In high school, I had a friend named Cruz. In the course of our friendship, I had my faith in friendship rocked by my best friend attempting to steal a girl that I was kinda-sorta-but-not-really dating. If a friend would do that to you, what use was friendship? So I coined new phrases for the people that I used to call friends. Cruz was honestly hurt when I didn’t call him my friend. He stood by me, though, and eventually things returned to normal.
In college, my roommate Hubert stumbled upon some IM conversations where I told a story about something that he’d done and I had portrayed him in a pretty devastating light and implied in the email that I had a pretty negative opinion of him altogether and that me and some friends talked about him in this negative light with some frequency.
Last year, a friend of mine came across something that I had written to someone else about her. Not to mince words, it came across pretty much as a scathing rebuke of her very existence. It was merciless, unfair, and not without some exaggerations and inaccuracies. I felt genuinely bad about the whole situation. I had difficulty sleeping and had to take some long looks at myself in the mirror. The strange thing, though, was that I felt less guilty about what I’d said (save for the inaccuracies) but that I had expressed these thoughts in a way that they could get back to her. I felt bad not so much for having the opinion that I did, but rather for being so careless in how I expressed them and hurting her in the process.
I am one of those people that does talk negatively around some friends behind their back. It’s not one of my more flattering characteristics. I generally do so, however, within certain bounds. I have my own ethical system. On one hand, I believe in being diplomatic with people that you don’t like and not creating any more conflict than already exists in this world. I am not a person that believes that honesty is always the best policy when it comes to such things. On the other hand, I also believe that it’s wrong and an overall bad thing to poison people’s attitudes towards one another by talking about them behind their back. On the first hand, though, if I feel something strong enough I can’t keep it bottled up forever. I am an expressive person.
So I have created my own ethical system of do’s and don’ts. When I speak negatively about people that I would consider my friends or friendly acquaintances, I do so only if the person I am talking to falls into one of three basic categories: (1) They have no personal connection with the person that I am talking about. Their opinion of this person doesn’t matter and will not adversely affect the life of the person that I am talking about. (2) I know that the person feels the same way that I do about this person. I am not poisoning their opinion towards them. (3) The person I’m talking to may know the person that I am talking about, but the person I am talking to primarily knows them through me and I am the access point between them. If I think that they might start of a friendship independently of me, I will probably find another confidante.
In essence, a lot of it comes down to “Will the person find out that I am talking about them in such a manner?” This may sound extremely two-faced and that’s because it is. However, it follows the golden rule. If someone feels the need to tear me down, I’d rather they keep their thoughts to themselves rather than tell me to avoid being two-faced. I’d rather that anybody they tell is someone that doesn’t know me and won’t cause trouble in my life or absent that I would prefer that they be somebody that I have no shot and friendship or alliance with me because they are allied with somebody that apparently doesn’t like me. To me it’s about minimizing hurt while accepting that everyone has a right to their opinion and accepting their need to express it every once and again. Of course I don’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of me and in my selfish heart of hearts I would prefer that if they did they would tell absolutely nobody, but I recognize that’s not realistic and I account for it.
So let me get back to the third story. Her discovery lead to some extremely uncomfortable conversations between she and I. She was of course very hurt about the things that I’d said and unfortunately I couldn’t entirely take them back because I’d obviously expressed them pretty freely. What was interesting about her reaction, though, was that in addition to just being personally hurt and angry, she was angry because I said what I said while pretending to be her friend.
And I did act as her friend. When I found out that she was stuck on the side of the road, I stopped and kept her company until her boyfriend could get there. When I got the sense that she was really upset about something, I’d pull her aside and ask what the matter was and offer any words of encouragement or consolation that I could. That was, in her mind, pure fakery and a something of a lie. Why would I pretend to be her friend when I had such a nasty perception of her? She could understand being cordial because she was dating my good friend, but why lie?
The truth is that in my mind I wasn’t pretending. I was her friend and she mine. This friendship had little or nothing to whether I liked her or not. Sounds strange when you put it that way, but that was how I felt and how I feel. Friendship, in my mind, is something that you do rather than something that you feel. Part of me carried on because I was hoping that my opinion about her would change (and it had started to somewhat, but not enough). But mostly I considered us friends because that’s how we behaved (for whatever reason).
Most of the time we are friends with people that we like. We choose to spend time with people whose company that we enjoy. Sometimes, though, friendship is borne for other reasons. In her case it was because she was dating my friend. When I was a kid I had a friend that I was friends with because her mother and my mother were tight. We weren’t just acquaintances. In some people’s mind we weren’t friends, either, but in my mind we were. And to be honest, in most of the social circles I’ve run, there have been some friends that I didn’t actually like very much. Sometimes because I didn’t let my dislike for them hinder the friendship, I actually came to like them. Sometimes I didn’t and when circumstances no longer required it, I shuffled away as quick as I could.
It may make more sense to you if you think about it in the inverse. You ever know somebody that you really like but you can’t be friends with? I knew one guy when I was working at Falstaff in Deseret. His name was Teddy Forbes. I liked Teddy a lot. He was the kind of guy that I could have hung out with all the time. Unfortunately, the context in which I knew him meant that he and I would constantly be at one another’s throats. I liked him well enough, but he was forever my adversary and I ultimately wished him ill in an impersonal way. A less specific example would be when a romantic breakup occurs, you lose friends that you like because you all get divvied up. A girl break’s a good friend’s heart, she’s dead to me no matter how much I liked her.
Friendship is, as I would define it, being woken up at three in the morning and having to scotch off to the county jailhouse to bail your friend out of jail and to do so without articulating the belief that they “owe” you. I would have done that with Hubert, Cruz, and the friend that I had said some pretty awful things about. I believe that all three would have done the same for me. I would have bailed Teddy out, too, but he would have owed me big time and I would have made sure to collect. When it comes to acquaintances you keep score. You don’t when it comes to friends.
I could mince words and say that she was an acquaintance and that’s what she initially said she would have preferred in light of some of my thoughts about her. Impressively, though, she actually came to understand what it was I was saying. In her circumstances, I probably would have been too hurt to. As the dust settled said that she too would have bailed me out at three in the morning and I learned that I had rather underestimated her.