When I was about fourteen, my best friend Charlotte was jealous when I went on a summer vacation to Europe with my family. When I got back I never called her, even though I kept telling myself I should. The reason I didn’t call had nothing to do with her jealousy, or my feelings for her, I’m simply afflicted with social anxiety. Picking up the phone has always been, and continues to be, extremely difficult for me, even if I deeply care about the person on the other end of the line. I figured that when we got back to school in the fall, our friendship would pick up where it had left off. I was wrong. Instead of welcoming me back with open arms, Charlotte ghosted me, or did the 1990 version thereof. She basically ignored me until I got the hint and stopped trying to talk to her. She had found new, cooler, friends to hang out with and I wasn’t worthy anymore. I had been friend-dumped.
This wasn’t surprising to me. She’d always been a bit on the shallow side and she’d clearly found a step up by ingratiating herself with the cool kids over the summer. What’s more interesting is that being friend-dumped wasn’t particularly distressing for me. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t really upset at losing Charlotte. When I say she was my best friend, I mean it in the sense that she was the person I spent the most time with, not in the sense that I cared about her most, or really at all. I actually found the entire situation fascinating. That someone could be so determined to increase their social standing that they would enact such cruelty upon a one-time friend was rather intriguing to me. And I was forced to ask, as I ask again now, what exactly is friendship?
I’ve heard people say that in childhood friendship is 90% proximity, but I would say that holds true at any age. We are “friends” with the people we spend the most time with, and for most of us, that means our schoolmates or coworkers. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, provided we have any genuine interest in these people. Google defines a friend as a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations. So the keywords here are “mutual affection”.
Did Charlotte and I have mutual affection for one another? I can’t say. I think we both used each other because of the convenience more than anything else. Neither of us had many other friends at that time. I don’t really have that many memories of her, so I’m not sure if I actually enjoyed her company or her mine. I don’t know if I was a bad friend, or if she was. Was she being a mean girl by ghosting me or did I begin the ghosting by never calling after that summer holiday?
I’m still neglectful towards my friends even today. But this isn’t due to a lack of interest so much as a lack of energy. As an introvert, I only have so much energy in any given day for social interaction. A few years ago I shared an office with a woman who was going through a divorce. We became friends because of, you guessed it, proximity, and she confided in me about everything going on in her life. I didn’t mind hearing these things and I genuinely liked her as a person, but my god was she exhausting. When she moved on to another job I didn’t bother to maintain the friendship. I still feel bad about this, and worry that she thinks I don’t like her, but honestly, I just couldn’t handle the amount of work it took to be her friend.
But even when I do want to maintain friendships, I put no effort into doing so. Social anxiety prevents me from reaching out to people, and introversion limits the amount of time I spend with them. In my adult life, I’d say my only friends are my colleagues. I like them and care about them, and we often have lengthy conversations, but these conversations usually revolve around office gossip. Does this still count as friendship? Sometimes we get together outside of work, so that counts as friendship, right? Yet I’m also aware that these same people see each other outside of work much more often without me. Does this mean they like each other more than they like me? Perhaps. Or perhaps they’ve learned enough about me not to invite me to things I wouldn’t enjoy.
I recently felt pangs of envy and self-pity when I saw two colleagues go out for lunch together, and wondered where my invite had been. But then I remembered all the times I’d turned down lunch invites and realized that I was my own worst enemy if my goal was to be queen BFF. I reminded myself that friendship is a responsibility and one that I usually can’t handle.
So I’m a bad friend, right? Well, I guess this depends on your definition of friendship. Is a friend someone you simply hang out with, or someone you entrust with your deepest, darkest secrets? Other people have examined this issue at length. Mobinah Ahmad has categorized six levels of friendship, Jeremiah Creedon lists nineteen kinds of friends, and other articles have listed so many types that I’ve lost count and interest. Then there’s the science. Dunbar’s number suggests that humans are only capable of maintaining social relationships with 150 people, and that limit drops to five when it comes to close relationships.
I must admit that while I’m extremely attentive when I’m with people one-on-one, once most people are out of my sight, they are equally out of my mind. I think back to when we were kids, and Charlotte wanted, as all teenagers do, that nebulous thing called popularity. She wanted to be at the center of a large group, or at least on its periphery because this represented success. Adolescents are naturally insecure and therefore preoccupied with what others think of them. Having a lot of friends means validation. But this need for external validation from a large social circle clearly persists into adulthood for many. For me, this is the folly of choosing quantity over quality, and with Dunbar’s scale in mind, I imagine that what other people consider friendships are really just glorified acquaintances.
