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