The Friendship Challenge

The Limits of Friendship” is primarily about the Dunbar number, and the article’s attendant Hacker News discussion evolved or devolved toward discussing friendship more generally (“Reading the comments, I’d say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships”). Both remind me of discussions with friends, about the nature of friendship, and how most people seem ill-prepared for social life after school.

In American and perhaps Western society as a whole like-minded people at similar life stages continuously mix together from age five up to at least age 18 and often well into the 20s through school. Then people often stop routinely mixing with new people, different people find themselves in different stages of life, and the friend machine often stops.* Yet it doesn’t have to, but making friends and meeting people becomes a skill more than a side effect of being.

A friend observed that I have a “gift” for talking to strangers, which would probably be a funny observation to my family or people who knew me in high school. Still I thought the comment was awesome because I’m quite the opposite: when I was a teenager I was pathologically shy for a lot of my life, and it’s taken a lot of effort to cultivate the ability to be social with strangers. I wrote to the friend that casually and regularly making friends is a learned behavior for me.

I used to never do it (flirting with women was also a learned behavior, as extensively and embarrassingly discussed here). Now that I do, however, I’ve noticed that people think I’m automatically good at it. A lot of things people now identify as characteristic Jake behaviors are really, really learned. I think that the temptation to see them as innate is attractive because it excuses us from doing the work necessary to cultivate and practice them.

I don’t want to be one of those people who hit 30 and are like, “Gee, I don’t have any friends anymore…” Part of the challenge comes from friendships being defined by time-of-life. Single people want to party and mingle with other single people. Couples (often) with couples, since single people can be threatening to relationship stability. Parents of young children rarely hit the bars at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.

Generalizations are obviously not universally applicable to all people all the time, but they exist for a reason. People with kids identify with other people with kids and so on. Parents talk about babysitting and their children’s shitting habits (I seriously hope to never do that). Your best friend at 20 might have nothing in common by 30 depending on when / where / how you evolve.

I see more and more lonely people who are like “Why am I lonely?!?” Let me be harsh for a moment and say they’re like fat people who are like, “Why am I fat?” and “I want to lose weight.” Some people have medical or medication issues, but for most the answers are straightforward: “Stop eating cookies and drinking soda and do some pushups and ride your bike instead of driving your car.” The response is usually, “I don’t have time blah blah blah.” Problems have solutions and there are many ways to falsely divide people into two groups, and one of those ways is between people who do the shit necessary to be effective and the ones who don’t.

Everything I have learned I feel like I have learned the hard way, through enormous amounts of error. That’s one reason I’m not too pissed about being told I’m a novice lifter at the gym. Chances are the trainer is right and I need to practice. Practice is everything. I suck at everything until I try, really hard and really repeatedly, to get better at it.

Friendship also isn’t quantifiable, which probably dissuades some high achievers who want everything measured in grades, dollars, or some other metric (that Facebook can be measured in this way may be one problem with it). There are still guides to becoming better at people. For example, How to Win Friends and Influence People is surprisingly good. I heard about it through reputation and assumed it would be stupid. I was wrong. Read it, annotate it, read it again in three months. There is a reason it has endured for (literally) generations—I think it first came out in the 1920s or 1930s—and that’s because its advice is timeless.

How to Be Polite” has one or two paragraphs that are brilliant (it also has some other paragraphs):

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The resources are there. The challenge is implementation. Let me repeat myself: Making and keeping friends is a learned skill, which many of us never learn and some of us learn much later than we should.

* (Adolescence is hard because it scrambles all the rules and principles learn about friendship from approximately toddlerhood to say age 12. Tom Perrotta’s Election has a great line in which a character observes that sex habitually turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends. Francine Prose’s young adult novel Touch hits similar themes. It may be that many people are unhappy that we never really return to those pre-puberty rules and roles because our desires and incentives change, and we have powerful evolutionarily shaped drives to do certain things and behave in certain ways.)

The beta orbiter problem: Observations from the field

A newly-graduated friend sent me this, as part of an e-mail about the difficulty of making friends after moving to a big city:

I’m now trying to “friend-date” whenever I meet a female (or male) who seems platonically cool. I have an easier time with males, but I don’t think the single ones ever intend to be friends with me from the beginning… mostly beta orbiters I guess.

Think about it this way, from the guy’s perspective: you’re exceedingly hungry. As hungry as you’ve ever been. And you can smell a delicious curry. You can see it. You’re very hungry. You’d love to eat the curry. But you can’t eat the curry.

