Originally posted October 2003
I ask this question because I’ve always had fairly strong ideas about “real” friendship, as opposed to simple acquaintanceship. To me an acquaintance was always someone you’d be happy to smile and greet pleasantly, or chat with, or do a simple favor for, but with whom you’d not made any really strong or deep connection. I have acquaintances I’ve known for decades, for example.
A friend, on the other hand, was someone for whom you were willing to extend yourself, and whom you knew would do the same for you. For example, I would think a friend would have the courage and integrity to take me aside and quietly let me know if I was making a fool of myself in public, and vice versa. We’d also be happy to brag about how well the other was doing, if something wonderful happened in our lives.
A friend emphatically is not someone who backs you up without question when you’re telling a lie, though. I’ve seen this occur in two separate instances, and both times it was rather a shock to watch people I’d formerly respected do this. A friend, to me, would quietly and privately ask if their friend was aware what they’d said was inaccurate. The two people I saw did not do this. When I asked them later, privately, about why they’d backed up statements they knew were lies, both individuals shame-facedly told me they were quite aware the people they’d supported were lying through their teeth! However, they’d known the person since high school, and were afraid to antagonize them, for fear they’d be abandoned.
Spare me from ‘friends’ such as these! If I’m lying, unwittingly or no, I want to know, the same as I’d like to know if I’m behaving foolishly, or making incorrect assertions! Unreasoning fidelity isn’t friendship, it’s fear-based emotional slavery.
There are, of course, other aspects of friendship too, at least to me. For example, someone might listen (with varying degrees of polite disassociation), or simply leave, were they to hear malicious gossip about an acquaintance. However, I would expect someone who was really a friend to speak up in defense of their absent friend.
I’m not talking fire and brimstone here, of course; it shouldn’t have to be rude. Simply stating they didn’t think the malicious gossip about the absent friend was true nor appropriate, and they’d appreciate it if the conversational topic were changed, would be fine, I’d think. So would be politely stating they were going to have to leave, as they were uncomfortable with gossiping behind the back of a friend.
I think the key, to me at least, is reciprocity. Friends don’t take advantage of each other. For someone to truly be a friend it would seem only right they be willing to do similar kindnesses for each other. Someone who says they’re your friend, but (as an example) can’t be bothered to stop malicious gossip spoken behind your back, would seem to be deceiving themselves about the nature of friendship. As the old saying goes: “Virtue untested is merely arrogance.” Has anyone else considered this, or have any thoughts on it?
I’ve also noticed recently a curious reaction many people (myself included) seem to have. We don’t state up front and clearly what our definitions of friendship are, and I think most of us don’t even consciously know them. However, when someone transgresses those internalized “rules” we all have, it seems we often just mentally slam them into a “jerk” or “non-friend” category, and that’s that! I know I’ve done it, and felt quite self-righteous about it — as in, how could anyone not know what true friendship was, sheesh!
This came up again a few months ago, however, because I was for the first time knowingly on the receiving end of that effect. I said something to a group of women I know… and I could see it in their eyes and behavior — they all pulled back with varying degrees of shock or dismay on their faces. It was quite strange to me, because I’d not done anything I considered wrong… which led me to wonder later how the folks I’d pulled away from in years past must have felt.
This led to my next puzzlement — is there any polite way to let someone know ahead of time what your “rules” are for friendship, or is that just asking for trouble? Is there any way to let someone know they’ve just “gone too far”? Can we even recognize if this has happened, if we’ve not already mentally laid out our personal definitions of friendship? How does one attempt to patch things up, if the definitions of friendship are different?