Category Archives: The Old Days

The Hard Facts: Is Twitter Chatter Ruining Friendships?

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

“The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation … The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.” (New York Times, “The Twitter Trap” by Bill Keller)

This isn’t so much the latest in the science of friendship as it is the latest in the journalism of friendship, but when the executive editor of The New York Times writes a piece on how Twitter and Facebook are ending real-life friendship, it’s worth noting.

“I’m not even sure these new instruments are genuinely ‘social,’” he writes. “There is something decidedly faux about the camaraderie of Facebook, something illusory about the connectedness of Twitter. Eavesdrop on a conversation as it surges through the digital crowd, and more often than not it is reductive and redundant. Following an argument among the Twits is like listening to preschoolers quarreling: You did! Did not! Did too! Did not!”

There is certainly some truth to this. There are undoubtedly people who use Facebook interaction as a substitute (albeit a poor one) for the real-life kind. I know some of these people. It’s no joke. They delude themselves into believe that wishing someone a happy birthday on Facebook is equal to a a live phone call.  Or that messaging each other on Twitter is akin to sharing a breakfast burrito over brunch. It’s not.

But there is an opposite argument. In a response to Keller’s essay, Jenna Wortham of the New York Times wrote this: “For me, the exact opposite has happened. The stream of pleasantries, links and comments that I exchange online have only served to heighten my craving for in-person interactions at the end of the day. Laughing and gossiping outside of a Google Chat box (even if things we’ve read in the Internet often fuel a large part of the conversation) feels like a necessary antidote after a long day of silently staring at a computer screen and monitoring news alerts on my phone.”

Wortham goes on to say that Twitter has in fact emboldened her to approach potential new friends in person. She explains a recent experience when she met–in real life!–two people to whom she is virtually connected. “After following them both online for months and exchanging good-natured messages on Twitter, I was beside myself with excitement to finally meet them offline. I can’t imagine I would have been bold enough to introduce myself or strike up a conversation had we not built up a kind of camaraderie on Twitter in the weeks before.”

Clearly it can go both ways. If I had to make a personal call, I’d say social networking has amped up my social life. I never stay in so I can peruse Facebook or update my Twitter feed. I do, however, sometimes meet people I’ve only spoken to on those sites. That said, I see both sides of the argument.

Where do you fall? Think online conversation is displacing face-to-face contact? Think we are unlearning social graces? Or does the constant glare of online networking make you crave real-life interaction?

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Filed under 21st Century Friendships, The Old Days

The Hard Facts: Friendships Fade With Distance

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

“Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends.” (Robin Dunbar, “You’ve Got to Have (150) Friends,” New York Times, 12/25/2010)

This was the first piece of friendship research I’ve read that legitimately upset me. And on Christmas no less! ‘Tis the season for old acquaintance and good tidings and all that. We’re supposed to be celebrating lifelong BFFs, not calling attention to the fact that, if they live far away, they won’t hold the title for long.

I am well aware of how hard it can be to keep up friendships from afar. I talked to Sara this weekend for the first time in I don’t know how long. Too long. I don’t talk to any of my besties as often as I’d like. I still feel close to them—our shared history has made it so—but of course I feel less close than when I went out with them weekly.

I hate seeing the dissipation of our relationships quantified. None of my best friends are going to find themselves in “the most distant outer layer” of my social network. I’m confident of that. But still, it’s disconcerting. I’ve been in Chicago three and a half years. That translates to friendships that are 52.5% less close. Yuck.

Of course, these relationships don’t have total absence of face-to-face contact. Between weddings and travel, I’ve seen most of my old friends at least once this year. Next year will be filled with even more old pals. The wedding circuit is really picking up—we have six or seven nuptials to attend in 2011—and I already have trips planned in January and February for some much needed girl time.

So why did I have such a strong reaction to this seemingly innocuous statistic? I think because it confirms all the fears I had when I first moved to Chicago. I remember preparing to leave New York and joking with the friends who so lovingly gathered at my going away party that they would probably forget me. And you know what they say about jokes and truth.

(Side note: Yes, Callie threw me a going away party. There were old photos and pictures of my favorite TV stars. Jill made a cake. My friends all showed up. Now you see why I was sad to leave?)

I feared important relationships would fade away. Friends told me I was crazy. I chose to believe them. This, I tell you, is why I find this little nugget of Dunbar’s op-ed to be such a bummer. I wasn’t as crazy as I’d hoped.

Have you watched intimate acquaintances balloon out to the most peripheral layer of friends after a move? Fifteen percent per year seems pretty high to me, what about you? And how do you combat it?

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Filed under The Old Days, The Search

How I Met Your BFF

Who saw How I Met Your Mother this week? It was a veritable BFF gold mine. First, there was the Lily-Robin storyline, about the very motherhood-and-friendship conundrum we discussed last week. Then there was a side plot about Ted and his best friend from high school, who comes to visit New York from his hometown of Cleveland.

The Ted-and-Punchy storyline struck me for two reasons:

1) Marshall’s claim that they weren’t friends because, he says, nobody stays friends with kids from high school.
2) Ted and Punchy each have a completely skewed view of the other one’s adult life.

