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The calendrical change tends to bring about a bout of introspection and reflection about all the things that happened and didn’t happen in the past year. Each year, I find myself charting personal progress through my friendships – the ones I kept, the ones I failed at, the friends who were with me for the Big Events of the year gone by. Given that friends are a big part of our lives, this week’s column is about the hurdles of maintaining friendships across long distances, changes in financial status and language barriers.
Long distance friendships
How do we hang on to friends as our lives and contexts change? After graduating college last year and moving back from the US, navigating long distance friendships has become an important question in my life. Some friendships have survived nearly intact, unscathed by the pressures of time differences and different lifestyles, others have morphed into occasional Facebook messages and a profusion of Facebook likes and Snapchats and some have been the victims of busy schedules and quietly faded away.
We put a lot of emphasis on romantic relationships and familial ones since they seem to be the big shaping forces in our lives but platonic friends, the ones who you grow up with and spend the majority of your time with, rarely earn that place on a mental pedestal of ‘most important relationship’. A while ago, a New York Times article on long distance friendships pointed out that we’d move place for a job, a significant other, a family member, but not a friend – those are somehow expendable or simply more flexible.
The article, which basically explored the different ways in which people maintain their long distance friendships, focused on social media such as Facebook, Skype and paid particular attention to Snapchat. Since the app offers “raw unedited footage” of what’s going on with your friends in other places, it makes you feel like you’re there with them or partially recreates the experience of being with them. While it could never stand in for actually being there, the (almost) real-time quality of the medium allows you to be in the loop, which is a lot more desirable than being entirely out of it.
Snapchat, Facebook messenger, Whatsapp, iMessage all make it incredibly easy to enable private conversations and also larger ones among groups and since all of these platforms allow for instant video calling, you can practically have the same experience as your friend who is actually very far away from you. That’s the point of all this, right?
But these platforms still produce a curated, selective context – you still have total control over what you tell your friends, send them or show them. While there’s nothing wrong with sharing only the important, entertaining highlights of your life (why clutter other people’s lives with the mundane bits of yours) sharing context, in a physical sense, also enables your friends to see things about you and your surroundings that you may be missing. It allows other people to notice things about you in their own way. And isn’t that a part of friendship too? To have someone that you trust and rely on that you can reflect on your life with, someone who can tell you when you’re making a mistake or have behaved poorly? Those crucial parts of friendship just don’t transfer well when two friends no longer share the same circumstances or context.
Money in friendship
“Well, I made more money, right?” Ta-Nehisi Coates, celebrated author, asks his best friend Neil Drumming in an episode of ‘This American Life’. They’re talking about how Coates has changed since his book, Between the World and Me, hit the New York Times Bestseller list, bringing fame and fortune with it.
Sometimes, a change of context doesn’t just mean physical place, it can also mean a change in status. And here Drumming tries to have a conversation with Coates about his friend’s new lifestyle which involves lunches with prominent people, soldout speaking engagements, living in Paris, having a personal trainer at a “really nice gym” and snobbery of other kinds. Drumming, who still cuts his own hair, just quit Tinder and has been divorced for two years, has a hard time figuring out where he fits into Coates’ life.
But the way that he expresses this sentiment is to fixate on all the ways that Coates has changed. At one point, Coates asks him how much of the displacement Drumming is feeling is down to his divorce and the question surprises Drumming since he hadn’t even stopped to think that he’s changed too.
The piece doesn’t really end in resolution but it highlights the challenges of keeping in step with people you love but might not relate to if you met them for the first time at this particular moment in time. It also helps Coates and Drumming identify what they do retain from their lifelong friendship – their intellectual connection. However, Drumming somberly notes towards the end of the act,
“He (Coates) and I talked for two more hours, and it felt like it always has. But we’ve lost a lot of the other stuff, the stuff that makes most friendships work. We don’t go to the same parties or eat in the same restaurants. We don’t share as many friends. He’s raising a kid, and I just quit Tinder. We don’t even live in the same country. Without all of that, what we have left feels more delicate.”
