On friendship and becoming more social

I’ve been talking to people about my project of becoming more social, getting better at connecting. It makes sense. I get to practise and pick up tips at the same time. =) Sometimes people say, “Sacha, aren’t you already pretty social? How big is your network, anyway?” But it’s not about that, and I think I’m starting to figure out what it’s about.

There are so many interesting people. W-, of course, is gosh-darn-awesome. And there are all these wonderful people I’ve gotten to know: my family, my barkada, my ninongs and ninangs, my friends in Canada who helped me get the hang of those first few winters, my friends at work and in various clubs, my friends through this blog and Twitter and all these other networks, and people I have yet to become good friends with. So the limiting factor isn’t the lack of people to develop friendships with, but my ability to do so.

What does it mean to be friends with someone? In the Nichomachean Ethics, where he devotes a book of fourteen chapters to the topic of friendship, Aristotle distinguishes between friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure, and friendships of good character. Of these, I’m interested in friendships of good character. In this kind of friendship, you appreciate the goodness of other people and they appreciate yours. You wish them good, and they wish you good as well.

One can’t have many friends at this level. In W.D.Ross’s translation of the Nichomachean Ethics:

But it is natural that such friendships should be infrequent; for such men are rare. Further, such friendship requires time and familiarity; as the proverb says, men cannot know each other till they have ‘eaten salt together’; nor can they admit each other to friendship or be friends till each has been found lovable and been trusted by each. Those who quickly show the marks of friendship to each other wish to be friends, but are not friends unless they both are lovable and know the fact; for a wish for friendship may arise quickly, but friendship does not.

And also:

Now there are three grounds on which people love; of the love of lifeless objects we do not use the word ‘friendship’; for it is not mutual love, nor is there a wishing of good to the other (for it would surely be ridiculous to wish wine well; if one wishes anything for it, it is that it may keep, so that one may have it oneself); but to a friend we say we ought to wish what is good for his sake. But to those who thus wish good we ascribe only goodwill, if the wish is not reciprocated; goodwill when it is reciprocal being friendship. Or must we add ‘when it is recognized’? For many people have goodwill to those whom they have not seen but judge to be good or useful; and one of these might return this feeling. These people seem to bear goodwill to each other; but how could one call them friends when they do not know their mutual feelings? To be friends, then, the must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other for one of the aforesaid reasons.

That makes me think of several things. First, to wish good for other people, you should know them beneath the surface. It’s easy to say that I wish my friends to be happy, but knowing the specific things they consider pleasurable or good means I can share good experiences, find good gifts, or help people grow.

I’m probably an outlier in terms of writing and making it easy for people to get to know me through my interests. If I’m going to get to know other people, then I’m going to need to take the initiative and reach out, maybe slowly getting a sense of a person over time. I can get better at this by also, say, compiling notes on people’s expressed preferences. (Yes, I’m a geek.)

Second, friendship is reciprocal. I can feel goodwill towards many people, such as the people I’ve gotten to know through blogs. Some may even feel goodwill for me back, without my knowing. Friendship, I think, is when we both know it and that mutual understanding influences our actions.

I think that people are rather better at caring about me than I am at caring about them. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people as much. It means that I think other people are more thoughtful and are better at making a connection, and that there’s plenty of room for me to learn. Add to that the occasional asymmetry of knowledge and it can be a little awkward, but I’m getting better at getting past the awkward bit and just focusing on getting to know people more.

One of the things I’m particularly curious about is developing friendships online. When I listed people I might call if I needed a favour or I needed someone to talk to, I realized that there were some people I’ve never actually seen in person. I’d like to get even better at cultivating friendships online. From literature and other people’s examples, it’s clearly possible to develop deep connections beyond your geographic reach. With many of my friends outside Toronto – or infrequently met even in the same city – it’s something worth learning more about.

A lot of this is a matter of time: time to learn about people, time to share experiences, time to build trust, and so on. I can’t do much to speed things up. But it’s also equally a matter of attention – if I don’t invest that attention, then that time will pass without much effect.

Of course, reflecting on the Ethics, I need to be careful that people and friendship don’t become means. It’s not about checking off a little checkmark on my list of things to learn, or dissecting people and finding out what makes them tick, or chasing the pleasure of making someone’s day.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I say I want to get better at connecting or I want to be more social. It’s not about making sure I’ve “got my dance card filled”, or that I go out to at least one get-together each week, or even that I remember to host tea. I think it’s more about knowing people more so that I can appreciate their goodness and wish them good, and about building deeper connections.