Let’s take this point-by-point. I know many people don’t keep in touch with high school friends after graduation. It’s largely an issue of someone wanting to put her teenage days behind her, but even more so a byproduct of friends growing up and figuring out who they really are. Sometimes the adult versions of two high school pals just aren’t compatible.

I’m actually still incredibly close with my high school friends. Eight of my former classmates were at my wedding. My husband’s best friends are almost all from his high school days. His little gang still takes a boys’ trip together every year.

I don’t know what it is exactly—maybe the fact that we went through those awkward hormonal years together, maybe just having been friends for so long—but my high school friends understand me in a way not everyone does, even if I go months at a time without seeing them.

When I posted about my high school reunion earlier this summer, plenty of you commented that you would never go back. But for me? It was a highlight.

Which brings me to point two. When Punchy came to visit Manhattan, he drove Ted crazy. His hyped-up high-school self didn’t work in the big city. But as we later learned, Punchy thought it was Ted who was struggling. He was trying to cheer up his old buddy using the juvenile jokes that first made them friends.

It was interesting how each thought the other was having a rough time. Ted saw Punchy as being stuck at home and going nowhere, while Punchy saw Ted as being miles away from friends and family and the people he loves. From each perspective, the other was in a bad spot.

We do that with friends a lot. We project however we’d feel in their situation onto them, whereas they might see their life from an entirely different viewpoint.

This might be more likely to happen with a high school friend, because we think we know how her mind works when in fact so much could have changed between then and now.

Are you still friends with your high school gang? What do you think it is that works—or doesn’t—about teenage friendships once we’re all grown up?

And in case you missed it, enjoy a little taste of HIMYM’s “The Beaver Song,” Robin Sparkles’s totally innocent ode to friendship.

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Filed under Everything I Know I Learned on TV, The Old Days

Flocking Together

It’s no secret that I love television. It’s also well-established that many of my favorite shows are those that revolve around a group or pair of friends: How I Met Your Mother, Friends, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, Glee I could go on, but I might start embarrassing myself.

These are also the shows that make people worry about the current state of their social lives. If we don’t have a BFF who can read our minds like Will, brunch with us every Sunday like Miranda or Samantha, or guess what we bought at the store on a Saturday morning a la Chandler and Joey in my most favorite episode of Friends (“The One with the Embryos”), then we’re not complete.

On Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed about these TV shows, which he labels “Flock Comedies.” TV is apparently moving away from the family sitcom and going the buddy route. Why? According to Brooks, the friendly focus of these shows is actually a response to changes in American society. “With people delaying marriage and childbearing into their 30s, young people now spend long periods of their lives outside of traditional families, living among diverse friendship tribes,” he says.

But that’s not all these shows are good for, Brooks adds. Because when those once-young people eventually do get married, they make room for baby (and work) by sacrificing friendship. So flock comedies “appeal to people who want to watch fictional characters enjoying the long, uninterrupted bonding experiences that they no longer have time or energy for.”

I think Brooks has it right, but I see it from a different angle. The reason I watch buddy comedies is not to see what I don’t have (even if that realization is a side effect). Quite the opposite. I watch to remember what I have had. Living across the hall from your best friends may not be totally realistic after college, but watching a bit of banter on Friends reminds me of my own Monica-Phoebe-Rachel caliber friendships. When I started watching How I Met Your Mother, I was convinced the writers must be living inside my head. The gang had such familiar conversations—the absurd arguments and ridiculous theories—in their MacLaren’s booth that I was immediately transported back to my college days. It’s comforting to relive that every Monday night.

So I’d say the reason flock comedies are successful is because the relationships can be so genuine, not because they give us a mini-escape into a life we can’t have.

Also because Phoebe and Chandler are brilliant.

What is your favorite flock comedy? Why do you think they are so popular?

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Filed under Everything I Know I Learned on TV, The Old Days

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

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

In My Opinionation…

It’s Friday, it’s been a long week, and I think we all just need a little break from the friendship analysis.

Instead, let’s take a trip back in time. Let’s visit a pair of BFFs who had a profound impact on my youth.

My childhood BFF Katie and I used to go to the mall and buy hats with big flowers so we could be like Blossom and Six. We fought over who got to be Six… she was so super cool wasn’t she?

I remember wishing back then that I had a friend who would show up at the front door unannounced. (Remember when the spontaneous pop-in was considered a welcome surprise rather than an annoyance? A post for another day.) Katie lived a car ride away, so she never just appeared at my house. She called, asked if it was ok to visit, and then got a ride. The surprise visit from a pal always sounded so exciting, as did Six’s crazyfast speech pattern. Basically, Katie and I wanted to be them.

Since I started writing this blog I’ve come to realize how much pop culture friendships—especially in books and TV shows—have influenced what I want from my own relationships. I’m not saying I want to mimic the content of the exchange below (no thanks!) but it gives me a bit of nostalgia: For teenage friendships, high-speed talking and a TV favorite of my youth.

See for yourself. (If you’re reading this in an email or feed you may need to click through to watch the video.)

Happy Friday!

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Filed under Everything I Know I Learned on TV, The Old Days