” a team. It’s you against the world. Or the airlines. Same diff.

The idea that sharing a dislike signals “that you instinctively trust this person” rings true with me. Just recently, I was at dinner with someone I knew only casually. I had the sense we could be best friends one day—I still have that sense!—but this was only our second meeting. We’d figured out earlier that we have a mutual semi-acquaintance (semi in that my relationship with this lady is flimsy at best), but we’d never really discussed her in any depth. Turns out were both testing the waters, deciding if it would be acceptable to voice our distate for the acquaintance in question.

When my new pal finally said those magic words—”I kind of can’t stand her”—I felt like I was able to breathe again. Not only was I relieved that she too was put off by certain behaviors (a sign of shared values?) but I was honored that she felt comfortable opening up and revealing her true feelings. She knew I wouldn’t judge or cast her aside for this little foray into negativity, and that required trust.

And now this shared antipathy has become something of an inside joke between us. Childish, but true.

Basically, sharing a dislike for someone during an early girl-date makes you feel all mischievous. Like you’re breaking the rules, but you’re doing it together. Immediate bonding.

Have you experienced this negativity bond with a potential new friend? Who/what did you mutually hate? A boss? A mean girl? Mel Gibson?


Filed under The Search

8 responses to “The Hard Facts: A Common Enemy

  1. Ohhhh, this is so true. For me it’s more in the vein of good-natured (sometimes!) complaining about bosses with co-workers. It bonds everyone, though I always feel a little guilty for doing it. Fascinating research, as always.

  2. Hey Rachel, just wanted to let you know that I gave you the stylish blogger award!

  3. Amanda

    You might find René Girard interesting. I was at a friend’s house a long time ago and didn’t have a ride home. I was forced to peruse the book selection, started reading Girard entirely at random, and was bowled over by the way he outlined the scapegoating mechanism. Once you see human relations in that light, you see it everywhere in a thousand little ways. Social tribes, behavioral stigmas, identity, etc. — it’s a great and efficient model for understanding the human culture flowing around you, because it is so much simpler to list out the ways in which you differ from another person. The list is far shorter than the ways in which you are the same as another person. The only way to make that technique useful is to acknowledge that mob mentality is rooted in this shared hatred. Two people hating that flaky wench is fertile ground for a sitcom; 2 million people is fertile ground for genocide.

  4. Amanda

    On rereading my comment I realize that it is totally and overwhelmingly depressing. I didn’t really mean it to devolve that far. I actually feel very close to people who express a hatred for milk, touching raw chicken, squishy vegetables, loud children, over-produced synthetic music, under-produced lo-fi music, Powerpoint, open water, humidity, dog clothes, etc. — I can bond with almost anyone, I like so few things.

    • Suzannah

      Dog clothes! What sort of crazy talk is that??!!!;-)…. It is my personal mission to do my part to fight dog nakedness! Call me an activist;-)
      Seriously though you made some important points. Hate is a scary thing.

  5. I tell people this all of the time! Having a common enemy instantly bonds people. My sister and I didn’t become best friends until I was 19 and she was 17 and our parents had a messy divorce. Before we were not really competitive or mean to each other, but there was just something missing that prevented us from being super cloase. We had fun, but never tried to hang out outside of home until the divorce happened. Then it was us versus everyone else because no one understood our situation better than each other, even our best friends. So even though the divorce sucked and it still does, I know it made my sister my lifelong best friend. Cheesy, but true.

  6. Liz

    I’ve had this experience, and it ended up being a baffling situation. A friend (F)of a childhood friend (G) expressed ridicule and frustration at G’s third white-bridal/hot-pink-bridesmaid-dress wedding in 10.5 years. I was feeling the same and it seemed like we bonded during this over-the-top weekend. However, in the 2 years since, the updates on F’s life I get from G are 180 degrees from what F tells me, and F’s version of her conversations with G are not remotely the same as what G recounts. I’ve taken a huge step back from both of them, and have ceased being a source of information on the other for either one. When asked about either one, I simply say I haven’t talked to ___ in a while.

    An awkward side effect of this experience is that I have found myself more cautious and reluctant to share anything more than surface-level details about my life with someone new until I have a consistent history with people, which I do realize prolongs the friendship process, but . . . . .

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