Then again, just because I can’t handle a lot of social interaction, doesn’t mean others are similarly afflicted. My partner is an extrovert and while he doesn’t seem to need a lot of friends, he puts a baffling amount of effort into maintaining relationships with an equally baffling variety of people. I’m being flippant, as obviously these relationships aren’t baffling to him. When I ask why he stays friend with the woman who always cancels on him last minute, he explains that she’s worth it because she’s a great conversationalist when she does deign to show up. When I ask why he’s friends with the man who can’t string two words together he explains that they enjoy practicing karate together. Fair enough.
But I place no value on such interactions. They’re fine for someone with infinite energy but a waste of time for me. If I’m not going to be seeing someone on a regular basis I don’t see the point of investing in them. Sometimes even when I do see people on a regular basis I don’t bother to get to know them because why would I? I’ve often found while hanging with so-called friends, that most people aren’t really interested in having meaningful conversations, they are merely waiting for their turn to talk about the most mundane subject of all: themselves. (Hypocrisy alert!) But I want my friendships to have purpose. Interestingly, a day after I wrote a first draft of this post, my boyfriend posted a video on Facebook from the Book of Life, about exactly that topic. (Scroll down for the video). Here was vindication that I’m not wrong for wanting a concrete reason to hang out with people.
Don’t get me wrong; meaningless hangouts can be fun but I’m not sure I would define those interactions as friendships. For me, a true friend is someone I would die for, someone I would kill for. Some recent self-analysis has led me to the conclusion that I only have space for one such person in my life at any given time. Currently, my one true friend is my partner. I’d say there are maybe four other people who’ve been my best friends in the past, for whom I’d still bury a body no questions asked, but I don’t see them very often anymore simply because we no longer live near one another, and our lives have followed different paths. And it’s probably a good thing that I don’t see these people that often anymore because maintaining so many true friendships would be a lot of work! One of the things I really value in my one true friendship is that it’s a relationship wherein interacting doesn’t feel like work. Which is not to say that I don’t put effort into my relationship with my partner, it’s just that I can sit in silence with him and not feel anxious about it, as I would with nearly anyone else. Even though the definition I quoted at the top of this post doesn’t want me to think of a significant other as a friend, I maintain that everybody should strive to make their life partner their best friend. Honestly, what is the point of sharing your life with someone if you’re not the best of friends?
With this in mind, I am definitely a good friend to my partner, as we are extremely well bonded and would both do anything for the other. But I am perhaps a bad friend to everyone else. If I’d been a “good friend” to Charlotte back in the day, then maybe she would have brought me along on her quest for high school popularity. If I’d been a “good friend” to my divorced coworker then I’d have been invited to her second wedding. But would my life have been enriched by high school popularity? Adolescence is when I began my journey of rejecting social norms and standards. Popularity would have only increased that pressure to conform.
So yeah, I’m a bad friend according to most people’s definitions. I’ll never be the one who throws parties or organizes lunch dates or shopping trips or whatever else normal people do together. If I’m invited to said events I’ll go and I’ll have fun and I’ll listen to others complain about whatever’s wrong with their spouses, (which seems to be THE topic of conversation no matter who I’m with), but I won’t commiserate, because there’s nothing wrong with my spouse. My best friend is amazeballs and so is our friendship.
I’m not proud of this but I’ve done my fair share of inadvertently alienating people. Sometimes, in an effort to be funny I’ve ended up hurting someone’s feelings. My humour does tend towards the sarcastic and cynical, but I guess I have a tendency to go overboard. Once, and this example goes back 20 years or so, I was hanging out with friends of a friend. The topic of football came up and I disparaged the sport and referred to someone in the group as not even existing, not being worthy of my attention, because she liked football, or maybe it was soccer, or rugby, whatever. Later I was informed that this girl was extremely offended by my dismissive attitude, and I felt bad. I still feel bad. I don’t remember this teenager’s name, and I don’t remember what sport I was poo-pooing but I’m still traumatized by this event decades later, by the fact that I hurt someone so deeply without even meaning to.
Other times I’ve felt less guilty but more confused as to how such a misunderstanding could have come about. I know I have resting bitch face but do I also have resting bitchiness? Where everything I say comes across as rude and hostile even when I don’t mean it to?
Recently at work, my supervisor took me aside to let me know that there had been a complaint lodged against me. At first, I just assumed she was talking about a hasty email I’d written because I know I can be curt in writing. But no, as she went on, it becamee clear that she was talking about an incident I couldn’t even remember. Apparently, this
whiny baby perfectly pleasant guy came into my office to talk to me and I ignored him. Now, this guy is known to be extremely meek and soft-spoken, and when I’m working I tend to zone out. I’m sure I simply didn’t notice him when he came to see me. But he was so offended by my not paying attention to him that he filed a formal complaint!