The metaphor isn’t perfect—women have agency and curries don’t, among other things*—but it should impart the basic urgency single guys feel and the reason why single men who don’t want to be “just friends” also don’t want to hang out with you as a friend. How badly would you want to go to a restaurant when you’re desperately hungry but can’t eat at the restaurant?

My friend also said:

I found this article recently that was telling guys why they should be friends with the women who reject them for dating, but want to be friends. 1) The guy will become more confident around the type of women he’s interested in. 2) She will introduce him to her hot friends.

While “She will introduce him to her hot friends” is true in theory, it isn’t true, or very often true, in practice (based on my experience, anyway). More often, when a girl I’m interested in declines my affections, at best she sets me up with friends who are substantially less attractive than she is, and frequently says they’re “cute” and promises that I’ll “like them for their personality.” Unfortunate euphemisms lead to hurt feelings all around. Actually, my feelings don’t get hurt, but the feelings of other women sometimes do.

The hot girl’s friends also often know the hot girl turned the guy down, and that sends a powerful negative signal. If the guy isn’t good enough for the hot girl, why should he be good enough for her friends? Again, I won’t say that no straight guy has ever gotten the female-friend hookup, but I suspect that the female-friend hookup is more mythologized than actualized.

I’m familiar with the the beat orbiter mindset because I spent a lot of high school being one—but that’s because I was an idiot who didn’t know any better. I finally stepped back from that behavior, wondered why the hell I was doing it, and stopped. Non-adaptive behaviors should be altered. Most self-respecting guys who are dumb enough to go through a beta orbiter phase leave that phase by the time they graduate from college, if not earlier. Not all do, however, and you’ll occasionally run into 35-year-old men with the emotional temperament of 15-year-old boys in the thrall of their first serious, unrequited infatuation.

I’ve also had girls be the female equivalent of beta orbiters. I say “girls” here because, like men, adult single women usually grow out of this behavior, and if they’re attracted to a guy, they either make their move and see where it goes or they find a guy who is interested in them, instead of pointlessly pining after the unavailable. Straight American women seem to be more susceptible to acquiring beta orbiters than straight American men, while women seem to be, on average, more deluded about their “real” relationships with their supposed male “friends.”

One thought experiment might clarify your “friendships:” imagine that you’re lying in bed, wearing lingerie or nothing, and your male friend comes in. Does he leave or partake? If he leaves, you’re real friends. If he partakes, he’s probably not.

The attention of beta orbiters is kind of flattering to women, but it’s also mostly pointless; if you’re in the game, so to speak, you want to focus on the game, not the crowd. This is true of both sexes, whether gay or straight, but it seems like a lot of people have trouble admitting it.

(As a side note, literature is full of idiots pursuing pointless love for no particular reason: think of Gatsby and Daisy, or Robert Cohn and Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, or any number of 19th century novels, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, or Romeo and Juliet (which has the advantage of Mercutio, until he dies; it’s his death that’s tragic, because he’s hilarious—”I will bite thee by the ear for that jest” and “for the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon”). In each case, the obvious thing for the pursuer to do is get over whoever he or she is obsessed with and find someone better / more available, which are much the same thing. That’s a problem with Gatsby and Sun in particular: both novels are constructed around idiotic, self-defeating sexual behavior that contemporary teenagers often see glorified in pop culture and eventually must learn to overcome. The writing and style in both novels are specular, but their plots leave much to be desired, since the obvious thing for Jay Gatsby and Robert Cohn to do is get over Daisy and Brett Ashley. If they do, however, one no longer has a novel. But we shouldn’t admire guys who do things that are clearly dumb and sub-optimal.)

It may also be hard for attractive women to become genuine friends with a guy who already has a girlfriend because most girlfriends won’t want a rival—especially an attractive rival, sniffing around their campfire—so to speak. The reasons should be obvious. The major exception, however, occurs when the girl herself is bi, or at least interested in some girl-on-girl experience(s), but third-wheel situations among relative strangers seldom seem to last long.

This kind of misunderstand seems to be incredibly, stupidly common; I occasionally read the section, which is filled with people like “jaqueinabox” who say

I have a friend who I’ve known for about four or five years. A couple years ago, when my boyfriend at the time and I were on a break, I invited him to a social [. . .] I dropped him off at his car, but we ended up making out for a few minutes before I told him I had to stop (I never really do stuff like that and I was incredibly uncomfortable with it.) [. . .] When my boyfriend and I broke up for good, my friend started insisting we hang out more. Go to movies, go out for dinner, go to his place and watch movies, sending me texts with “xoxo” and “;)” in them, and it feels a lot like dating. [. . .] I still see movies and hang out with him because it seems rude to say no.