The conversation doesn’t really leave Drumming feeling more comfortable with the changing nature of his friendship with Coates. And the issue is not one that can be solved by Snapchatting each other religiously either because that would only emphasise the inaccessibility of the other’s experiences to both of them.
So in the end, Drumming is left anxious. “I worry that the conversation that I just forced us to have, where I made such a big deal out of our differences, has in some way screwed with that friendship even more.”
If you’re looking for new and interesting reading material for 2017, check out my colleagues’ newsletters and do consider subscribing to them.
- Vasudevan Mukunth is always on-point in his columns about the world of science and brings his readers quirky, interesting bits of science news and analysis through Infinite in All Directions. In his latest column, he wrote about the value of non-American long reads from 2016, Einstein’s first wife and the evolution of elves. How could you not want to read that?
- Jahnavi Sen’s Collidoscope is an engaging and thought-provoking read to keep on top of new developments in social science research. In this column, she looks at how the diversity of social science researchers impacts their work and the field itself.
- Amant Khullar’s weekly coverage of gender and sexuality related news in the Gender Beat ensures you don’t miss out on the important things happening inside as well as outside India. Here she writes about Kochi getting the country’s first transgender school.
- Titash Sen’s great column on rights-related issues, Freedom Under Fire, is always a good read for getting some perspective on the political issues of our time and also widen our ideas of what falls under the category of ‘rights. Here, she considers the sanitary rights of man.
Their inability to communicate clearly with each other is what makes Drumming and Coates’ friendship so fragile, something that brings Drumming much anxiety. However, for David Sedaris, that precarious act of reading someone else without the aid of language and forming a bond seems to be a joyful, thrilling activity. Towards the end of last year, he wrote a piece called ‘Untamed’ for the New Yorker which is an endearing account of his friendship with a fox named Carol that visits his backyard in Sussex, England. It isn’t just his adoring descriptions of Carol – her walk, mannerisms, colouring – that make Sedaris’ piece cute but also his recollection of the differences between how him and his partner Hugh approach interacting with animals – pets or untamed.
As Sedaris puts it, “I’m of the “Let’s-fatten-you-up-until-you’re-too-obese-to-do-much-of-anything” school, while he’s more practical, or “mean,” as I’m apt to call it.”
He also admits to buying Carol’s attention and affection by offering her food from their home and always on the patio with him around, never just left in the backyard for Carol to scavenge for unseen. As Sedaris admits, it’s more about his need to be acknowledged as a generous giver than anything else. He wants Carol to know it is he who provides her with food, and so, affection.
“The second problem with throwing food into the pasture is one of perception. It would allow Carol to feel, if not like a huntress, then at least like a successful scavenger—Look what I found, she’d think. This as opposed to, Look what David gave me.“
It’s hard to tell if Carol is equally awed by Sedaris, though he’s under no illusions about the fact that she’s a wild animal and acknowledges as much.
“Wild animals do not give a damn about our little feelings. They’re incapable of it. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” we say.
What they hear is senseless noise. It’s like us trying to discern emotion in the hum of a hair dryer, or the chortle of an engine as it fails to turns over.”
And yet we look for signs of reciprocation. Sedaris’ describes walking home one night and finding Carol slinking along next to him. He writes, “No cars approached or passed. The road was ours, and we marched right down the center of it, all the way to the front of the house and then through the garden gate to the kitchen door. Just me and my wild friend Carol.”
Pets are great companions, and dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend but really, the gratifying part of having a pet is feeling needed by another creature who adores you in return for everything that you do for it. There isn’t much equality there, we are rarely awed by our pets but when it comes to humans, we grapple with their inner lives, trying to understand each other completely but also resigned to the impossibility of achieving that goal. Although Sedaris warns of our need to anthropomorphise animals, especially wild ones, to me, it seems like the thrill of his friendship with Carol arises from the fact that she is ultimately indecipherable. That’s a good thing to look for in friendship.
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