These are just two examples of a lifetime of being perceived in ways I don’t intend. People think I’m a hater. I’ve often been accused of misanthropy, but honestly, I don’t hate people. I’m actually a pretty big fan of humanity. Yet because I’ve been accused of misanthropy so often, I’ve sometimes tried to convince myself that maybe I do hate people. But it’s not antipathy I feel towards others, usually it’s just indifference.
I’m an introvert, so I have no patience for small talk, and I don’t really care how your weekend went. I mean, I do if we’re friends or sufficiently close co-workers, and if you can tell a story in an amusing way, then sure, I’d love to hear about how you got sunburned climbing a mountain. But generally speaking, I’d rather stand in the elevator in silence than talk about the weather.
And, as mentioned, I’m also rather bad at noticing people. I can’t even count the number of times people I’ve been hanging out with have said, “hey, did you see that guy who just walked by?” And my reaction is no, I did not see him. Usually, I’m in my own world, my mind is racing a mile a minute and I genuinely do not notice the people around me. I notice in a general sense, like I don’t constantly bump into people, and I’ll notice things that are interesting to me, but not the things that are interesting to you. So no, I didn’t see that guy you think is hot, and I didn’t see that guy who looks suspicious, and I didn’t see that mom being a bad mom, and I didn’t see that crack dealer dealing crack. I just didn’t notice because I just don’t care.
But sometimes I do care, and I still say or do the wrong thing, because I also have social anxiety. Back when I was a kid, in the ’80s, we called it shyness. But now we’ve pathologized it, which I actually think is fair. Anxiety can be quite crippling. I don’t just dislike talking to strangers, sometimes it fills me with dread. I’m fine in everyday situations, like going shopping or whatever, because I know the rules of shopping. I don’t have to tip cashiers. But I hate situations that are even vaguely ambiguous. I’ve been to a hairdresser a total of four times in my life and they’ve all been traumatic events. I prefer to cut my own hair than face the awkwardness of making small talk with a stylist or trying to figure out how much to tip the shampoo kid. And then there are social events. I know intellectually that people aren’t just standing around judging me, but it’s difficult to get past that perception emotionally.
I’m fine at parties where I know everyone, like work parties. Or small gatherings where I’ve built up a respectable level of ease with the other guests. But events filled with people I don’t know are literally torture. Imagine being in a group, or even just with one other person, and they’re talking and you can’t think of anything to say in reply. You’re just standing there mute, knowing with every passing second that you’re coming across as more and more rude but you can’t do anything about it. Or maybe you can think of something to say, you can think of a million witty rejoinders, but you can’t say them out loud. Your mind is full of possible comments that simply won’t escape your lips. And because I’m now so acutely aware of my tendency to accidentally offend people I default to saying nothing rather than risk an inadvertent faux-pas.
As a result, I come across as the most boring person alive. And ironically, this problem is exacerbated if I’m bored. Boredom, of course, is a subjective feeling. One person’s exciting topic of conversation is total dullsville for another. So I’m not judging. If your thing is cooking, then more power to you, but it’s not my thing and I don’t give a shit how much paprika you put in the casserole. So my mind wanders. If you don’t hook me pretty much immediately then I’m out. Sometimes my mind wanders even when I am interested in the topic at hand. It’s not a problem of being unable to focus. It’s more that I’m not prone to interruption, so rather than interject with my thoughts on a subject while another is talking, I’ll just go off on a digression in my own mind and only be snapped back to reality when I’m asked a direct question.
So people think I’m a jerk. I come across as an asshole. And I guess I am an asshole if that’s how I come across. Because result, unfortunately, is more significant than intention. And I guess you could make the argument that being indifferent to other people is hateful. It’s certainly not empathetic, or compassionate to not give a shit about others. So I guess all the times people referred to me as a bitch, they were right. Maybe I should embrace that label. After all, why do I even care how I’m perceived? If I’m largely indifferent to people, why would I care about their opinions of me? The answer is that I’m human. Of course, I care what other people think of me. Everyone cares what other people think of them.
It’s trendy nowadays to tout the benefits of self-acceptance and not putting stock in other people’s opinions, and that is healthy to a degree. But if we all truly didn’t care how others were perceiving us then we would be sociopaths. We can’t help but care. Humans are social creatures. Anyone who says they don’t care what others think is either lying to you or lying to themselves. We all go home and agonize over what we said to who and how it was perceived. If you seriously never wonder what others think of you, you might just be a narcissist.
So yes, I DO feel badly that I hurt that girl’s feelings in 1996, and I didn’t mean to ignore my coworker last month, and I do regret any number of times I’ve been overly sarcastic or didn’t say anything at all. But what can I do? I guess I’m just a hater.