She’s wrong: it’s actually rude, both to herself and, to a lesser extent, the guy, to keep going out with him. In the thread, I wrote that “Directness is beautiful, both for you and these ‘guy-friends,’ who are not actually friends.” The other day a Reddit commenter wrote, accurately:

Most male friends become friends with attractive women with hopes of getting with them. Usually, when it doesn’t happen or she gets into/is in a relationship, they step back. When she gets out of a relationship, they usually try again.

The best movie scene dealing with this dynamic is the famous bit from When Harry Met Sally:

The contemporary term of art for these guys is, of course, “beta orbiter.”

I do want to clarify one point: It is possible for men and women to be authentic friends (I have a bunch of authentic female friends). It’s just much more unusual than many young straight women want to think it is. Many young straight women want to lie to themselves, or simply like deluding themselves, about male “friends.”

Authentic cross-gender friendships are great and they are no less worth cultivating than any other friendship. But don’t lie to yourself and don’t go into authentic friendships with the purpose of trying to covertly shoot for more.

* As far as I know.

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter — William Deresiewicz

I really like and admire A Jane Austen Education, despite agreeing with the younger Deresiewicz who the older one mocks for believing sentiments like this one, about Jane Austen’s Emma: “The story seemed to consist of nothing more than a lot of chitchat among a bunch of commonplace characters in a country village. No grand events, no great issues, and, inexplicably for a writer of romance novels, not even any passion.” Deresiewicz is setting himself up to be knocked down, and yet when I read Emma I, too, was bored by the “chitchat” among the bumpkins.

But Deresiewicz goes on to explain why his younger self was totally wrong, and how he grew as a person through closely reading Jane Austen and applying her novels to his life experience. Though his explanation is persuasive, I still don’t buy it. To me, the characters in Emma are still “a pretty unpromising bunch of people to begin with, and then all they seemed to do was sit around and talk: about who was sick, who had had a card party the night before, who had said what to whom. Mr. Woodhouse’s idea of a big time was taking a stroll around the garden.” I usually call the ceaseless chatter without any action referent “empty status games,” because the games don’t refer to anything outside their immediate social situations (granted, it might also be that I don’t usually excel in them). These sorts of situations are akin to the ones Paul Graham describes in “Why Nerds Are Unpopular:”

I think the important thing about the real world is [that. . . ] it’s very large, and the things you do have real effects. That’s what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect. Naturally these societies degenerate into savagery. They have no function for their form to follow.

Jane Austen’s societies obviously don’t generate into savagery—unless they’ve been transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (“Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!”)—but their inhabitants do feel “trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect,” which makes them unsatisfying, at least to my temperament. Graham might also not be an ideal person to cite, given how much he admires Austen: “Everyone admires Jane Austen. Add my name to the list. To me she seems the best novelist of all time.” Still, strike me from the list: her style is amazing and her content vapid. Consider this description, also from Deresiewicz:

One whole chapter—Isabella had just brought her family home for Christmas—consisted entirely of aimless talk, as everyone caught up on one another’s news. For more than half a dozen pages, the plot simply came to a halt. But the truth was, for long stretches of the book there really wasn’t much plot to speak of.

Or this: “What could be duller, I thought, than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?” There are much duller books—Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable comes to mind, since those are novels written to make some philosophical statement about the meaninglessness of life or to give English professors a bone to gnaw into scholarly papers—but the point stands. I’m not opposed to “women novelists,” and anyone who is on the grounds of perceived unimportance should try The Secret History and Gone Girl, but “long, heavy novels [. . .] on trivial subjects” are tedious regardless of their author’s gender.

Moreover, I’m not alone: “As it turned out, people had been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling,’ with ‘no great variety,’ ‘extremely deficient’ in imagination and ‘entirely devoid of invention,’ with ‘so little narrative’ that it was hard to even describe what they were about.” At some level, as happens with much art, a preference for Austen may come down to temperament, and to what a person believes about what The Novel or a novel should do. I’ve never been able to get into novels that don’t have some kind of narrative drive or energy—both vague terms that I could spend the rest of this essay describing, or, rather, trying to describe—and, like Lev Grossman, I think “Plot makes perverts of us all:”

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them.

For as long as a century, however, if not longer, literary culture has been bifurcating between high-culture, non-plot types who inhabit universities and book reviews and institutions, and common readers, who like something to happen and maybe some T&A or depraved longings in their fiction, even if the language used for the T&A and depraved longings isn’t very interesting. Most of us are taught that long, tedious books written in stilted language are more valuable than those that do the opposite.