2011-02-18 Fri 06:50

  • Lex

    I’m not sure how I found your blog, but I’m glad I did. I have 3 friends who I would call something as cheesy as “blood brothers”. All of them are cyber-crippled in that they just recently got a facebook page, will never use twitter, and consider a computer to be a place where you go to check your fantasy football scores. We have different lives, different goals, even different values in many cases. The connection however is that we’ve “eaten salt together”. It’s hard to describe, but whenever we spend time together, it feels like we’re back home, that feeling of childhood when everything is simple and it doesn’t take much to be happy.

    And that’s what I think your excellent post may be missing a little bit, which you identify very well: avoid friendship becoming a checkmark. There is something indescribable that makes friendship work. It’s the same with love. The moment you start to try to define friendship and love, I think, you embark on a fruitless pursuit. That sounds critical, so please kick my butt if it does.

    I can completely relate to the idea of this post. Thank you for putting it out there so succinctly.

  • Welcome! =)

    I’m going to disagree a little bit, but this is an interesting area to explore. I think it’s possible to talk about love and friendship without robbing them of their magic. We might not be able to comprehensively define these things (people have been trying thousands of years!), but it’s useful to be able to describe them, think about them, and try new behaviours.

    I don’t need to come up with the Unified Theory of Love, Friendship, and Awesomeness. I’ve got a wonderful life, and I’m curious about what an even more wonderful life would be like. You can do that without putting poets, philosophers, and Hallmark out of work, I think. ;)

    For example, I deliberately work on building a loving relationship with my husband. It doesn’t guarantee success, and this isn’t a laboratory experiment. I don’t say, “this behaviour is loving and that one is not loving” – and certainly I don’t use that to evaluate what he does – but I can think about the kind of loving relationship I want to build, and consciously look for ways to build it. Likewise, I find it good to think about the kinds of people I want to connect with, the kinds of friendships I want to cultivate, and what I can do to move towards that instead of away from that.

    For me, words help me recognize concepts and work with them. Thinking about the kinds of ways I would like to be able to interact with people helps me pay attention to things I might otherwise miss. I’m probably also an outlier when it comes to being able to think about and describe my feelings or ideas. People have criticized my tendency to over-think things (hello, ex-boyfriends… ;) ). Since I actually use it to make decisions instead of getting stuck in analysis paralysis, I think the benefits outweigh the costs (and provide amusing reading for blog subscribers, but that’s icing).

    So why am I thinking about these things? Mainly because I don’t see enough discussion around them. Everyone’s abuzz about personal branding and social networking, but I’m curious about cultivating deeper connections. There are plenty of books that tend to boil down to this kind of advice: keep a list of contacts, connect with people regularly, ask about other people, and look for ways to help others (ideally before you need any help yourself). We don’t talk a lot about how to make good friends, and that could be because we take it for granted: just spend a lot of time together or survive a traumatic experience (hence the connections formed during high school, college, and parenthood). Sure, it’s a matter of time and trust and luck, but wouldn’t it be interesting to reflect on it along the way, and maybe see if you can get better, at least with your part in the dance? =)

  • Lex

    You’re right, of course, reflection is important. But I also know that many people reflect, and make plans based on those (e.g. new year’s resolution) and the very act of making plans becomes a substitute for action. That was just my gut reaction to your post. The kind of thinking you are doing is important (and a good read), it’s just that action has to follow ;-)

    I mentioned you on my hugely popular blog that I think only my mom reads, lol: http://bit.ly/fcuR5u

  • Precisely. =) Which is why I tend to write about ongoing experiments, not big abstract resolutions or grandiose plans. For example, having decided to say yes to more social opportunities, I not only said yes to joining a sketch comedy outing organized by some recent hires at work, I signed up for an extra ticket not knowing precisely whom I’d invite. I’ve also been getting better at responding to mail and checking out people’s updates… Progress!

    If you read my archives or continue to read my future posts, I’d love it if you continue to keep me honest and accountable. <laugh> And I’d love to hear your suggestions for other actions, and your own experiences!

  • Lex

    Will do. The more I learn every day, the more I realize how little I know, so please do tell me when I’m incredibly wrong / unreasonable.