are you me? | a talk on friendship

It’s a principle of semiotics: in order to say something, you need 3 things + 1. a)- an object to talk about; b)- a brain to make that object into a subject (or concept); and c)- a tool to express it (a word, an icon, a gesture, etc.)

And then you need a +1: someone to receive what you’re trying to say. This someone needs to a)-know the object; b)- have the concept, or the brain to construct it if they don’t know the object; and c)- understand your language (words, icons, gestures etc.).

It’s a process. A vital, intimate, organic one- kind of like cooking. And if on top of the main ingredients you add stuff like the right pan (venue- like, are you on the phone? emailing?), the right temperature (context) and palate (expectations, cultural differences, tastes, horoscopes and who-knows-what-else), the whole thing becomes so complicated that it’s no surprise when sometimes the dish comes out… well, unpalatable.

With so many elements, no wonder flawless communication, like flawless cooking, is friggin’ HARD. TO. DO. 

The hardest for me to master- to this day- is the last. The palate. The beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder. The double-standards (otherwise very practical when you’re dealing with different backgrounds). The social appropriateness. The kudos and the no-nos. I get there’s sooooo much out there. And I’m very comfortable dealing with left fielders- because I’m one myself. But when I hear a wacky thing, the first aspect I care about is WHY- and not everyone else does. At the other end of the spectrum are the people who care about HOW, and these are the two buckets I see friendships falling into (the exercise, of course, being figuring out where your close ones belong and switching codes accordingly and repeatedly. And that, my dears, THAT is hard for anyone who’s willing to do it).

Not surprisingly, at a conceptual level, a friend means the same thing wherever and whomever you are: someone who knows you well, whom you know well, who trusts you and whom you trust. Someone who would help you in need, someone you are willing to help when they need it. Someone who you can be yourself with without being judged  (mind you, I said judged, not criticized).

The differences, the way I see this, come from the WHY versus HOW divide. As follows.

The HOW friendships (incidentally, I believe people in the U.S. tend to fall more into this category)

The HOW friends are those who are always by your side, and in your corner. They, at all times, support you and make you feel good about yourself, your endeavors and your actions. They believe in equality and reciprocity (for example, taking turns in inviting each other over for dinner). They hate to impose, so they don’t ask for help unless they really have to (equally discrete, they will not interfere in a situation unless they’re asked to). Boundaries and intimacy are sacred- but so are the relationships and their hierarchies (couples are seen as an item, and so are solid friendships. Asking someone to keep secrets from their half or best friend is seen as an imposition). Conflicts are resolved practically, always in private, are usually intense and more often than not they have repercussions (change in behavior is defined and expected). The HOW friends care a lot about how things are done and said; presence and consistency are essential. And, through their love and support, they make themselves into your mirrored image, empathizing to the point of identification, at all times. They are you, even when you’re not being your best they’re willing to be you. Friendships with HOWs depend on how much you can help them feel liked by others, and they function… well, kind of like the Mario Bros game (eat the right key- you get an extra life. Touch the wrong thing, your life goes down a bit). They are a work in progress, a continuous re-evaluation act, a beautiful developing story in which discovering each other is a gradual, careful, defined process thoughtfully carved out of life- like a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant.

The WHY friendships (I believe people from old cultures tend to fall more into this category)

The WHY friends care about WHAT is being said and done, and, more importantly, WHY (duh). For them it is the thought that counts- you being nice to them means shit if it’s not genuine. They trample right in and take the wheel if they see you’ve lost it, because having your back and keeping you true to yourself is more important than what you feel about them in that particular moment. Help is therefore offered and given freely, without you having to say anything (the premise being that sometimes you, yourself don’t know you need it). Going the other way, the WHY friends expect you to help and intervene without them having to ask (and when you don’t do it, oh!- they’ll remember it). Disagreements or public uncomfortable situations are not perceived as a sign something is wrong with the relationship. Equality is highly esteemed, although the look on payback is slightly different (if you can’t or won’t host, I’ll still invite you to my dinners 10 times in a row, without expecting you to invite me back. Because you’re always taking my dog out for walks, or got me tickets to that awesome concert I wanted to go to). The WHY people are not your mirrored image, they are the mirror itself showing you to yourself, whether beautiful or ugly. They are not you-in-that-moment; they are the true you when you forget who you are. Relationships with WHYs are defined by how much you can help them like themselves, and they function like an old-school marriage (when things were not tit-for-tat, and divorce was not an option). They are set in stone while they last (fuckups are pointed out brutally, but always fixed together) but casual, like a leisurely afternoon pasty + cordial in an old Italian bodega.

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2 thoughts on “are you me? | a talk on friendship

  1. Christy says:

    Dana, I totally agree there are different types of friendships. There are the friends that you have that you know will still be your friends 30, 40 years down the road (the why friends). Then there are the friends that are friends at that moment, in that time. Those How friends that come and go. However, I’m not sure I agree that the most US friendships are How friends, maybe it’s me but when I think of my friends I see a mix. There are both How and Why friends. Maybe there are more How friends but I feel that has more to do with the rarity of Why friends than with a functionality of culture.

  2. danasandu says:

    Actually, the HOWs and the WHYs in my head are not defined by how meaningful, or long the relationships are- if that’s what came through, maybe I didn’t word this right.

    It’s more, in fact, a matter of style. Or fabric, if you want.
    The HOWs can definitely grow to lifetimes (provided that the balance and harmony are kept intact), and the longer they go, the more friends would do for each other (but, of course, they rarely ask :). And I’ve met octogenarian friends who raised each other’s children but had never talked about their sex lives or their salaries. EVER). For them, little things are a sign of the big things, so they try hard to keep little things under control.

    On the same note, many WHYs just dissolve because things become simply too casual, and friends end up taking each other for granted. For them, little things mean nothing until enough collect to start festering.

    My intention was not to put a value on the two relationship styles. If it came off this way it’s probably because I am more familiar with the WHYs, by nature of my roots… and I’m but a human.

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