To be sure, I don’t think the people who genuinely love Austen have been academically brainwashed—I think they do authentically love her writing—but I also think the original reviewers and the younger Deresiewicz have a point too, but that point is mostly drowned in school-based settings.

At the time Deresiewicz had his Austen breakthrough, he was seeing a waitress, and they “had little in common and had never progressed beyond the sex. She was gorgeous, bisexual, impulsive, experienced, with a look that knew things and a laugh that didn’t give a damn.” Perhaps this is a function of me being in my 20s, but this arrangement doesn’t sound so bad, and, having dated the equivalent woman, I rather enjoyed those things at the time. Furthermore, I don’t think such relationships are wrong—though I would also say, obviously, that they’re not the only kind of relationships available, or the only kind a person should have over the course of their life. Sometimes people eat fast food; other times they dine in fine restaurants, or at the Cheesecake Factory, or cook for themselves, or cook with another person, or cook simple foods, or complex ones, or have potlucks. I leave it to you to map that metaphor onto sexuality and relationships, but the point about variety in relationships is useful. For Deresiewicz, “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” But people who are always morally serious can also be dull, just as people who are never morally serious are often unintentionally cruel.

The trick is being able to distinguish the two, and to find a middle way, and to develop some self-awareness, which is hard for many if not most of us. Certainly it was hard for Deresiewicz’s younger self:

If you’re oblivious to other people, chances are pretty good that you’re going to hurt them. I knew now that if I was ever going to have any real friends—or I should say, any real friends with my friends—I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to learn to stop being a defensive, reactive, self-enclosed jerk.

On the other hand, being oblivious to other people sometimes means being very tuned into technical or other problems that need solving—for the best example of this I’ve seen in literature, consider Lawrence Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is shockingly oblivious and essential to the Allied war effort and who extends cryptography. It should also be noted that he’s not intentionally mean to others, and in the novel no one is emotionally hurt by him in an obvious fashion, but the depiction of his thought process as an engineer / mathematician seems pretty accurate. You get moments like this: “In particular, the final steps of the organist’s explanation were like a falcon’s dive through layer after layer of pretense and illusion, thrilling or sickening or confusing depending on what you were. The heavens were riven open. Lawrence glimpsed choirs of angels ranking off into geometrical infinity,” perhaps in exchange for attention to other people. To what extent are dispositions trade-offs? It’s a decent question, I think, but also one I can’t really answer.

Which is the kind of thing that I’m encouraged to do; in one moment, Deresiewicz praises the kind of professor we all hope to have: “When my professor asked a question, it wasn’t because he wanted us to get or guess ‘the’ answer; it was because he hadn’t figured out an answer yet himself, and genuinely wanted to hear what we had to say.” This is what I try to do in the classroom, although I’m guessing this kind of strategy works better for humanities students than for, say, math students, when the answer or answers are well-known, at least up to a fairly high level.

There are also intellectual surprises in A Jane Austen Education, and those surprises made me realize things I didn’t before:

Popular music is one giant shout of desire, one great rallying cry for freedom and pleasure. Pop psychology sends us the same signals, and so does advertising. ‘Trust your feelings,’ we are told. ‘Listen to your heart.’ ‘If it feels good, do it.’

And if everything is pointing you in one direction, it might be time to ask what lies in the other. Literature seems to ask this question. Pop music, as Deresiewicz points out, doesn’t. In Deresiewicz’s rendition, Austen herself was reacting against her time, which is to be commended:

Austen lived in the great age of trash fiction: the gothic novel, the sentimental novel, the bodice ripper—crumbling castles, creaking doors, and secret passageways; heavenly maidens and dark seducers, piercing shrieks and floods of tears, wild rides and breathless escapes; shipwrecks, deathbeds, abductions, avowals; poverty, misery, rape, and incest.

In other words, she lived in “the great age” of all the good stuff, though I would argue that the good stuff is still with us if we know where to look—I’m pretty sure Game of Thrones has every element in the Deresiewicz list.

Some weird stylistic quirks recur in the book, like the habit of “Austen was showing me” or “Austen was saying”-style constructions (“I could grow up and finding happiness, Austen was letting me know, but only if I was willing to give up something very important” or “Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means” or “Austen understood that kids are going to make mistakes, and she also understood that making mistakes is not the end of the world”). But the overall effectiveness is tremendous, and not only because I might be a major component of Deresiewicz’s target audience: self-absorbed people who secretly think they have the answers other people lack.

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